Heading into their Week Six bye, the Bengals sit at 3 - 3, and in case you’ve been under a rock, that’s the same record the Bengals had last year through six weeks. The 2022 Bengals overcame a sluggish start to rip off eight-straight wins to close out the season – and it appears the 2023 Bengals plan on making a similar postseason push.
But while we can all write off the Bengals record by pointing to last year, we should acknowledge that, so far, things haven’t looked quite right. Joe Burrow has been injured, yes, but he’s missed some throws this year that he just hasn’t in the past. The big plays aren’t there, and outside of Ja’Marr Chase, the rest of the receivers have been meh at best. The offensive line was upgraded, but it still needs work. And that’s just the offense!
A defense that’s finished top-five in stopping the run the past two seasons, now sits at sixth worst. Missed tackles are a huge problem. The youth of this group is a reminder that better days should be ahead, but man, the early-season inconsistency has been maddening. For every blown coverage or missed assignment, there’s a miraculous, game-changing interception or a Trey Hendrickson bulldozer-into-the-QB special.
Through all the ups-and-downs and highs-and-lows, somehow, someway, the Bengals made it to their bye-week with a .500 record and all their preseason goals intact. They might be at the bottom of the division right now, but a game behind the leading Ravens isn’t too shabby. And with a week to get healthier and more cohesive, who knows what could happen in the next ten weeks?
Still, the uneven play of the Bengals shouldn’t be ignored. There’s been some good, some bad, and some ugly – and we’re gonna parse through it. Here’s the 2023 Bengals Bye-Week Report Card
Truthfully, this grade should probably be a D rather than a C, but given the mitigating circumstances (i.e., calf strain), I’ll give Joey a little bit of a pass. But make no mistake: this has been a disappointing year for the man the Bengals recently made the richest person in NFL history.
Remember, last year Burrow had an emergency appendectomy that left him a shell of himself for a couple weeks. And yet despite having an infected organ cut out of him just weeks before the season, 2022 appendix-less Burrow was significantly better through the first six games than 2023 calf-strain Burrow. Last year, Burrow had a 95.6 passer rating and had thrown for 1616 yards and 12 touchdowns. This year, Burrow has a 79.8 passer rating with 1230 yards passing and seven touchdowns.
Are calf strains really that debilitating for a QB? The next time I strain my calf, should I wish for an appendectomy instead? Joe Burrow might be…
If we look at the big picture, though, it’s unlikely that Burrow’s struggles continue. The Bengals have a track-record of hitting their stride late in the year, and with more reps and continued good health, we should expect Burrow to get back to his usual self. But, for now, we have to stick him with a C.
Joe Mixon has largely been…fine. Yup, that about sums it up. Fine, just fine.
Through six weeks, he’s outperforming from where he was last season, particularly in the run game. Last year, Mixon looked slow. He wasn’t breaking tackles and he was a complete non-factor in pass protection. This year, his performance has been much better. He’s averaging more yards per carry and has finally proven to be (fairly) competitive in pass protection. It’s been a bounce-back year so far for Mixon – and it couldn’t have come at a better time given his, let’s just say, tumultuous off season.
While Mixon has mostly been as advertised, the rest of the running backs have been disappointing – though Mixon’s larger role has minimized their impact anyway. Trayveon Williams hasn’t done much since winning the #2 job in training camp, and fifth-round rookie Chase Brown has been invisible as well. It feels strange to say this, but the Bengals could have really used Semaje Perine. Overall, the running backs have been adequate in 2023.
Ja’Marr Chase is always open. Don’t believe me? Well then, why does he have a 7/11 chain? You think that’s just a coincidence? Or what about his league-leading 50 receptions? Yeah, that might make the case.
Chase has been as dependable as always, and after setting the Bengals single-game record with 15 receptions versus the Arizona Cardinals, it appears he’s on a mission to make the lives of NFL cornerbacks pure misery this year. It’s a good thing too, because his counterpart Tee Higgins has been arguably the biggest disappointment on the Bengals all season.
