The Bengals Score 42 and Take a Week off

Cincinnati’s best offensive showing of the season comes just before the bye, which should allow injured stars to heal and get ready for a playoff push.
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I have never been accused of optimism when it comes to my Bengals fandom, and with good reason lo these many years. I surprised many folks last week, however, with my “don’t worry yourself” approach to the bludgeoning the Bengals suffered in Cleveland. There were many factors, as I wrote, and the strong likelihood was a bounce-back game at home against the Panthers, which would lead us into the bye week feeling good again.

Joe Mixon, Joe Burrow, and others celebrate one of Mixon’s five touchdowns against Carolina on November 6.

Photograph courtesy Cincinnati Bengals

And here we are. Sunday’s 42-21 whipping of Carolina (and it wasn’t that close) has Cincinnati at 5-4, just like a year ago. The ground game, a concern all season, was dominant. Joe Mixon partied like it was 2018, scoring five (!) touchdowns and putting up 211 yards from scrimmage. The defense held media darling P.J. Walker to a 0.0 quarterback rating (aka the Blutarsky) in the first half, after which he was yanked for Baker Mayfield. The Bengals led 35-0 at halftime, when the bye week essentially began. Joe Burrow didn’t even play the fourth quarter, and neither did most of the starters.

I feel better now. How about you?

Of course, that hardly means it’s all ice cream and lollipops from here. Cincinnati’s usual M.O. is to take a step back after two steps forward. Every time we start to feel like the club is hitting its stride, a stumble occurs. As I pointed out last week, however, that’s the nature of the modern NFL. Everyone wants their team to be consistently excellent, and that’s just not possible given the length of the season, the evenness of the talent, and the violent nature of the sport. Just be there at the end playing good ball, and anything can happen. Funny how many fans forgot that lesson from last January already.

The Bengals surely will have a leg up in that direction if the sudden potency of the run game on display Sunday isn’t a one-week mirage. Carolina entered the game with a top 10 rush DVOA, but the O-line shoved them aside at will (when the Panthers weren’t lining up in the neutral zone). No one ever wants to play without Ja’Marr Chase—or Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, for that matter—but the use of Michael Thomas and Stanley Morgan in Chase’s stead meant the focus shifted to a run-laden attack featuring the wideouts being heavily involved in blocking. The results were apparent. Mixon got to the edge or worked off wham blocks by perimeter players more than he has all season.

Mixon hasn’t looked good in 2022, a fact I seem to point out every week. But his blend of elusiveness and punishing style returned Sunday. He played just 48 snaps, meaning he scored a TD at better than a once-every-10-play clip. That’s pretty astounding under the circumstances—maybe not for SMU vs. Houston, but in the NFL? Wow.

The defense was helped by playing the overmatched Walker, who returned crashing to earth after some success against Atlanta’s porous secondary. Still, the Bengals shrugged off the loss of Chido Awuzie and Mike Hilton, and the continued absence of D.J. Reader was not a factor. The bye week will be critical for getting key players healthy, with Chase first among equals but Reader and Hilton also being key, while continuing to come up with ways to work around not having Awuzie. It seems contradictory to think a defense can handle the loss of its best cover corner, but it happens—think of Buffalo last year, whose pass defense improved after Tre’davious White tore his ACL.

Yes, the schedule gets considerably tougher in the second half of the season. But even though Cincinnati plays five of the top 10 teams in passing DVOA (the Bengals are 11th), are you truly afraid of Tom Brady and the Bucs’ passing attack? How about Baltimore? Cleveland, even with He Who Shall Not Be Named Until His Punishment Fits the Crime at QB? Teams like K.C., Buffalo, Tennessee, and even New England offer distinct and difficult challenges, but slowing their passing attacks, even minus Awuzie, isn’t the mountainous task it may appear.

One key improvement that must happen is, of all places, with special teams. Cincinnati has generally had a strong special teams advantage under coach Darrin Simmons, and of course the kicking game played a huge role in the run to the Super Bowl last season. But the unit has been poor so far, mainly due to Evan McPherson’s surprising struggles and Kevin Huber’s refusal to retire after last season.

As we talked about in the preseason, Huber showed signs of major decay in the playoffs, and with OSU grad Drue Chrisman on hand his replacement was in place. Sure, there might be some growing pains with an untested punter, but it made far more sense to go with the kid rather than suffer through Huber’s continued decline phase. But the team opted to keep Huber, and the result has been a disaster. Only three teams have worse punting numbers than the Bengals by the Football Outsiders metric. Huber is a beloved Cincinnatian, but the time has come for him to step aside and let Chrisman take over.

McPherson’s struggles are more difficult to handle. The future 10-time All-Pro is an official Bengals legend after his rookie year heroics, but the NFL’s motto should be sic transit gloria (all glory is fleeting). Mac’s missed PAT and field goal in the Steelers game set the tone for the season and still might be the deciding factor when it comes to making or missing the postseason. He hardly resembles the superweapon he was a year ago—the Bengals are 28th in FG/XP points per FO. He’s missed four field goals (after just five all of last season) and two PATs, though Money Mac has made all four of his tries from 50-plus yards. The injury to long-snapper Clark Harris and insertion of Cal Adomitis hasn’t outwardly been an issue since the opener, but perhaps the change has unsettled Mac more than we know. Or kicking is just a fickle profession, and everyone (save Justin Tucker) goes through slumps from time to time.

Meanwhile, the Bengals are 31st in what we at FO call “Hidden Points Value”—basically, the opponents’ kicking game. So far Cincinnati’s opponents are banging home all of their kicks and tilting the field on punts and kickoffs. That seems likely to even out, especially as the weather turns.

Again, these things—and with them, our emotions—can change directions on a dime. In the big picture, however, all is basically going as expected. I looked back to what I wrote last season at this time, when, just as now, Cincinnati was 5-4 and headed into the bye, albeit off of two consecutive ugly losses:

Given the AFC’s morass of muddle, anything remains possible. A fortnight ago, Cincinnati was the No. 1 seed in the conference; today, they’re No. 10 and out of the playoffs. The good news is that situation can seesaw back upwards just as quickly.

I’d say that was prescient. And it certainly applies to the 2022 season as well: Cincinnati is currently seeded No. 8 in the AFC and out of the playoffs. Everything is still up for grabs, even with the Bengals’ fits and starts, Baltimore’s tissue-soft remaining schedule, Cleveland’s evil presence, and the Steelers being the Steelers.

Enjoy watching the rest of the league from the couch on Sunday, and I’ll be back in this space after we exact revenge on Pittsburgh for that opening day debacle. I feel even better about it now that the game has been flexed out of Sunday night—where Cincinnati is always bad—to a 4:25 kickoff. See you in two weeks!

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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