The Bengals Dig Deep to Beat Seattle

Remember that a few weeks ago Cincinnati fans would have been thrilled with a 3-3 record. A bye week will help heal injuries and poor play.
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Sunday’s 17-13 win over Seattle was hardly pleasing aesthetically—unless, like me, you enjoy a good defensive battle decided by a goal line stand or three. I know we tend to discount wins around here unless Joe Burrow throws three touchdown passes to Ja’Marr Chase (like last week), but this was similar to many of the team’s signature victories in postseasons past—marked by huge defensive plays made by heroes with zero Q rating compared to Nine and Uno.

As I wrote last week, the Seahawks were a tough opponent, and their defense dominated in the second half after Burrow and Co. rolled right through them for a pair of early touchdowns. After Burrow found birthday boy Andrei Iosivas for the score that made it 14-7, Cincinnati ran 33 total plays and managed just 87 yards (just 2.6 ypp). I’m not sure which “drive” was more frustrating: the three-and-outs at game’s end that allowed Seattle chance after chance or the nothingburger after the Cam Taylor-Britt interception (a fantastic play) that ended as a long—and important—field goal but should have been much more.

Once left tackle Orlando Brown went out with a groin injury, the offense spiraled downward. The left side of the line—replacement tackle Cody Ford and guard Cordell Volson—were relentlessly attacked by Seattle and gave way like a soft levee before the raging flood. It was an all-too-familiar sight—backups and underperformers on the line hamstringing the attack. The run game disappeared, and Burrow was forced to make quick dump-offs or throwaways. Pressure forced him away from a wide-open Irv Smith on the old tight end leakout play that would have been a sure third quarter TD, and we might think differently about that position and who is manning it had the play gone as diagrammed. But the poor line play foiled their well-laid plans.

It’s easy to point out where the Bengals offense went wrong. But give credit to Seattle’s D, whose secondary played very well. Safety Jamaal Adams and corner Devon Witherspoon were all over the place, particularly impacting the run game. Corner Tre Brown had very good snaps in coverage against Chase on the perimeter, including a sensational pick of his own. Undoubtedly, Seattle’s defense played well enough to win.

That they didn’t was due to a stellar performance from Cincinnati’s well-paid D-line front four as well as the young and cheap secondary. Obviously, the relentless pressure from Trey Hendrickson (having a fantastic season so far) and Sam Hubbard (great at home anyway) won the game at the end, with numerous pressures against an admittedly young and banged-up Seahawks line. Cam Sample had a strong game pass rushing as well. D.J. Reader and B.J. Hill were their usual excellent selves at tackle.

More importantly, you saw the secondary working together to put up their best performance of the season. I pegged CTB as the next Bengals star in these pages before the season, and he looked like it on Sunday while blanketing D.J. Metcalf to the point the bruising wideout assaulted him with a cheap shot, as well as making an amazing pass breakup in the end zone to deny Tyler Lockett. Mike Hilton showed up in pass coverage, diagnosing a wheel route from rookie receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba and intercepting the pass near the goal line. Safeties Dax Hill and Jordan Battle flashed, too. Strong as the individual play was, the smoothness of the teamwork in passing receivers from one defender to the next in zone concepts was especially good, boding well as the kids grow into their roles.

Everyone needed to play well, as Seattle ran 33 plays in Bengals territory after their initial touchdown drive and came away with just six points for their trouble. It was a reminder that the defense plays extremely well with their backs to the wall, and also a reminder of highly stressful moments that I would prefer the team not subject me to so often. But I suppose hypertension is just part of being a Cincinnati fan.

As the Bengals enter their (early) bye week, it’s a good time to take stock of their underlying metrics and what they mean. Last season, you might recall, the team was just 5-4 at the bye and had recently been buried by Cleveland. Ja’Marr Chase and Chido Owuzie were injured, and most national observers (and many local ones) had written off the Bengals as a Super Bowl fluke with a post-playoffs hangover.

But the underlying numbers described a much better team. They had a solid if not formidable DVOA, a point differential of +43, and very high points per drive and penalty net rankings. That spoke of a team set to win more in the second half of the season, and indeed Cincinnati didn’t lose a game after the bye week.

This season, alas, the metrics don’t paint so rosy a picture—in three fewer games, yes, so a smaller sample). They’re 22nd in overall DVOA, 23rd on offense, 20th on defense, and 6th on special teams. That is fourth-best in the division, as befits the last-place team. Baltimore is 6th overall, Cleveland 9th (those two are second and first on defense in the NFL, respectively), and Pittsburgh 20th (also unbalanced, as you’d expect: 28th on offense, 11th on defense). In that respect I suppose it’s good that the Bengals won against Arizona on offense and Seattle on defense—balance! But those “Burrow can’t move” losses still weigh down the numbers.

Their point differential is -27, a number that usually describes a team with a losing record. They’re also 29th in points per drive, 31st in yards per drive, and 31st in punts per drive. The defense is somewhat better but mostly middle of the pack. About the only positive number is net turnovers per drive, where Cincinnati is 10th, and red zone touchdowns allowed percentage (11th). Otherwise, it’s a bleak set of stats.

All of this data hardly means the Bengals are done for. Numerous teams have simply played better in the second half of the season, the 2021 Bengals among that group. But falling back on the “they know how to dig themselves out of a hole” narrative isn’t going to cut it in this case. Institutional culture is a positive, but that won’t win in San Francisco or at home against Buffalo or in the tough divisional games that follow; even the Houston game seems far more difficult than it once did—how the NFL changes quickly! Everyone needs to up their game.

As we know, overall success is connected to Burrow’s health, and another two weeks off hopefully will have him approaching normalcy by the time he takes the field in Silicon Valley. He still seems unable to power the ball deep and is awfully quick to unload when pressure arrives.

When fully healthy, he can take at least some quality snaps from under center. Right now the running attack is not only lifeless but predictable, and getting under center—even though Burrow strongly prefers shotgun—would at least somewhat alleviate the fact that defenses are sprinting to obvious run gaps. That might give the play-action game the team was set to implement this season a boost as well, which in turn would help Tee Higgins get more involved (injured ribs don’t help, of course). Tee’s downfield Mossing of defenders is often tied to run fakes.

The depth pieces need to drastically improve, as aforementioned on the O-line and especially at defensive tackle. Instead of a quality second season, Zach Carter has been poor and Josh Tupuo, who played so well in 2022, has been a disaster. Backups in the secondary have been good—the guys in the trenches need to match that. And of course it would be nice if they gave any of the backup running backs a snap here and there.

It’s good to remember that a few weeks ago we would have gladly taken 3-3 at this point, and the early-season struggles are water under the bridge. The road forward will be tough, but then if you can’t win those kind of games—like the one Cincinnati just played and won—there won’t be any postseason to think about.

See you after the team’s trip to Northern California!

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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