Now, that’s being a bit harsh – Tee was a major contributor in the Bengals Week Two loss to the Baltimore Ravens, and that was the Bengals second-best offensive performance of the season. He’s also been dealing with a rib injury. But outside of that Ravens game, Higgins has basically done zip, zero, nada.
Tyler Boyd, meanwhile, continues to be a dependable target in the middle of the field. He isn’t flashy, but his sure hands make Burrow’s life much easier. The rest of the depth chart has also stepped up to make some plays this year. #4 receiver Trenton Irwin was huge in the win over Arizona, sixth-round rookie Andrei Iosivas caught his first touchdown last week against the Seahawks, and even though he’s missed a couple games already, fourth-round rookie Charlie Jones made his mark by scoring the Bengals first touchdown of the season – a 81-yard punt return!
Again, this grade might be a little harsh, but considering the hype the Orlando Brown Jr. signing generated and the hope the Bengals had finally solved their O-line issues, a C+ is appropriate. Left guard Cordell Volson and center Ted Karras are getting targeted by defenses on a weekly basis, but everyone on this line has had their struggles. A no-name Arizona defense whipped them for three sacks for Pete's sake, and one of those sacks was generated by a first-year defensive end! It hasn’t been all bad, but unfortunately, those bad moments do tend to stick out.
Like the rest of the team, the offensive line has been burned by inconsistency. It’s a shame, because by the numbers, this is the best protection Burrow has gotten in his career. Hopefully the bye-week will iron out the communication problems that have led to several breakdowns, because outside of that, the offensive line is actually doing a pretty good job. A C+ grade reflects that, but also shows just how far they still have to go.
Do the Bengals even have a tight end? I’m only 50% joking. No team in the league is getting less from their tight ends this year.
Irv Smith Jr. was signed in the offseason to be Hayden Hurst’s replacement, and while Hurst hasn’t been all that impressive with the decrepit Carolina Panthers, he’s blown Smith out of the water. The most notable play Smith has been involved in all year was failing to get his feet inbounds for a big gain early against the Ravens.
Frankly, it might be time for the coaching staff to consider giving practice squadder Tanner Hudson more opportunities. Honestly, he can’t be worse than Smith. Drew Sample, meanwhile, just continues to be a decent blocker, nothing more, nothing less. But let’s face it: the Bengals are going to need a lot more from this position if they’re going to make another deep playoff run.
Trey Hendrickson is on a mission this year to be recognized as one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL, and through six weeks he’s right on track. He’s already amassed seven sacks and sits tied for 3rd in that category – a blistering pace. His running mate Sam Hubbard has had a slower start, but he finally came on in a big way against Seattle, putting on a dominant performance with a sack, a tackle for a loss and five QB hits.
On the interior, D.J. Reader and B.J. Hill have been having quiet seasons so far, which has contributed to the team's struggles against the run (though it would be wrong to pin all the blame on them). That said, Reader was a monster against the Seahawks, and the Bengals swallowed up their potent run game. It was an extremely impressive performance, and one that will hopefully bode well for the future.
The rest of the depth pieces have been pretty quiet too. This was supposed to be Joseph Ossai’s breakout year, and he’s yet to get a sack or QB hit. Cam Sample has provided a bit of a spark, but his playing time is severely limited. Second-year defensive tackle Zachary Carter has also been a bit of a disappointment, generating just one QB hit. Overall, the performance of the defensive line has been top-heavy, and the Bengals will need their younger players to start making plays, specifically when rushing the passer.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt, but holey moley do they have to improve their tackling – it’s been a huge issue in the run game and it’s one of the biggest reasons the Bengals have had such a drastic drop-off in that area of their defense. Tackling can usually be corrected by two things, better angles and better effort, and fortunately those are two things the Bengals can control. The bye-week will be important for getting that part of the game corrected.
