It’s Time for the Bengals to Lift Joe Burrow

The team always depends on Joe Cool to save them, but everyone else needs to step up now to rescue a season slowly slipping away.
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When we think about the Bengals playing the Tennessee Titans, immediately we go to the playoff game in Nashville and then to the sequel last fall when Cincinnati outslugged them in a similar encounter in Bachelorette Party Central. But I tend to think about the game in 2020, Joe Burrow’s rookie season, one played at home before he was lost for the year.

That’s when Joe showed who he was as a football player, ripping an insane throw to Tyler Boyd with a Titans defender draped all over him, and TB wasn’t even looking. The play featured elite pocket movement, pinpoint accuracy, and balls-out confidence. The Bengals beat the heavily favored Titans that day, and more importantly Joe Shiesty (aka Joe Brrr, aka Joe Cool) was born. This was a guy who would make any throw, extend any play, and outswagger any opponent.

Alas, as Sunday’s ugly 27-3 loss in Nashville showed, that player is no longer running the Bengals’ offense.

Confidence bordering on arrogance has always been Burrow’s superpower, his edge in a game where the margins are so incredibly thin. It’s what allowed him to win a playoff game despite being sacked nine times, to throw passes other quarterbacks would never attempt, and to lead seemingly futile comebacks. But the deleterious effects of his calf injury have sapped that aspect of his game and persona—along with his mobility, throwing mechanics, and ability to drive passes deep.

Right now he resembles Matt Ryan last season in Indianapolis. Unless Burrow wants to be in the broadcast booth far sooner than intended, either he needs to sit or his calf needs to improve rapidamente.

Neither are likely to happen. As we have discussed ad infinitum, rest is no guarantee with a calf injury of this nature, how do players of Burrow’s caliber play if at all possible, he’s still better than backup Jake Browning, blah blah blah. Burrow is playing Sunday against Arizona—Zac Taylor has already announced that formally—and for the foreseeable future. The worry now is that, by playing hurt and getting shelled in the process, that extraordinary confidence may be forever beaten out of Joe.

So this is where we are: The Bengals have to find ways to scheme around their quarterback. We have to find ways to win that don’t involve Joe Burrow. If I had written that sentence in the spring, it would have been the last one I ever penned about pigskin—it is that insane a concept. And yet….

Certainly, given the talent on the Bengals’ roster, that should be possible—even though the passing game is broken, the O-line helpless in the face of stunt and blitz packages aided immeasurably by the knowledge that Burrow can’t move, and the defense exhausted by the lack of help from the offense. The coaches and the players who are not living up to their price tags need to step it up massively and immediately.

They can begin by doing what seems for them an impossibility: making the run game the offense’s centerpiece. Burrow’s immobility hampers this area too, albeit far less. Joe Mixon, who ironically received a pay cut this offseason, is the lone Bengal exceeding expectations at the moment. He ranks fourth in the NFL in DYAR, an efficiency helped by the fact the Bengals have played three of the league’s toughest run defenses (Cleveland, Baltimore, Tennessee) thus far.

Now is the time for Mixon to become the bellcow back he’s been rumored to have been all these years. Using his backups even a little would be a nice change. We knew Samaje Perine would be missed, but it’s hard to get over him when Chase Brown, Trayveon Williamson, and Chris Evans sit idle on the bench.

Winning purely through the run is impossible in the NFL, though, especially when the defenses figure out what you’re doing. But the line has blocked well thus far on the ground, and (lord be praised!) even Drew Sample has been crunching folks on the end of the line, four years late but still welcome. Cincinnati had some successful snaps from 12 (two tight end) personnel formations in Nashville but used them sparingly, as is their pattern under Taylor. The same goes for Pistol formations, with the running back lined up directly behind Burrow, allowing him to go in either direction without the defense keying on one side or the other. If ever there was a time to change up tendencies and play some different styles, it is now.

Teams still need to respect Ja’Marr Chase and (even with a broken rib) Tee Higgins and their deep play capability. Even a gimpy Burrow will throw to them when the defense shows single-high safety looks, and the way to get those is to hammer away on the ground. The short passing game is fine as a complement, but right now it’s the only thing Cincinnati is doing. Checkdown football as an identity results only in high draft picks and firings in the modern NFL.

Meanwhile, what looked like a fast and ferocious defensive unit capable of carrying the team on Monday night against L.A. disappeared in a miasma of missed tackles and assignments this past Sunday. Blame the short week if you like, but players like Mike Hilton, Germaine Pratt, and Nick Scott seemed to be making business decisions when it came to tackling Derrick Henry, in stark contrast to previous encounters with the King when the Bengals were eager to take it to the big back. Even when Henry played quarterback, the D looked lost—after calling timeout to assess the situation, Cam Sample still allowed tight end Josh Whyle to slip out untouched for the easy pass from Henry.

Then there was the play when rookie Tyjae Spears—a whippet whose speed would be most welcome in the plodding Bengals attack right now—fumbled in the backfield, recovered, broke a multitude of half-assed tackle attempts, and raced for 22 yards to set up a score. A massive upgrade in tackling fueled the team’s leap to the elite in 2022; why a backslide would come now is hard to conjure. Let’s hope it was just a one-game horror show and professional pride kicks back in. If not, the season is truly lost.

Arizona is up next, a date on the calendar that promised a refreshing trip to the desert and an easy W when the schedule came out. As with so many things in pro football, that notion has flipped on a dime. The Cards, using Josh Dobbs at QB (a player I badly wanted the Bengals to get as a backup before and after his brief stint in Cleveland this summer), have played surprisingly tough. Arizona’s offense is sixth in DVOA and gave the 49ers fits a week ago. On the other hand, their defense is ranked 30th, so, if ever there was a chance for the Bengals to unveil some new looks and crank up their offense, it is nigh.

Cincinnati has scored 49 points in four games. There have been 64 teams in modern NFL history that have scored fewer than 50 points in the initial quartet, and just one—the 1992 Chargers—made the playoffs. But as we know, there is another game and another playoff spot now, and this team is objectively more talented than most if not all of those other 63.

Right now the Bengals’ offense resembles the defense of a college team close to our hearts: LSU, from whence Joe and Ja’Marr came. The collegiate Tigers were in shambles on that side of the ball, despite a raft of excellent players and enormous expectations.

Even with Burrow as a shell of himself, the Bengals have the capacity to turn this season around and play winning football. It will take the efforts of everyone else to lift Burrow—rather than the other way around as it usually works.

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. Listen to him on Mo Egger’s show on 1530AM every Thursday at 5:20 p.m.

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