It’s difficult for us longtime Bengals fans to wrap our minds around the fact that the team cannot fix the offensive line. For whatever else the team may or may not have featured over the past decades, the one unit that has always been a pillar of strength is the front five. Some lines were better than others, of course, but even the dark years of the 1990s featured strong linemen like Rich Braham, Bruce Kozerski, and Joe Walter. The greatest Bengal of all time and sole Hall of Famer is Anthony Munoz, the stalwart left tackle. Five of the team’s top dozen all-time leaders in Approximate Value are linemen (Munoz, Willie Anderson, Max Montoya, Andrew Whitworth, Bob Johnson). Even their radio analyst in the booth on Sundays, the great Dave Lapham, is a former lineman, and a damn good one.
So seeing the O-line continue to get turnstiled by enemy pass rushers and fail to pave the way for the running game, for what feels like forever, leads to an avalanche of cognitive dissonance. Where are Big Willie or Big Whit when we need them?
After two games, Cincinnati’s line ranks 27th in Adjusted Line Yards, after averaging a 24th-place finish the last three seasons. The Adjusted Sack Rate isn’t as awful (18th in the NFL), but as we all know that doesn’t tell the full story. Joe Burrow was pressured 21 times Thursday night against the Browns and hit seven, including three sacks. Remember when he was upset that he hadn’t been hit during the preseason? I suppose that’s an improvement, given in the opener against the Chargers Burrow was hit six times and sacked thrice in the first half alone. The sheer volume of drop backs (61 attempts!) helps the line’s ratio stats look better then what your eyes are telling you. Already, social media has a Burrow meme, and it’s a plea to save his life before he turns into Andrew Luck or David Carr or any other highly talented QB forced into early retirement by an accumulation of beatings. Not exactly Joe Cool with the stogie after winning the NCAA title in January, is it?
Meanwhile, newly rich running back Joe Mixon has 115 yards on 35 carries through two games, a throwback to last season, when he was submerged for the first half of the year before bouncing back in the second half. Throwing 61 times is not a game script primed for success.
Running 35 times for 215 yards and three scores is a yummy recipe, however, which is the what Browns did, ramming it down the supposedly rebuilt Cincinnati defense’s throat time and again, most painfully late in the game while up 28-23. Starting at the 25-yard line, three runs immediately put Cleveland in the red zone, and three more put them in the end zone for the game-clinching touchdown. So much for the likes of D.J. Reader, Vonn Bell, Josh Bynes, and Mackenzie Alexander turning the porous run defense into a mean group of tacklers. Safety Jessie Bates missed a ton of tackles on his own, though in his defense he was also in on 10 tackles. When the high safety is in on that much action, it’s a bad sign regardless of how many tackles are successful.
A late score not only gave the Bengals a remote chance at pulling out a miracle win but also made it yet another one-score game (not to mention a backdoor cover of the 5.5 point spread). That means Zac Taylor remains winless in such affairs, having now lost his first 10 decisions in games decided by eight points or fewer. I was willing to chalk up 2019’s futility in this area in part to statistical noise and bad luck, but clearly the team has an issue in close contests, mainly related to execution in key moments and red zone woes. So many of those losses may well have turned out differently if, say, the right side of the line picked up a simple Browns stunt instead of letting rushers through to force a strip sack deep in Cincinnati territory. Or if Burrow finds a wide-open A.J. Green in the Chargers game. Or if they score on first and goal from the 1 in Thursday’s game instead of settling for a field goal. Or this, or that. You can play that game forever, but 0-10 is no longer a meaningless sample size.
In the good news/bad news department, next up on the schedule is Philly, a team lost in the wilderness right now. They are 0-2, Carson Wentz is under fire for his lackluster play, and the team ranks dead last in overall DVOA after losses to Washington and the Los Angeles Rams. Sounds good, right? Of course, these days the Bengals are generally a team that other bad teams get healthy against, and the week-long barbecuing the Eagles are sure to take in the local and national media will surely focus them for a rebound effort in the City of Brotherly Love on Sunday.
In a Bengals-like stat, Philadelphia has managed just three points after halftime in the first two games (Cincinnati’s relative explosion in the second stanza Thursday night was one of the game’s few highlights). They have an injury-hit O-line that was creased for eight sacks in the opener, forcing a turn to a very quick passing game Sunday against L.A. Cincinnati’s lack of pressure on the opposing quarterback has been a key element in the two defeats thus far. Getting Geno Atkins back in the mix will of course help, but after dominating camp the likes of Carl Lawson, Sam Hubbard, and Carlos Dunlap have yet to sniff the enemy passer. The pass rush win rate ranks 31st in the league, ahead of only the decrepit Lions, and Baker Mayfield didn’t need his uniform washed Thursday night, so clean was he kept in the pocket.
Cincinnati’s pass rush desperately needs to get Wentz, a player already feeling nervy and under exterior pressure, jumpy from the get go if the Bengals are to win this one. On paper, there are few obvious matchup mismatches for Philly to exploit offensively, and if the Cincinati O-line can somehow control the likes of Fletcher Cox up front (much easier said then done), the Eagles’ defense, which has been shredded for 57 points in the last six quarters, can be had as well.
Despite all that, the oddsmakers have installed the home team as 5.5- or 6-point favorites, depending on your bookie of choice. Time is running out for the Bengals to plant their feet and make 2020 anything beyond a “Develop Joey B. and hope not to get fired” season for Taylor. (Would Mike Brown fire him even if they play their way into the top overall pick again?) Winning a quite-winnable game this Sunday is about their last best shot. Any chance Andrew Whitworth stayed behind when the Rams left Philly?
Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders and authored four books, including his newest, “The Divine Miss Marble” from Penguin Random House. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.