The Bengals Looked Smooth Grabbing Their First Win

A big Thursday night test awaits against the 3-0 Dolphins, but a victory puts Cincinnati’s season back on track.
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If the Bengals were to face a must-win scenario last Sunday, it sure was nice to have the opposing quarterback be Joe Flacco. As I pointed out last week, while Cincinnati has generally struggled mightily against backup QBs, Flacco is a different beast—he was a longtime starter in Baltimore whom the Bengals had great success facing. He’s now 9-12 against the Stripes in his career, with 21 touchdowns and 27 interceptions, and that’s counting some years when the Ravens trotted out considerably better teams than the Bengals did.

Flacco did his part in the Bengals’ 27-12 throttling of the Jets, a final score that flattered the Jerseyites. It wasn’t really that close. The Bengals should have scored 30-40 points. They had a couple of mistakes that prevented scoring opportunities and a missed field goal by Evan McPherson (troublesome), and they took the air out of the ball in the fourth quarter, flattening the game by running on 12 straight plays that erased almost eight minutes and any hopes of another miracle Jets comeback.

In a much ballyhooed move after talking all week about starting fast, Cincinnati won the coin toss and took the ball, unusual in this day and age of the automatic deferral. The ploy worked, as the Bengals drove 75 yards in 11 plays and scored their initial first half touchdown of the season, a pass to Samaje Perine after Joe Burrow rolled left from the pocket. It was his third TD pass of the possession—one was called back by penalty and a second, a sensational catch by Tee Higgins, was improperly called out of bounds on replay.

The Bengals at last played from ahead, and they never trailed. Burrow added two more TD passes, was sacked only twice (baby steps), and finally hit on a couple of big plays, the biggest being Tyler Boyd’s 56-yard pinballing score.

Meanwhile, the defense choked off the deep passing attack that propelled New York to a stunning late comeback in Cleveland, and Gang Green had few other answers. Two areas of minor concern, pass rush and turnovers forced, were loudly addressed. Trey Hendrickson ate and ate and ate, with 2.5 sacks and three forced fumbles, two of which were recovered by tackle B.J. Hill.

The defense also picked off Flacco twice, the first of which being a virtuoso coverage drop by Logan Wilson, who got deep downfield and snagged a seam throw for his first interception of the year. Props to Tre Flowers for trailing Wilson’s runback and falling on Wilson’s fumble, a play that set up a field goal. In all, it’s now been seven quarters without a touchdown allowed and 20 straight drives. Save for the opening left-right they took from Cooper Rush and Dallas in Week 2, the defense has been everything we hoped for coming into the season.

There are still some concerns—mainly the run game, which continues to flounder. The Bengals managed just 69 yards on 28 carries, a 2.5 YPC, and Joe Mixon, whom I’ve held responsible in previous columns, didn’t do anything to get off the hot seat. Indeed, Perine took the bulk of the work late in the game when Cincinnati was in clock-killing mode (Mixon had a dinged ankle) and looked far more decisive and powerful.

Only the Chargers and the Bills have a lower rush DVOA than the Bengals after three games. The 2022 sample size is small, of course, but this continues a downward trend for Mixon. I’ve detailed before his quiet second half in 2021, and his decline has only accelerated since. I’m sure he will have some more moments in a Bengals uniform, but running backs as we know tend to fall off quickly and dramatically. Rudi Johnson was the toast of Cincinnati on moment, and the next he was toast. Same for Cedric Benson, Jeremy Hill, even BenJarvus Green-Ellis, though Law Firm was more tolerated than celebrated.

Mixon has been the team’s leading rusher for the last five seasons, an eternity in this pass-happy era. (Pete Johnson was the team’s top rusher for seven years, Corey Dillon six.) It wouldn’t surprise me if that streak comes to an end sooner rather than later.

Mixon will be needed to defeat the red-hot Miami Dolphins, who come to Cincinnati for a Thursday night encounter, leaving Hurricane Ian and a thrilling if exhausting win over Buffalo in their wake. The Bills scarcely ran the ball in their first two routs, but during the loss in South Beach they found a groove and piled up 115 yards on 23 carries against the Dolphins, a five-yards-a-tote clip. On the other hand, Miami can rush the passer and has a strong secondary fronted by safety Jevon Holland. Melvin Ingram, a player I wanted Cincinnati to sign in the offseason, looks lively.

All the publicity, though, centers around Miami’s offense, with good reason. They have the second-rated offense by DVOA and are first in points per drive, with Tua Tagovailoa zipping passes to speedsters Tyreek Hill and Jaylon Waddle. They’re undeniably sexy at the moment and will provide an interesting challenge. Cincinnati’s defense is the rock of the club, and of course they’re familiar with Hill, who is vowing frontier justice upon Eli Apple for what that’s worth.

A shootout a la the one in Tuscaloosa in 2019, when Burrow and LSU outgunned Tua and Alabama 46-41, isn’t likely. But with many of the same principals on the field, including Waddle and Ja’Marr Chase, it’s possible.

The best thing Cincinnati has going for it might be the Miami humidity, which undeniably drained the Porpoises during the physical and emotional game with the Bills. Tagaviloa was also rag-dolled on a play that left him resembling Joe Frazier after eating a dozen or so of George Foreman’s hammering blows. The Dolphins are calling it a “back injury,” but it sure looked like a concussion. How that effects his play Thursday night is anyone’s guess, but hopefully he’s more Flacco than Cooper Rush and the rest of the Fish are unable to recover in a short week.

A Cincinnati win Thursday night would make for a virtual rerun of the beginning of the 2021 season, with one critical difference—losing and not winning in overtime on Opening Day. Otherwise, like last season, Week 2 was an ugly 3-point loss after a comeback fell just short. Like last season, the Bengals squashed a mediocre opponent on the road in Week 3. And then they turned around and won a tight affair against a Florida-based team at home on a Thursday night. That was the game where they came back from 14-0 down to beat the Jags on the last play, sending Urban Meyer into a death spiral.

Win or lose, Miami head coach Mike McDaniel is unlikely to spurn the team flight home and canoodle with a young hottie who isn’t his wife. (Yes, he’s married.) But it will be nice if Cincinnati sets up a situation where he at least contemplates going on tilt. Should that happen, the Bengals will be in a good spot, back at .500 with 10 days before the first of two collisions with the Ravens. Let’s squish the Fish!

Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. Follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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