CINCINNATI — The Bengals have been here before. That’s not to say it’s good news for them, it’s merely a fact.
Cincinnati started 0-2 last year, in case you hadn’t heard. Those words will be applied over the next eight days as a soothing ointment on a wounded reality: Digging out of this hole after a 27-24 loss to the Baltimore Ravens Sunday will be a pain in the calf.
Let’s not pretend like last year was some destined ride out of the ditch. It took a midseason philosophy shift and an unprecedented 10-game win streak to find the other side and they still had to go on the road to Buffalo and Kansas City as a path through the playoffs.
The AFC and the AFC North will be unrelenting. The statistics are undeniable: 9.6 percent of teams starting 0-2 since the 1970 merger have made the playoffs, that’s 39 of 406. Only four reached the Super Bowl.
Every team is different, but the one way the Bengals must be like last year’s club in order to recreate the magic will be leaning on the culture and response to adversity that’s served them well over the last two seasons (and Joe Burrow’s calf finally healing).
“The beauty of this team is we know it’s a 17-game season,” head coach Zac Taylor said. “There’s no overreaction on our end. We have to be prepared for stuff outside our locker room, which is natural. We’re in a very difficult division. We would have loved to come out 2-0; 1-1 would have been fine, too. This is exactly where we were last year, and this team is only going to get better with every game that passes. When you stumble early, you have to learn from it. So many years in the past, we’ve learned from early season losses that have propelled us in November and December. This will be no different. I’m very confident in that.”
There’s an important question buried in this speech. What have we learned about these Bengals through two games? What are the lessons to apply that make them the same or different than last year’s group?
For one, the defensive line looks nothing like the strength it was expected to be.
During the Ravens’ final two drives, they found themselves in third downs needing 3, 2, 5, 3 and 1 yard to keep it alive. All were converted.
On three of those, the Ravens lined up and ran the ball right up the middle and down the Bengals’ throats.
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Yes, that’s the Ravens’ personality and, yes, the threat of Lamar Jackson using his legs adds to the degree of difficulty, but that’s demoralizing for a group that has long hung its hat on a propensity to bow up at the point of attack.
The Ravens ran 38 times for 178 yards and 4.8 yards per carry. This comes one week after the Browns ran 40 times for 206 yards and 5.2 per carry. If those gaudy yardages and rates sound unfamiliar, you’ve been paying attention.
Over the last two seasons, the Bengals have only allowed more than 175 yards and 4.5 per carry on the ground one time when playing their starters. That came in New Orleans last year.
It’s now happened twice in two games this season. Nick Chubb and the Browns in the slop is unique. As are Jackson and the Ravens. But this group is supposed to be the backbone of the team. They are supposed to be a front seven returning everyone and adding young, top draft picks in the background. They are supposed to be tapping into a history of stifling the top running backs in the NFL.
They are not supposed to be a liability.
“Got to be better,” DJ Reader said. “That’s really it. They made more plays than us. We just got to be better. Gave up too many run games.”
That’s before talking about a day when Ronnie Stanley at left tackle and Tyler Linderbaum at center were replaced by Patrick Mekari and a practice-squader named Sam Mustipher. Yet, Jackson was not sacked once (a flag on the Trey Hendrickson strip sack notwithstanding). The pressure rate was minimal, beyond blitzes arriving and unable to wrangle the former MVP.
The Ravens moved more than 25 yards on seven of nine possessions and three scoring drives with at least five first downs. They only went three-and-out once.
Jackson played fantasticly and deserves all the credit for willing a banged-up Baltimore to this victory. But maybe the reddest flag waving after this one is above the group that was supposed to be a major strength.
“We gave up way too many first downs,” Logan Wilson said, after Baltimore had 26 of them, the most Cincinnati has allowed since Halloween of 2021 at the Jets. “We just can’t do that. We are not playing complementary football. It is something that is going to come the more we play together. Just keep your head down, keep going to work and keep getting better every day.”
On offense, a closer look unveils a trend much more similar to last year.
Let’s do what every Bengals fan would prefer to do at this moment and take Burrow’s calf injury out of the conversation.
This offense found itself on Sunday and reminded us of last year’s second of two losses to start the season in Dallas. After halftime that day, you saw Burrow and the Bengals start to figure things out and find some comfort, it merely ended up too late in a three-point loss. The same on Sunday.
Two more rough drives as a continuation of the opener in Cleveland ended up costing them, but after that, they moved the ball up and down the field. They found efficiency in the running game, involved all three of the receivers and outside of failing to hit a deep shot, the line protected well and Burrow started working spaces in the field that were missing through the first six quarters.
“When your quarterback misses camp, it’s tough to start fast,” Burrow said.
Inevitably, two plays decided the game. The first, Burrow and Chase unable to connect with a one-on-one against journeyman cornerback Rock Ya-Sin in the end zone one-on-one on third down from the 9-yard line.
Ya-Sin poked the ball loose at the last instant, but that’s a play where one of the best QB-WR combinations in the game needs to win. It cost four points.
Then there’s the red zone interception by Geno Stone. Everyone involved pointed out how well Stone played it by looking off Chase to the outside and shooting his shot at Tee Higgins running the middle for the pick. It was a play the Ravens practiced during the week, but not one where a backup safety should be fooling one of the game’s best QBs.
It’s a mistake Burrow can’t make and one he almost never does. Burrow threw just one red zone interception all of last year.
“I have to see that,” Burrow said.
One or both of those plays convert and the narrative would be Burrow saved the day for a critical AFC North win. The offense moved the length of the field in position for points on four of the final drives. The sky would not be falling.
Peel away a few rough patches and all the items of the offensive stew were visible at times today.
“If you really assess what was going on, I thought we were in good shape,” Taylor said. “It felt like we were finding our rhythm there offensively.”
Then the calf tweak happens. As the injury is monitored, we’ve learned the Bengals aren’t good enough through two weeks though inklings of the team they are supposed to be have shown themselves. Penalties wiping out turnovers and missed red zone chances cloud the picture and the standings.
“We are not letting these losses get the best of us,” said Higgins, who rebounded with eight catches for 89 yards and two touchdowns. “Guys are coming in like last week, came in with high hopes. Nobody likes to lose but we were just talking, getting over that little hump. We are going to do the same thing this week. Just come back in tomorrow, watch film, go over corrections, get back to who we are.”
We know they are capable of righting themselves and they require introspection. But the learning needs to be put into motion on Monday Night Football against the Rams or these pieces of optimism and hope won’t mean a thing other than it’s getting late early.
“I don’t think we’ve learned too much,” Reader said. “We’ve lost twice.”
(Top photo of Rock Ya-Sin breaking up a Ja’Marr Chase catch: Andy Lyons / Getty Images)
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