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If there’s been one thing truly surprising about this Bengals season it’s been, well…a surprising lack of surprise. The Bengals started the year 0 - 2 and looked dead in the water out of the gates – just like last year. Joe Burrow had another slow start to the season due to injury, and now looks like one of the best (if not THE best) QBs in the league weeks later – just like last year. The defense is creating havoc and locking down some of the best QBs in the sport – just like last year. The Bengals appear ready to go on another playoff run and just won three straight against the contending Seahawks, 49ers and Bills, and yet there are still some who want Zac Taylor canned – just like last year.
But this hasn’t been a one-for-one copy of the 2022 season. There have been some surprises, even if they might not be headline material – sorry, nobody on the Bengals is dating Taylor Swift (THAT would be a surprise!). Now that we’ve reached the midway point of the NFL season, this is a good opportunity to take a look at the things that we didn’t anticipate. These are the Biggest (Small) Surprises of the Bengals Season!
1. The black hole that’s been the TE Spot (and how great they were against the Bills)
Raise your hand if you thought Irv Smith Jr. was about to have his best season with Burrow? Okay, I see a lot of you with your hands up…alright, now raise your hand if you thought Smith was about to embark on the worst season of his career? Oh, nobody raised their hand…
Incredibly, that’s the pace Smith Jr. is at right now. Through nine weeks, Smith has the lowest yards per reception (6.4), the lowest catch rate (68.4%), and the lowest receiving success rate (36.8%) of his entire career. He’s catching passes from a Super-Bowl and MVP-caliber QB for the first time in his five-year career, and he’s self-destructing like he’s Mr. Bean on a movie date.
It’s been a disaster of a signing, especially compared to Hayden Hurst, who came into Cincinnati on a prove-it deal and ended up doubling his income with the Carolina Panthers the following offseason. If anything, Smith Jr.’s performance to date may have lost him money. No offense to Kirk Cousins, but when you look worse with Joe Cool than you did with Captain Kirk, that’s a massive red flag.
And yet, Smith Jr. looked…actually pretty decent against the Bills. The touchdown he hauled in to start the game was a beauty – and he even caught two other passes to boot! Amazing!
Even more surprising: the other tight ends stepped up too. Tanner Hudson, a recent practice squad call-up, was so impressive with four whole catches that Chris Collinsworth, in a moment of pure elder confusion, had the audacity to compare Hudson to Travis freaking Kelce. Even Drew Sample, who primarily contributed as a blocker in 2023, had an athletic catch-and-run score. One productive Sunday doesn’t make up for a season’s worth of nothingness, but it was a sign that – just maybe – the Bengals will get something out of their tight ends this year.
2. It’s almost Week Ten and the 5 - 3 Bengals are in…last place?!?
You read that right: the Bengals are in last place despite being two games over .500. How is this possible? Well, it's that 0 - 2 start…
Given the Bengals first two games of the season were against divisional opponents, starting 0 - 2 was always going to be problematic – even if the Bengals did finally right the ship. As it stands, the Bengals are the only team in the division without a divisional win. The AFC North – as I predicted – is the strongest division in football and has a very real chance of sending all four teams to the playoffs, as well as surpassing the 2007 AFC South for division winning percentage (65.6%) and the 2022 NFC East for total wins by a division (43).
It’s hard to understand how this team could allow an 0 - 2 start to happen again. Especially after it almost certainly cost them the #1 seed in the AFC last year. Do we really want to face Kansas City in Arrow(Burrow)head Stadium again? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not afraid of KC in the slightest – but if it were up to me, I wouldn’t want to keep trying my luck against Patrick Mahomes. Now Josh Allen or Trevor Lawrence…sign me up, please.
At the same time, though, the Browns and the Ravens are really good teams. They both have two of the very best defenses in the league, while the Ravens sport a former MVP at QB who’s playing some of the best ball of his career. Browns defensive end Myles Garrett might be the betting favorite to take home his first Defensive Player of the Year award. Starting a season against these two defensive behemoths and with an All-World QB severely limited by a calf strain is no recipe for success, apparently.
So, there’s no reason to panic about where the Bengals are right now, but it is surprising that – after winning four games in a row – they’re still without any breathing room whatsoever. But honestly, that’s alright. If there’s one thing we know about this Bengals team, it’s that they play better when their backs are against the wall.
3. The emergence of Cam Taylor-Britt as a shutdown cornerback
There were signs that this could happen, but even some of the most ardent CTB fans would have to admit that this has happened faster than anyone could have expected. After starting for about half the season (and a couple postseason games) as a rookie, CTB has taken over the #1 cornerback role for the Bengals in year two.
The rise of CTB has been a wonderful – and extremely important – development. With Chidobe Awuzie recovering from a season-ending ACL tear last year (and still looking a little slow since returning), someone needed to step up as the top cover man. CTB has taken up that mantle, and he’s turning in a Pro Bowl – and potentially All-Pro-caliber – season. With three interceptions and a forced fumble on the season, CTB has been a turnover machine, while also locking down the opponent’s top receiver week after week.
What’s also fun about CTB is the intensity and relentlessness he plays with on an every-down basis. He fits right in with guys like Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard and Germaine Pratt – emotional leaders who play with passion and energy every single snap. Intensity and relentlessness…if there are two words that better describe the Bengals defense, I haven’t found them. They might not be the most talented group, or even the most statistically productive, but no defense plays harder and with more focus than the Bengals – and CTB fits right in with this group.
4. What happened to the run defense?
It's possible the Bengals have figured this out – and besides, if you’re going to suck in run defense or pass defense, run me over all day, please. With that said, the run defense is a problem, plain and simple. After two straight years of being one of the best run stopping units in the league, the Bengals have fallen off a cliff in that department – what gives?
Truthfully, I don’t have a good answer. The Bengals returned every one of their starting defensive linemen and linebackers from 2022. They did lose their safeties (Jessie Bates III & Von Bell), and that’s certainly been a blow, but it’s hard to believe two safeties are the difference between a top-five ranked unit and a bottom-five one.
But as I mentioned, there are reasons to be optimistic that the Bengals early-season run-stopping woes might be over. In their last three games, the Bengals have allowed an average of 89 rushing yards per game. In reality, they’ve been playing even better than their average suggests too, considering Brock Purdy was the Niners leading rusher in that game with 57 yards on scrambles. In their first five games, the Bengals were allowing an average of 154 rushing yards per game – that’s 2022 Los Angeles Chargers run defense territory, and anytime your run defense is compared to the Chargers, that’s a horrible thing.
This is more of a mini surprise, but I still love it. I wasn’t sure there would be enough room on the roster for Bengals sixth-round rookie WR Andrei Iosivas, but Yoshi not only found a spot, but earned it.
Coming out of Princeton, Yoshi was known to be an athletic specimen with some solid collegiate production, albeit against poor competition. Some thought he could be an eventual replacement for Tee Higgins, but hardly anyone saw him making an impact in 2023. Fast forward to Week Ten, and the lovable green dinosaur – wait, sorry, that’s the actual Yoshi, I meant the Bengals rookie – has already caught two touchdown passes. What is this world?!?
His role could be growing too. With the news today that both Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase are on the injury report, there’s a chance Yoshi could start this Sunday against the Houston Texans. If you told me that in the preseason, I’d be hyperventilating. Today, though…it’s certainly not great news, but given what I’ve seen from our green dino (sorry, our rookie WR), I’m only sweating a little bit. How's that for a mini surprise!