Take Deep Breaths, Bengals Fans

Is it time to panic yet? Maybe not, but 0-2 is not where we thought this team would be right now.
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Well, now we can panic. To be fair, maybe there are better words. Disquiet springs to mind. Agitated. Anxious. Alarmed. Concerned. Pick a synonym, and regardless of where it falls on the “what the heck is going on?!?!” meter, it applies to the way the Bengals have played over the season’s first two weeks. And this is a season, remember, in which they were supposedly improved from the team that went to the Super Bowl in February.

Sunday’s 20-17 loss to Dallas was predictable in some ways. As I warned last week, Cincinnati’s record against backup quarterbacks over the years has been abysmal. I mean, Bruce Gradkowski sustained a 10-year NFL career almost entirely based on his performance as a Tampa rookie forced to start against the Bengals. You can probably name half a dozen others off the top of your head. So when Dallas backup Cooper Rush carved up the Bengals D for two touchdowns on the game’s first two drives (as many TDs as Cincinnati has scored in nine quarters so far in 2022), I was shocked but hardly surprised.

The defense once again let a small-time QB pull off a winning field goal drive to win the game on the final play. The unit has forced just a single turnover and registered a pair of sacks in two games and haven’t had the game-changing impact seen in the playoff run last winter. And yet they have been by far the best part of the team. The defense is 10th overall in DVOA, buoyed mainly by the strong run stop rate and the incredible performance by nose tackle D.J. Reader, who has been easily the Bengals’ best player.

The offense? It’s been “wow” bad. Like, 2008 or Andy Dalton-when-AJ Green-was-injured bad. Struggling to get a play off without the defense destroying it bad. All the things the Joe Burrow Era was supposed to bury for good.

Right now the Bengals could line up Anthony Muñoz, Andrew Whitworth, Bob Johnson, Max Montoya, and Willie Anderson, and I’d be convinced Burrow would get sacked and pressured repeatedly. What had been a team strength for decades has become an annual albatross. The rebuilt offensive line that was meant to eliminate the piñata effect on Joey B hasn’t done that at all. It seemed as though former Cowboy La’el Collins was cut by the ’Boys this offseason for a reason—or is he a double agent? In all seriousness, his poor play on the edge has been an issue through two highly winnable games. Jonah Williams has struggled as well. Granted, Micah Parsons and T.J. Watt are impossible edge rushers to keep in check. Granted, rookie guard Cordell Volson has looked as good as anyone can expect for such a callow figure. Granted, the line is new, communications have been an issue, and Burrow has caused many of the sacks by holding the ball looking for big plays.

Nevertheless, somewhere the reviled former offensive line coach Jim Turner is leaning back into his easy chair, cackling on his third snifter of brandy and saying, “See? Wasn’t just me!” Frank Pollack, granted savior status upon replacing Turner, has simply not gotten the job done.

The Bengals’ quick-strike offense, the envy of the league a year ago, has been stuck in the mud. They’re dead last in DVOA and 31st in yards per play and have been down after the opening drive (and 17-3) in both games. I suppose it’s a good sign that Burrow put them in a position to win both games, but for a missed PAT and a great tackle by Travon Diggs on third and short late in the game. But down-by-down efficiency, especially in the first half, is somehow even worse than it was last year by a considerable margin.

Burrow and the O-line have suffered the slings and arrows of outraged fans since Sunday, deservedly so. To me the biggest underachiever has been Joe Mixon. It was another game filled with tackles he didn’t break, blocks he didn’t make, receptions he didn’t grab. Not all his fault, certainly, but the best way to defeat a rampaging pass rush is with your halfback, both by establishing a pounding run game and in the quick passing game. Some combination of Mixon’s shortcomings and the coaching staff’s lack of belief in him has excised that part of the attack. As such, Cincinnati is anything but balanced at the moment. It’s simplistic, but it sure feels like everything has been schemed to be intermediate or deep in the passing game and there’s no Plan B.

Best to find one quickly. The Bengals face the frisky Jets and the thoroughbred Dolphins over the next 10 days, a double-dip that looks considerably more difficult than it did before we got a look at the 2022 offense. It helps that, while the Jets will start a dreaded backup at QB, it’s Joe Flacco, whom the Bengals handled quite well during his long tenure in Baltimore (a counter to their historical lack of success in Dallas). It would be one thing entirely if the Bengals looked this lifeless but managed to escape with two wins, or even one. But at 0-2, they’re behind the eight ball historically. Teams that start 0-2 seldom make the postseason.

The addition of the 17th game helps a little. But nothing gives hope like the fact that we know who Joe Burrow is, have seen the offense been explosive, and the talent is too good to hold down, slow start be damned. So I remain optimistic, though my naturally positive self has been dented considerably by the flop out of the starting gates.

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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