Boy do I hate being right all the time. As I laid out in last week’s column, the Bengals lost a tight game in Baltimore on Sunday night to fall to 2-3. They fell on the last play of the game yet again, and the Sunday Night Football curse befell them once more. Cincinnati held Lamar Jackson far below his average output on the season, gave up just a single touchdown (on a blown coverage), and mostly dominated the second half. But they lost nonetheless and blew a chance to take over first place in the AFC North.
All three losses this season have followed a now-familiar pattern: a terrible start offensively, the defense playing superbly to keep it tight, a dramatic comeback, and then the defense allowing the enemy to move into field goal position and beat Cincinnati with a winning kick. It’s deeply frustrating as a fan to see the defense play so well until the final two minutes, but it’s hard to be angry at the unit. Holding Jackson down as long as they did was an excellent performance. That he made a couple of plays to win the game is just a great player showing up in key moments. Sometimes you have to tip your cap or helmet, as the case may be.
It was different when it was Mitch Trubisky and Cooper Rush, especially the former; that Steelers loss on opening Sunday looks worse and worse as the season unfolds, and Trubisky has already been replaced. There is simply no way that the Bengals won’t rue that loss come season’s end—one can see the Steelers getting one over on Cincinnati even when they’re terrible by keeping the Stripes out of the playoffs. All thanks to a crazy result that otherwise goes against the run of the season.
The loss in Baltimore can be traced in part to the failure to score after moving to the 2-yard line in an elongated 11-play drive. Four plays later, none of them runs, the Bengals had taken eight minutes off the clock and failed to score. It was a demoralizing turn of events, made even worse by examining each play in turn.
First down began the outrage; Hayden Hurst was clearly held on an incompletion with no flag thrown. Then Zac Taylor called the trick play known commonly as the Philly Special since the Eagles used it to help defeat the Patriots in the Super Bowl a few years ago. It was a Phoul call, as the Ravens saw it coming and turned the gadget play into a 12-yard loss. Ugh. A Joe Burrow pass to Ja’Marr Chase got those yards back, setting up fourth and goal at the 2.
Going for it was the right decision, despite the tightness of the final score. I felt at the time the Bengals needed to get in the end zone and, if they had, Cincinnati was highly likely to win. But wow, that play call. Instead of going back to Chase on this vital play or utilizing Mixon or even a Burrow QB draw, the Bengals went to the shovel pass—or shovel passe as I think of it, since it hasn’t fooled anyone on the goal line since the mid-1990s. Sure, they score on it occasionally, but generally the shovel is a sign that you don’t believe your team can line up and physically beat the opposing defense. And calling it for Stanley Morgan, a blocking receiver and special teamer, reeks of desperation. The Bengals cared more about tricking Baltimore by breaking tendency (Morgan’s presence usually guarantees a running play) than they did about making the Ravens defend their superstars.
It also shows that, despite the fanfare around the rebuilt offensive line, the coaching staff doesn’t trust the unit. It’s hard to argue, despite the fact the team finally ran the ball with some authority on Sunday (101 yards, 4.8 YPC). As they did in Taylor’s first season, it appears the Bengals realize the wide zone style they prefer doesn’t fit the attributes of the linemen they have. The good gains on Sunday night came mostly from running quicker-developing gap plays that lessen the importance of athleticism along the line.
But when it comes to what we at Football Outsiders define as power situations (third or fourth down with two or fewer yards to go, or goal line plays from the 2- or 1-yard line), the struggles continue. Last year the Bengals were 31st in the NFL in that category. In 2022 they have moved all the way up to 27th, counting Burrow’s go-ahead QB sneak on Sunday. Not what the team had in mind when it signed 1,000 or so pounds of linemen in the offseason. The lack of oomph up front is directly related to the play calling in the red zone, especially in that goal-to-go situation. Bengals coaches simply don’t think the line can forklift enough bodies out of the way to create space in confined quarters and call for skullduggery and misdirection instead. (For what it’s worth, this Sunday’s opponent, the New Orleans Saints, have converted every single one of its power situations this season, compared to Cincinnati’s 55%.)
Of even larger concern is the continuing ineptitude on first down. The Bengals rank dead last in the league in DVOA on the initial down. If it feels like the offense is constantly in second-and-8 situations, you aren’t imagining things. Burrow, to be blunt, has not been good through five games, but he also isn’t getting a ton of help from the game plan. As noted above, the situational play calling is hampered by a lack of belief in the O-line. The lack of any semblance of play action allows defenses to sit back in two-deep zones and not have to think about where to be or worry about being put into conflict. Determined to not be beaten by big plays, the Ravens insisted Cincinnati take small chunks, and the Bengals are not adept at that style.
And as offensive coordinator Brian Callahan admitted this week, the coaches aren’t doing much to scheme their receivers open. Chase, Tee Higgins (who scarcely played due to an ankle injury), and Tyler Boyd are phenomenal talents to be sure. But there seems to be a tendency to simply let them attempt to defeat defenders based solely on that talent and not do everything possible to get them into winning situations. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but the fact is the coaches haven’t matched the players. Other offenses mesh passing and running attacks far more coherently than the Bengals. Other offenses play to and accentuate the talents of their parts. The Cincinnati offense does neither, nor do they appear especially prepared to execute the game plan that does exist.
These are things that can be fixed. Indeed, just the act of playing more games often tends to sort out some of these issues. While we think of the offense as a souped-up version of last year’s—which was also quite hit or miss, especially in the first half of the season—it has five new starters, essentially half a new unit. Of the holdovers, only Mixon and Boyd count as true veterans. The team is still young, learning, and gelling.
Let’s just hope that, by the time they get it together this season, it isn’t too late.