In the passing game, though, Wilson and Pratt have been quite good, especially Wilson. Now in his fourthn year in the league, Wilson has become one of the most opportunistic linebackers in the NFL, and his nine interceptions since entering the league in 2019 leads everyone at his position. With both Wilson and Pratt (mostly) playing up to their standard, there hasn’t been much work for the backups, and frankly, we don’t view that as a problem. The Bengals linebackers get a solid B.
This has been a frustrating group. Like the rest of the team, inconsistency is the word of the day, but maybe no position group has had more ups-and-downs than the Bengals defensive backs. On some days, it’s inexperience that costs them, and on others, it’s over aggressiveness. But despite their flaws, this is a young group that’s made several significant plays this year, and the Bengals will be counting on them to continue developing as the season progresses.
Second-year corner Cam Taylor-Britt has been the poster-child of this youth movement, and his season has had its share of issues. He’s blown some assignments and had some penalty struggles, but he’s also proven to be a fiery, tough and opportunistic playmaker. With Chidobe Awuzie struggling after returning from season-ending surgery last year and more injury issues in 2023, Taylor-Britt has seized the Bengals #1 corner spot and hasn’t looked back – particularly after his extremely impressive performance against D.K. Metcalf and the Seahawks.
Slot cornerback Mike Hilton had been having a slow start to his season too before exploding with a huge interception, another pass defended and a tackle for a loss against the Seahawks. A versatile player in coverage, against the run and when rushing the passer, Hilton continues to be a critical component of Lou Anarumo’s defense.
Second-round pick D.J. Turner has also been a bright spot for the Bengals so far, having been forced into action and acquitted himself nicely when Awuzie injured his back. Turner has hellacious speed, and while he can sometimes find himself out of position, more than not he’s been a positive in the secondary.
The safeties too have been frustrating. Dax Hill is a star in the making, and it looks like the Bengals made a good call letting Jessie Bates III walk. As for letting Von Bell walk though, that’s a different story. Nick Scott was signed to ostensibly be Bell’s replacement, but it hasn’t been a smooth transition. Third-round pick Jordan Battle has already started to see more playing time, and he could easily be starting by the end of the year.
Evan “Money” McPherson has returned as reliable as ever. He has a powerful, accurate leg and has established himself as one of the NFL’s better kickers. He’s a real weapon for the Bengals and they’d be in big trouble if they lost him to injury.
As for the Bengals rookie punter though…that’s been a rough go so far. Brad Robbins was praised coming out of college for his ability to pin opponents deep in their own territory with precision punts, but his lack of hang time and distance has been a huge problem. It doesn’t really matter how accurate you punt the ball if you’re not giving your gunners enough time to cover the returner. Fortunately, like pretty much the rest of the team, Robbins has improved in recent weeks, and may have finally turned a corner.
Coaching Staff: C-
It feels fitting to assign the coaching staff the same grade as the quarterback, because in many ways the two are joined at the hip. There’s nothing Zac Taylor or anyone else could have done to prevent Burrow’s calf strain in training camp, but hindsight would suggest the Bengals erred in playing him at the start of the season. Now, there’s a debate over whether or not the results would have changed with a backup QB in place, but you have to believe a team this talented could have started 1 - 3 with Jake Browning taking snaps.
And while most of the focus has been on the offense and its struggles, the defense has had its share of problems too. Stopping the run has been a foundational part of the Bengals defensive identity over the last three years, and they’ve been downright abysmal in 2023. That’s not all on Anarumo, but the defense is his baby, not Taylor’s.
The Bengals have been at their best when the defense compliments the offense, and vice versa. They’ve gotten back to that in the last two weeks, but the job is not finished. Following the bye-week, the Bengals will face arguably the best team in the league in the San Francisco 49ers and a Buffalo Bills team that will be hungry for revenge after the Bengals embarrassed them in the playoffs last year, and the schedule doesn't get much easier from there. It hasn’t been pretty for the Bengals coaches so far this year, but the season is far from over, and if Week Six against Seattle proved anything, the Bengals might be getting back to the complimentary style that’s served them so well.