Okay, this is where we thought we’d be all along, right? After Sunday night’s 24-18 not-nearly-that-close spanking of the Buffalo Bills, the Bengals are 5-3 with a four-game winning streak. They’re night and day removed from the sputtering, punchless crew we watched in September. Of course, much of that is directly tied to the fact that Joe Burrow is now as healthy as he’s been all season, at least in terms of his twitchy calf. He’s been sensational over the last two games, carving up the Niners and Bills defenses with his usual deft surgical touch.
But as much as the team’s success is tied to JB, there were other positive signs Sunday night, beyond the awesome crowd and the Striped Paycor look they brought to the occasion. The offensive line, spotty over the first half of the season, has been superb over the last couple of games. Jonah Williams deserves some love on the right side. That trade demand in the wake of the Orlando Brown signing seems an awfully long time ago. I never thought much about that, and as I said in various places before the season maybe, just maybe, Williams is a better right tackle than left tackle. He has certainly looked the part of late; his game Sunday was arguably his best pro effort.
The blossoming young bucks in the secondary are also worthy of high praise. Cam Taylor-Britt we know is a coming star, but rookie D.J. Turner has followed in his footsteps by stepping in as a second-round draftee when a starter got hurt (in this case Chido Awuzie) and has been very good. Yes, he got beat here and there by Stefon Diggs, but overall he and CTB frustrated Josh Allen’s perimeter passing all night. That’s why he went to rookie tight end Dalton Kincaid so often—his preferred deep targets on the edge were blanketed. Heck, even Myles Murphy played well!
Another key to the change in fortunes has been lessening the offense’s predictability. They went under center to futz with San Francisco’s defensive game plan and run fits with great success and have also added pre-snap motion to the attack—an overdue alteration I’d say. After scarcely moving anyone over the first month, the Bengals have risen drastically in motion rates concurrent with their win streak. This makes sense logically: Burrow is a high information, fast processing QB who has no problem throwing it to whomever is the correct choice given the coverage and separation. The more you can let him know ahead of the snap only helps him and puts more pressure on the defense.
I was worried that everyone and his uncle was convinced Cincinnati would beat Buffalo, given the usual gambling truism that the public side is usually the wrong one. But once they took the field it was evident which team was better, at least on this night. The Bills are where Cincinnati was at season’s start, in scuffle mode with a quarterback not playing up to his usual standard. The Bengals, meanwhile, are apparently partying like it’s 2022, just as we started to wonder whether they could.
For all their recent success, the Bengals still have a negative point differential, at -7. But they are up to No. 11 in overall DVOA (and rank 11th in both offense and defense), while Burrow is climbing the DYAR chart with a bullet, up to 13th after being 26th following the Tennessee game. Through six weeks JB had just 2 DYAR, the counting version of DVOA (think of it as passing yards that effectively move the chains, adjusted for opponent and score). Then against the Niners he piled up 194 and last week another 163. As you might imagine, these are very good numbers. For comparison, Burrow’s legendary games in 2021 against Baltimore and Kansas City were worth 220 and 204 DYAR, respectively.
Only three QBs have been better by DYAR since week four: Allen, Jared Goff, and this week’s opponent, C.J. Stroud, the remarkable rookie some of you are no doubt familiar with from his days at The Ohio State University. Stroud is at the helm of the surprisingly strong Houston Texans (4-4, +22 point differential and 13th in overall DVOA) and is the slam dunk choice for midseason rookie of the year. His poise and outstanding arm were on full display in a miraculous win last week against Tampa Bay, when Stroud threw the game-winning touchdown pass (his fifth of the game) with six seconds to play, having driven the field with less than a minute left on the clock.
Head coach DeMeco Ryans, the former 49ers defensive coordinator now at the helm in Houston, has done an excellent job preparing his medium talent and inexperienced squad to compete well beyond expectations. I mean, no matter how grim things looked when Burrow was hobbling, the Texans game was always prefigured as an easy win. But that’s not the case any more.
Houston’s “other” rookie star, defensive end Will Anderson, has been overshadowed by Stroud’s brilliance, but he’s been excellent as well. Fortunately, if that word can be used, Anderson is struggling with a leg injury. If he can’t go, that will greatly help an already imbalanced matchup between Burrow and the passing attack against Houston’s 26th-ranked pass defense. The Texans defense made our old pal Baker Mayfield look like Daryle Lamonica on Sunday.
The Bengals’ attack, however, will probably be shorthanded. Ja’Marr Chase suffered a back ouchie against Buffalo and gave the old Marvin Lewis “We’ll see” response when asked on Wednesday about his playing status. Tee Higgins responded with 110 yards receiving when the Bills threw half their secondary at Chase, but he also isn’t right—he strained a hamstring in practice and may not play either. Cincinnati can certainly still score on Houston even with their two big wideouts hobbled or missing outright, but they may switch to a more ground-oriented attack in order to—incredible as this is to write—avoid getting in a shootout with the Texans.
The good news is we have tight ends now! Three, in fact. As I’ve begged for most of the season, Cincinnati at last utilized not only Irv Smith but Drew Sample and even promising Tanner Hudson in multiple tight end formations. The Texans are poor in covering tight ends (25th by DVOA), so there is a good possibility the one-week trend continues. If Chase and/or Higgins can’t go on Sunday, they’ll need to step up.
It’s good the young Texans are coming off a highly emotional and unlikely home win—in the NFL, that’s often followed by a reality check on the road. On the other hand, Cincinnati can’t help but have one eye on the enormous Thursday night rematch with the Ravens, which is shaping up as an early must-win in terms of the division title threepeat.
Burrow is back to being Burrow, thank God, and among other traits is his ability to keep the team focused on the job at hand. Do that, and we could well be looking at win number five in a row come Sunday evening.
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.