The Bengals Face a Big Early Season Test

Sunday’s home game against Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers will tell if the exciting 3-1 start is a mirage or the real deal.

Man, that was fun! For everyone who got to see in person last week’s 24-21 win over Jacksonville, not to mention the debut of the new Ring of Honor, I bow my head to you in jealousy. The crowd, after a silent start while the Jags gashed Cincinnati on the ground en route to a 14-0 lead, was the loudest it’s been in years—a volume that really came through on the telecast. And the ear-splitting roar when Evan McPherson hit his second game-winning field goal in his first month as a pro flushed birds from trees all the way to Akron.

The key moment was the goal line stand to end the half, when the Bengals prevented a 21-0 (and probably unrecoverable) deficit by stuffing Trevor Lawrence on fourth down. The offense, abysmal through 30 minutes, subsequently caught fire and scored almost immediately to open the second half, tying the game shortly thereafter. Indeed, the offense scored on all four possessions in the second half, including the key drive to suck the final five and a half minutes off the clock and settle matters with the game-winning kick.

In an ironic moment, the best play Joe Burrow made all night required getting smacked in the face. Late in the game, on second-and-long near midfield, the Jags called an all-out blitz. Burrow recognized what was coming, audibled to a quick screen to tight end C.J. Uzomah, and delivered a strike just as he got planted. (The mic’d up version of the play features a nice “ugghhh” of pain.) The long gainer set up the winning field goal.

You could see Burrow seize the spotlight in his inimitable fashion, demanding the ball and guaranteeing the comeback. That’s the kind of Patton-esque field general we haven’t seen around Cincinnati since Norman Julius Esiason. And Burrow is more talented than Boomer was.

It was great to have that game on a Thursday night in order to fully enjoy the mini-bye fresh off a two-game win streak. But this is the NFL, the epitome of a “what have you done for me lately?” attitude. And as good as everything feels today, with Burrow seemingly fully back from his injury and Zac Taylor off the hot seat and the defense playing well, all it takes is one poor performance and the media glare will return. And, right on cue, here comes the wanna-be television star, Aaron Flippin’ Rodgers.

The general consensus is that Sunday’s game against Green Bay is, while not a mismatch, certainly an uphill climb for the Bengals, a feeling reflected in the point spread. The Packers are favored by 3.5 points despite the game being played at Paul Brown Stadium. There are reasons for that spread, obviously, most of them to do with the guy wearing No. 12 in green and gold. The erstwhile host of Jeopardy is of course the reigning MVP and the NFL’s most decorated drama queen. After an ugly opener, the Packers offense has been just fine over the last three weeks, climbing all the way to eighth in offensive DVOA despite the 38-3 shellacking they took from New Orleans on that first Sunday. Davante Adams may be the best wideout in football not named Ja’Marr Chase.

Still, there are plenty of matchups on the field that will work in favor of the Bengals. Both teams have been rather inefficient on the ground thus far (GB is No. 16 in rushing DVOA, Cincinnati 20), and the Bengals rush D has been the best part of the team thus far (No. 6 in DVOA even after the Jags racked up 139 yards on 30 carries). Green Bay’s Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon are an effective pair of backs, and slowing them will be a key element to victory on Sunday. Rodgers will make his plays, and even without a run game he could win the game with just his right arm. But making the Pack uni-dimensional is a great way to keep this one within reach.

Offensively, the Bengals need to make plays through the air against an iffy Packers secondary that may well be without its best player, banged-up corner Jaire Alexander. Cincinnati’s injury situation seems to be improving, with wideout Tee Higgins back to practice, along with safety Jessie Bates and corner Chidibe Awuzie. That makes the Bengals receivers vs. the Packers coverage unit a key area for Cincinnati to make hay—indeed, this has the feel of a shootout where a young gun, Burrow, shows he can match dueling skills with the old gunfighter Rodgers.

Meanwhile, Joe Mixon’s gimpy ankle is a question mark, which is a shame as Green Bay’s 27th-ranked run defense seems ripe for plucking. If Mixon can’t go, will the line be able to open holes for Samaje Perine and/or Chris Evans? Early numbers say yes. Football Outsiders has a stat called Adjusted Line Yards that measures blocking effectiveness at the line of scrimmage and separates the runner’s ability to make tacklers miss by tracking Second Level Yards and Open Field Yards. Surprisingly enough (to some), Cincinnati ranks quite highly in Adjusted Line Yards (No. 9 overall) but then falls off to 19th and 24th in the running back-centric numbers. That would indicate that even if Mixon can’t play the Bengals could find success on the ground, and of course that will be important in controlling the clock and keeping Rodgers from establishing a steady tempo.

The last time GB came to these parts, it was a memorable encounter that culminated in Terence Newman running a fourth-down fumble back for the winning score. Indeed, for teams that only play every four years there have been a number of classics between these two squads, including the “Brett Favre emerges!” game and the fan running on the field to take the ball from Favre game. Their last meeting went to overtime before Cincinnati succumbed.

Given that three of the Bengals’ first four games have been decided by three points, it would seem likely that this contest will come down to the wire as well. Let’s hope Burrow has the ball last.

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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