Sunday’s 23-23 tie with the Philadelphia Eagles was frustrating, infuriating, and occasionally thrilling in all the ways we’ve grown accustomed to the Bengals of recent vintage. The offensive line continues to be, well, offensive, seeking to undo all the highly efficient play of Joe Burrow, not to mention undo his head from his shoulders. The red zone execution and two-minute defense, both major bugaboos of late, cost the team a victory. And we saw the first emergence of what may become a passing combo to rival Palmer-Johnson or Dalton-Green, with Burrow finding fellow rookie Tee Higgins for a pair of scores. And, in a relatively fresh happenstance, the other guys made the inexplicable decisions that led to a roasting on social and traditional media.
As such, like most ties—including the 13-13 draw these same two teams played to back in 2008, after which Donovan McNabb famously admitted he didn’t know games could end in a tie—the final result sure felt like a loss. Yet given how overtime played out and the bizarre endgame (in case you missed it, Philly incurred a false start penalty that made an already long game-winning field goal attempt absurdly long, then punted to essentially concede the tie), getting out of town with a “third column result” (the first two being wins and losses) felt at least a little like relief.
Mainly, though, the dominant feeling was hair-pulling frustration at the offensive line, which gave up eight sacks and allowed Burrow to absorb a monstrous blow that put him out for a play. At the inability, yet again, to punch the ball into the end zone in crucial situations, most notably the drive that reached Philly’s 4-yard line with five minutes and change to play. Up 20-16, a touchdown there probably clinches a win, but instead a false start by Billy Price and a sack forced a field goal and kept the game in the dreaded one-score territory.
That led to the most agonizing portion of the game, the long drive that culminated in the game-tying run by Carson Wentz to force OT. After controlling Philly’s limited offense all game, a pair of DPI penalties, some scrambling by the Eagles QB, and underneath passes that were open despite the lack of any deep threat conspired to ruin what should have been Cincinnati’s first W of the season.
As for overtime, Burrow had absolutely no ability to do a straight dropback, so overmatched was the O-line. As Zac Taylor said after the game, there were free runners getting no resistance from the blocking all game long, especially in the extra period. I’ve not been in favor of the new 10-minute overtime rule, but in this particular case I was glad there was no more time for Burrow to have to race away from unrelenting pressure.
Despite the constant duress, Burrow was once again superb, throwing for over 300 yards and no picks, even though the team can’t throw deep passes due to the pass rush. Higgins did some nice work given his lack of snaps as a pro, but the overall lack of separation by this supposedly ultra-talented wideout group isn’t helping Burrow. Forget the mercurial John Ross (the coaches did, as he was a healthy scratch), whither A.J. Green?
I was willing to give Green the benefit of the doubt for the first couple of games, given his long period off the field and the lack of practice time with Burrow. But he looked old and slow on Sunday, nothing at all like the graceful gazelle we’ve been so fortunate to watch this decade. So far he hasn’t gotten open, hasn’t made competitive plays on 50-50 balls, and has yet to earn Burrow’s trust. Certainly Tyler Boyd is the passing game’s No. 1 weapon at the moment, but that leaves the Bengals in a position much like last year, desperately needing speed outside to open up the field. Hopefully Green returns to form, though expecting that from a rusty 31-year old coming off leg injuries may be asking too much, even for a talent like Adriel Jeremiah.
Now for the stunner: By DVOA, our efficiency stat over at Football Outsiders, the Bengals have a top-10 defense! Yes the unit moved up 13 full spots in the countdown (read that in a Casey Kasem voice) after mostly shutting down the Eagles for five quarters. They still struggle against the run (21st), mainly as a result of the Browns mauling, but stop the pass at a clip that’s good for eighth overall.
Now it should be mentioned that this is still a very small sample, and while the offenses faced thus far are factored into DVOA, the fact they haven’t exactly faced a Mahomes or a Wilson so far helps nevertheless. When the preseason projection is baked into the equation (a stat we call DAVE, for DVOA Adjusted for Volatility Early), Cincinnati still ranks 25th on D. In other words, don’t count on a top-10 finish when all is said and done and Lamar Jackson has his two whacks at the defense. Still, it does throw into relief the idea that Lou Anarumo’s guys, for all the abuse they take for every missed tackle and point allowed, have been better than we often give them credit for, at least so far.
And the eye test at least partially agrees. Rookie linebacker Logan Wilson had a very good game Sunday, including his first pro interception. William Jackson is looking healthy and locking down in the secondary. Carlos Dunlap was all over the place against Philly, Carl Lawson got his “toss the tackle by the armpit” move working effectively, and D.J. Reader made several plays that both belied his bulk and proved his rich contract was justified.
More worrying is the pass rush, which at least showed up slightly Sunday, with three sacks. Despite that showing, Cincinnati is still 20th in Adjusted Sack Rate. Pass rush is especially crucial in those final minutes of each half, and the Wentz scramble that tied the game was emblematic of the team’s pressure rate so far—Big Red was chased from the pocket but not tackled and wound up scoring the game’s final points. A Geno Atkins sighting would obviously help—and given Cincinnati’s history in this area, I will believe he is back and healthy only after he plays a quarter or three—but the lack of consistency from the rush line remains an issue in Year Two under Anarumo.
Next up (in front of a few fans!) are the Jaguars, a middle of the road team that by DVOA is the diametric opposite of Cincinnati: a high-flying attack (seventh in the NFL) coupled with a horrid defense (29th). There won’t be a Joey Bosa or Myles Garrett or Fletcher Cox on the Jags to fully wreck the Bengals’ passing game, so for once Burrow may enter a game without a bullseye on his torso. If he has to run for his life against this defense, Cincinnati should petition the NFL to allow its games to be 7-on-7 drills only until they can find some linemen.
Gardner Minshew Mania cooled somewhat after the Jags were shellacked by the Dolphins last Thursday, but the Mustache Man’s YOLO stylings and surprising poise and accuracy make him dangerous, as the Bengals discovered last season, when Minshew beat Cincinnati 27-17 in a horrendous display of “football” by the home team. One can easily envision a game where Burrow & Co. break out at last offensively, only to have the Jags rally behind their hirsute signal-caller and make it interesting late once again.
Given Taylor’s record when the going gets close (now 0-10-1 in one-score games), that isn’t a promising omen for his team at last winning a game in 2020. But at least another tie is, statistically speaking, highly unlikely.
Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders and authored four books, including his newest, “The Divine Miss Marble” from Penguin Random House. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.