The Bengals Must Step Up Under the Thursday Night Lights

Cincinnati hasn’t won a primetime game on the road in 11 years. Can Joe Burrow will the team to victory tonight in Baltimore?

Remember when the Bengals went into Philadelphia in late 2012 and stomped the Eagles on Thursday Night Football? No? The Eagles were 4-9, quarterbacked by rookie Nick Foles, and Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, BenJarvis Green-Ellis, and the rest of the Stripes scored 24 unanswered points in the second half to cruise to a 34-13 win.

I only ask because that was the last time the Bengals won a primetime game on the road. Eleven seasons ago. They’ve gone 0-14 since, including last year’s 19-17 loss on Sunday Night Football in Baltimore, which is where the Bengals play tonight in a crucial divisional matchup.

It was always going to be important, but interest in this game got ratcheted up after the Bengals managed to lose to C.J. Stroud and the Texans on Sunday, 30-27, on a field goal at the gun. It was just the scenario I worried about in last week’s column, when I fretted that we needed to avoid a shootout with the suddenly highly potent Texans, especially with Tee Higgins out and Ja’Marr Chase bruised (he still put up numbers because Uno). Of course, had Tyler Boyd held on to what should have been a go-ahead touchdown with 90-ish seconds left, perhaps Cincinnati hangs on for the W. And if “ifs” and “buts” were candy and nuts….

Instead, Cincinnati is now 5-4 and 1-4 in the AFC. Given the depth of the conference, including the Texans who now own the tiebreaker in a head-to-head scenario, that’s a worrisome place to be. And should the Bengals come up short in Baltimore, where they’re currently a 3.5-point underdog, they would be in a real hole, having given away all the positive mojo of their four-game winning streak in a span of a bit more than 100 hours. Not that the Cassandras out there are right and the season would be over—far from it. I mean, those 2012 Bengals started the season 3-5 and made the playoffs.

The division title may be out of reach if the Bengals lose in Baltimore, preventing the first three-peat in AFC North history, but a wild-card berth is certainly still in play. The two Steelers games will be enormous, as will the season finale against the now Deshaun Watson-less Browns. (Watson is out for the season with a broken shoulder. Karma, yo.…)

Our guy Lou Anarumo had a tough day at the office on Sunday, repeatedly pantsed by Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik. In a game that was reminiscent of the 2021 battle with Slowik’s former employer, San Francisco—right down to the late, fruitless comeback—Slowik employed many Kyle Shanahan concepts, especially moving the pocket and getting open receivers out of bunch formations, to frustrate the Bengals’ defense.

Houston runs their deep crossing patterns further downfield than most teams (four to seven yards in many cases), which doesn’t sound like a lot but is a metric mile in the highly precise NFL route tree. To do that you need to ensure the quarterback has time to throw, and by getting him outside or employing run fakes Slowik buys his players the ability to employ those lengthy plays.

This strategy flies in the face of the quicker actions most teams use, and—critically—practice against, and it’s catching defenses off guard. It certainly did on Sunday, catching the young Bengals secondary in poor positions that weren’t helped by communications issues. The Texans also bunch their wideouts tighter to the formation than many teams, taking advantage of the room on the perimeter. Stroud’s arm, and the extra leverage he gets on those throws by being out of pocket, allows them to do so.

Stroud completed eight 20-plus-yard passes and got a 42-yard gain on a pass interference call on D.J. Turner. The PI call at least was an example of a Bengals defender being close to the intended receiver. Stroud’s favorite target in the game was Bengals killer Noah Brown, an otherwise nondescript wideout who killed us last year in Dallas (91 yards) and again Sunday with 156 yards on seven catches. That’s almost 20 percent of his career (six years in NFL) total!

Then, at game’s end, Brown literally added injury to insult, falling backwards into Trey Hendrickson’s leg and hyperextending his knee. Though it appears Trey will suit up against the Ravens, he’ll likely be limited. We need to sign that guy and stash him just so he stops brutalizing our defense. Tight end Dalton Schultz, a player Cincinnati easily could have signed in the offseason, had a big game as well.

Alas, only one Texan could win the AFC Offensive Player of the Week, and it wasn’t Stroud or Brown but running back Devin Singletary, a backup who lit up the Bengals D for 150 yards and a touchdown. I suppose his fellow Florida Atlantic alum, Hendrickson, felt bad about tackling Singletary, a speedy and elusive back whom Cincinnati could have easily grabbed as a depth piece and desperately needed turbo booster in the offseason. Instead, they flailed away as Singletary swiveled and burst right on by them.

Getting torched by the NFL’s new hot young quarterback was understandable, if painful. Getting gashed on the ground repeatedly was much worse, and with Lamar Jackson and the league’s top-ranked rushing offense by DVOA on deck, Big Lou needs to get that sorted out posthaste. In general, the Bengals were dominated on both sides of the lines Sunday, a sure recipe for defeat. The game was close solely due to Joe Burrow.

Baltimore will be without left tackle Ronnie Stanley and perhaps left guard John Simpson, which would help offset the Bengals playing without Sam Hubbard, whose absence was keenly felt against Houston, and whatever version of Hendrickson we get. Other than D.J. Reader, no one on the Bengals D played well on Sunday, and the Ravens are a step up. Anarumo has had Baltimore’s number over the last couple of seasons but struggled to stop the Ravens in Week 2, undone in part by some tendency breakers unleashed by their new offensive coordinator, Todd Monken.

After a brutal performance that underscored the youth of the secondary (in no other game has Cincinnati missed Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell as much as Sunday) and on a short week, Anarumo needs to fully decipher what Monken is doing—and even when he does, Lamar can undo his best efforts with singular moments of brilliance. Unlike the Texans, the Ravens can actually play defense, fourth quarter collapse against the Browns last week notwithstanding. They’ve frustrated Burrow over the last three meetings, counting the wild-card game.

The Bengals will be on the road in primetime, but they have Burrow, who plays his best when the lights are brightest and, more to the point, when his team is written off as an underdog. The season is at a crisis crossroads, but there is no one I’d rather have by my side in that situation than No. 9.

Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, and Deadspin. 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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