A couple of factors made watching Sunday’s 31-20 upset win over Tennessee almost an out-of-body experience for me. First were those snazzy white “color rush” uniforms the Bengals sported. It took me a moment to recognize what team I was watching and supporting. I think I speak for all fans when I say we can definitely get used to those. Sharpish!
Second, naturally, was the play of the Bengals, especially the Z-list O-line the team threw out there. Let’s face it: When word came that, on top of the four starters already out of the lineup to injury, left guard Michael Jordan would miss the game to illness—not COVID-19, fortunately—all I hoped for was Joe Burrow surviving the 60 minutes. After all, the likes of Quinton Spain and Hakeem Adeniji and Fred Johnson and Billy Price had scarcely met, much less established any kind of working relationship. Word from the team is that Price spent much of Saturday and Sunday morning translating the Bengals’ terminology for Spain, who didn’t arrive in Cincinnati until Friday.
But Señor Espana played like the veteran he is, coming on to replace another newbie, Shaq Calhoun, and holding his own against the likes of Jeffery Simmons and Jadeveon Clowney. It wasn’t perfect, naturally, but Spain and the rookie Adeniji and waiver-wire regulars Johnson and Alex Redmond kept Burrow clean and even opened regular holes in the run game. It will probably be remembered as the “Billy Price Redemption Game,” as the third-year center at last played a good game and received effusive praise from Zac Taylor, who gifted the former Buckeye a game ball for his efforts.
“He’s a guy who came in with expectations and never wavered from that,” Taylor told the media about Price. “His opportunity hasn’t always been exactly what he thought it would be, but he comes in with a smile on his face every day and goes to work. He encourages everybody, [saying] ‘What can I do to get better? Do you need me to play on the scout team? Do you need me to play guard?’ His personality has never wavered for one second. I couldn’t be happier for Billy because he’s earned this opportunity. You never know how things are going to shake out, but I’m really proud of the person, the man, and the player he is. Our guys can learn a lot from Billy.”
That last bit felt a lot like a slap at Carlos Dunlap, whose bridge-burning tour of the Bengals facility at last ended when he was shipped to Seattle. One can’t help but feel the excellent team performance Sunday was related to Dunlap’s exodus—dispelling black clouds often reveals some sunny afternoons. The Bengals still struggle to get a pass rush, but it’s not like Dunlap was providing any. He was a very good player for Cincinnati, though, and I think once the dust settles he’ll be remembered fondly by the faithful.
But let’s get back to Sunday! What a sensational performance by Burrow. It’s hard to overstate how good he was, given the circumstances, which included not just the O-line injuries and a strong opponent but a gusty wind that would have had Andy Dalton curled into the fetal position by the second quarter. There were a ton of amazing throws—the back shoulder lob to Auden Tate to clinch the game late, an ESP-level anticipatory bullet to Tyler Boyd that practically inserted the ball into Boyd’s shoulder, an astounding deep ball to Tee Higgins as Burrow was scrambling out of bounds. My favorite was probably more about his pocket presence and poise than the throw itself. On a second and 15 in the second half, Burrow faked a step up into the pocket, then retreated, allowing Boyd to uncover from his momentarily confused defender and get open for a 14-yard gain. I can’t recall offhand anyone except Aaron Rodgers doing that.
The feint was emblematic of just how thoroughly Burrow yo-yo’d the Titans defense, which, to be fair, isn’t exactly the ’75 Steelers. Taylor’s quick striking game plan was a sound one, given the conditions, but Burrow executed the plays and kept Tennessee guessing at his true intentions or had them looking in the wrong direction multiple times. And when the inevitable happened and rushers got free, Joey B put on his escapability cloak and turned sacks into completed passes. All in all, a top-pick-in-the-draft worthy performance.
Burrow led the offense to another 30-dog, now putting up at least that number in three straight games (and five of eight total). The last trio of games included a blown big lead and a blown late lead, but the offense has been exponentially more effective than it was in 2019. In those last three games, Cincinnati is second in the NFL in points per drive and have moved it into the red zone 15 times, a league high.
The key to beating the Titans was converting the preponderance of those drives into touchdowns. After settling for three on the first drive, the Bengals punched it in on the next four opportunities down deep, allowing them to play with a sizable lead for most of the game. The play that, in my mind, let everyone know this game would be different was the score at the end of the half, when Gio Bernard followed a tremendous double-team block (and Tate’s wham block on Clowney) for an unmolested 12-yard run. An easy-peasy rushing TD, with Joe Mixon out, and right at the end of the half?! That moment encapsulated everything we hoped to see around here.
Heck of a way to head into the bye week, huh? The hated Steelers, whom it should be noted were fortunate to beat these same Titans a week earlier, are next on the docket, but Cincinnati will have a sorely needed Sunday off to mend and revel before then. I have no illusions about beating the undefeated crew from Pittsburgh, but I do expect something that looks nothing like the Baltimore unraveling from a few weeks ago.
Burrow responded in uncanny fashion to that humiliation against Tennessee. If he can put this group of Bengals on relatively equal standing with the Steelers, it will be another Great Leap Forward.
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.