The Bengals’ Incredible Disappearing Offense Is Very Troubling

Another loss to the elves in Cleveland exposes Cincinnati’s over-reliance on Joe Burrow to rescue them every week.

Once Joe Burrow went down in training camp with his leg injury, we knew the offense was going to be bad, regardless of how much firepower was out there supporting the quarterback. On Sunday, the Bengals’ offense unsurprisingly struggled mightily with backup Jake Browning running the show … hang on a moment … I’m being informed that Burrow actually played against Cleveland. Could have fooled me!

Losing to the Browns in their Hellhole by the Lake has become an annual rite of fall, sadly, so I wasn’t exactly surprised by that. But the lifelessness the Bengals showed in losing 24-3 on Sunday was a shock, not to mention appalling. It was reminiscent of the shutout loss they suffered to kick off the 2017 season against the Ravens, except somehow worse, because that Cincinnati team was led by Andy Dalton and not Joe Brrrr.

The Bengals managed just six first downs in an unwatchable display of “football,” played out in a deluge that matched the ugly play on the field. Burrow threw for 82 yards (!) for the game, a total he often reaches in the first quarter. The advanced numbers were equally abysmal—take my word for it, it’s hardly worth getting into here.

Yes, the rain was surely a factor in how poorly the Bengals (and the Browns, to be fair) played on offense. Both quarterbacks struggled to grip and throw the ball. Burrow even resorted to wearing a glove on his right hand, something he hardly ever does, in a desperate attempt to gain some purchase. Alas, to no avail. Burrow had his hand clipped by a Browns rusher on the very first dropback of the game and struggled thereafter to find grip and accuracy. Is it possible he sustained an ouchie right off the bat and that explained some of his issues? Not to make excuses—remember, Burrow suffered a gnarly dislocated pinky in 2021 and made some insanely great throws in that game—but it would explain some of Joe’s unusual struggles, even with a slick ball.

More worrisome long-term was the fact that Burrow’s calf was still clearly bugging him, either in terms of actual pain or in caution overcoming his natural verve. When asked about the leg after the game, Burrow said it was “good enough”—not exactly a ringing endorsement. “Good enough” is how one describes the 2008 Hyundai that gets you through your daily commute, not a critical body part on the highest-paid player in the NFL. Remember, it took about half a season for Burrow to fully engage after the torn ACL in 2021; this isn’t nearly as severe, of course, but it’s silly to assume he’d merely skip back into his MVP-level play of last winter without some readjustment time. Obviously, he can still play well regardless—as he did coming off the ACL injury. He just didn’t in Cleveland on Sunday.

Another note of worry: Lost in the shock of Aaron Rodgers’ torn Achilles just moments into his much ballyhooed Jets debut on Monday night was the fact that he suffered a similar calf injury to Burrow’s back in OTAs. Doesn’t mean Joe is going to tear his Achilles, but that sort of injury does often compromise other parts of the body, and it’s hard to believe Burrow and/or the team didn’t have that in mind on Sunday.

Much was made of the excellence of Cleveland’s pass rush, and the site of Myles Garrett miming a crossover dribble before attacking the A gap made for viral Monday morning content. Garrett had his moments, as he always does against Cincinnati, and so did his linemates, who blitzed far more often under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz than they ever did against the Bengals before. But this was on Burrow, not the offensive line—they played decently enough, factoring in the usual early season communications breakdowns and one-on-one defeats. Joey Franchise was simply bad. The Browns blitzed so often in part because they saw that Burrow, usually so surgical against blitzes, wasn’t in that zone Sunday—be it the calf, the rain, early-season sloppiness, rich contract hangover, or some combination of all of that.

The Bengals are often compared to the Peyton Manning Colts for their explosive offense built around a trio of wideouts and an ultra-precise football savant at QB. That’s great, of course: Indy was highly potent and successful. The snag came on those occasions when, for whatever reasons, Manning played poorly. Then Indy appeared lost, with no Plan B for retrieving victory when the franchise player was out of form. Those thoughts ran through my head as Burrow sprayed dripping balls all over Northeast Ohio. Even by fine-tuned NFL standards, the Bengals’ offense relies on exquisite timing between Burrow and his receivers. When that timing is askew, trouble ensues.

So why not run the ball more, especially when it was apparent the weather was fit not for man or beast (though fine for Clevelanders)? The ground game showed some promise, with Joe Mixon running like a man whose legal troubles no longer weigh on his shoulders. He showed more burst and wiggle than he did all of last season and trucked some fools who tried to tackle him as well. But Mix carried the ball only 13 times (for 56 yards), and Cincinnati handed off to backs just 17 times all game. This against a team that sported the worst run defense in the NFL in 2022. Yes, the Browns addressed that problem in the offseason, but the Bengals still ran it well—they just seemed determined to show they could throw it better. But they could not and did not, and the decision to stick with a losing game plan is a bit baffling.

There were other areas of concern. The Bengals were just 2-15 on third down and 1-7 on third and five or fewer yards to go. It’s as though there was an invisible force field radiating from the yellow first down stripe on your TV, one that would electroshock any approaching Bengal like a wayward goldendoodle wearing a training collar. This offense excelled on third down a year ago, a large reason the Bengals were so successful. The inability to move the chains meant plenty of opportunities for Brad Robbins, our shiny new (drafted) punter who was supposed to put that particular worry behind us all. Alas, he did not, with multiple crappy boots that failed to give Cincinnati’s D (which played well overall) a chance to flip field position.

Now comes the time when I’m contractually obligated to remind one and all that Cincinnati was 0-2 last season and started both of the past two seasons 5-4. Both campaigns turned out just fine, of course. I have little doubt the ship will be righted, that Burrow didn’t suddenly turn into Akili Smith, and we aren’t lamenting another frustrating offensive performance against the Ravens this time next week. (Though Baltimore slowed Cincinnati’s attack to a crawl in the back-to-back meetings late last season.) The Ravens are beat up, as usual, which can only help the Bengals’ cause.

Mainly, you’d like to see more flexibility in the (offensive) game plans, less total reliance on Burrow to be awesome, and most of all some way to stop losing to those damn elves in the Battle of Ohio. This season’s goals are considerably loftier than that, but achieving these smaller tasks would go a long way toward abetting the larger aims.

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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