We Love It When a Bengals Plan Comes Together

Every facet of Cincinnati’s to-do list (offense, defense, special teams) got checked off in the thrilling season-opening win over Minnesota.

On each of the past two season-opening Sundays, the Cincinnati Bengals conjured miraculous ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, against San Diego in 2020 and Seattle in 2019. So seeing them almost do so yet again—only to flip the script in overtime this past Sunday and win in thrilling, last-second fashion—was pretty phenomenal. Zac Taylor finally won a close game!

So much went well for the Bengals in their 27-24 overtime win over Minnesota. It’s as though they made a checklist of things they wanted and spent the game ticking off each one:

• Joe Burrow looking like the same Joey B. we came to know and love pre-injury? Check!
• Burrow connecting with his LSU pal Ja’Marr Chase on a long bomb, and Chase catching everything thrown his way? Check!
• Joe Mixon rushing for 100-plus yards? Check!
• The offensive line mostly holding up against a ferocious rush? Check!
• The defense getting a decent pass rush and timely turnovers? Check!
• The rookie kicker hitting from long distance and in game-winning fashion? Check!

It’s amazing that the plan went so well. And yet Cincinnati almost threw it all away one more time. It took an overtime inches-from-being-down-by-contact fumble by Dalvin Cook and then a ballsy fourth down YOLO call to set up the winning field goal for the Bengals to emerge with the victory. Given how the game played out, a loss or tie would have been quite deflating.

So mix your unbridled optimism with a healthy dose of cynicism heading into this Sunday’s game in Chicago, because the Bears were predictably flattened by the L.A. Rams in their opener. Andy Dalton was ineffably Daltonesque, doing just enough to allow the Bears to hang around for a half before caving in under a miasma of sacks and 4-yard throws on third and 12.

The main question on everyone’s mind, certainly in Chicago and for this week in Cincinnati, is whither Justin Fields? Will the first-round pick take over at quarterback from Dalton, which is the fervent hope of everyone in the Windy City except for Bears coach Matt Nagy and Dalton himself? I think I speak for all of us when I recommend that Chicago wait at least one more week before doing the inevitable and handing the team over to Fields.

Cincinnati has a long history of giving young quarterbacks early success, most famously when Brett Favre took the field one September day in Green Bay and rocketed to immortality while sending the Bengals reeling into a decade of futility. It’s all too easy to imagine Fields entering the game with the Bengals ahead by a couple of scores, leading the triumphant comeback, and embarking on a glorious 15-year career. All I ask is that he wait one more week before fulfilling his destiny.

The Bears turned in the single worst defensive performance in the NFL in week one, as judged by DVOA, Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric. One game isn’t a true judgment of Chicago’s defensive abilities, though the idea that this is the shutdown D of previous years is fallacious. Yes, Kahlil Mack is still out there to terrorize enemy quarterbacks, but the secondary had some notable breakdowns—not just on the bombs everyone saw but throughout the game. Slot corner Marqui Christian, in particular, was charred. He is likely on the bench for the Bengals game, with Duke Shelley in his place. Tyler Boyd should be licking his chops after a quiet opener. The Bears had zero pass breakups and forced no negative plays, and overall they allowed Matthew Stafford to have the most triumphant Hollywood debut since Orson Welles with Citizen Kane.

Offensively, Chicago did run the ball effectively last Sunday night, with 134 yards and 5.2 yards per rush, and David Montgomery has now scored a touchdown in seven straight games. Of particular note will be the huge amount of yards after contact (82) he racked up against the Rams. Cincinnati’s tackling was generally improved in the Vikings game, with a couple of notable exceptions, but Montgomery will be a stiff test of that.

Yes, Dalton was bad, but remember: It was Sunday Night Football! As we all know, Big Red isn’t at his best under the bright lights. A 1:00 start (actually noon local time) with hardly any eyeballs watching is much more his comfort zone. Will he have the much ballyhooed “revenge game,” assuming he starts? And what about Bears offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, also poised for a contest of vengeance?

Much of that depends on how real Cincinnati’s defensive effort on Sunday actually was. Let’s note at the top that for all the praise the unit garnered against the Vikings, they still blew a double-digit lead, let Minnesota drive the field to tie the game at the gun, and put up just the 19th-best DVOA in week one. There were things to like, particularly from the revamped tackle rotation, who were dominant against an offensive line that was significantly worse than Cincinnati’s. Larry Ogunjobi, D.J. Reader, and B.J. Hill were excellent, forcing Minnesota into a grotesque array of penalties, miscommunications, and third-and-long give-up calls. Chicago’s line is in similar disarray, and injuries will force backups into the starting lineup this Sunday. Time to build on last week’s effort and overrun it.

The howling din emanating from the PBS throng helped in discombobulating the Vikings as well, something Bengals players and coaches praised after the game. The cleat will be on the other foot Sunday, with Chicago’s home opener certain to be a loud occasion that will cause difficulties up front for a Bengals line that had some issues talking it out while at home.

Fortunately, Burrow isn’t the type to get flustered by enemy fans. One key mismatch on Sunday figures to be Cincinnati’s pass catchers against the Bears’ secondary. Getting the pass protection worked out is critical to exploiting that to the max, but even last week’s level of blocking should allow Burrow to move the ball. Hitting another big chunk play or two—whether to Chase or someone else—is also important, as both the Bengals and Rams games displayed.

Because of Chicago’s likely increased energy level, Fields’ presumed appearance at some stage, and general Bengalness, it’s easy to pick the Bears to bounce back and win this one. But Zac Taylor showed that he’s going to coach this year in “Screw it” fashion, which led to going for it on fourth and short at the Bengals’ 30 while up two touchdowns. He has to win this season, as we all know. The division’s big boys and opponents like K.C. and S.F. await. As I mentioned last week, winning games against the NFL’s lower middle class is the crucial element to the season, particularly for Taylor and his staff. As such, Cincinnati is in good position to get a surprising 2-0 start to the schedule.

One other note is crucial: I will be in attendance on Sunday, making the trip to Soldier Field to watch our guys in person. My last two games as a paying customer were the final-second victory over Atlanta in 2018 and the OT thriller over Seattle in 2015, both unquestioned high points of those campaigns. Inshallah, this Sunday becomes another in a long line of Weintraub Classics.

If any of you are also traveling to or already live in Chicago, come say hello and/or provide us any extra tickets you might have. Who dey!

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.

Facebook Comments