Here's something I didn't consider: the Cincinnati Bengals are actually worse than the Tennessee Titans. Heading into the season, I thought the Titans could be in the Caleb Williams sweepstakes. Even after the Bengals 1 - 2 start, I felt confident that the Bengals would handle the Titans. Now, I don't feel confident about anything.
There's been an unfamiliar feeling surrounding the Bengals. It's permeating all phases of the team. The issues on offense have been obvious, and Joe Burrow's calf injury isn’t helping matters, but the defense hasn’t been there either. Lou Anarumo has become something of a folk hero after stymying the Kansas City Chiefs a couple times, but today, his unit didn’t show. The “Mad Scientist” had no answers for a Titans offense that got manhandled by the Cleveland Browns last week.
The offense is embarrassing. The passing game is a mess, and the run game is inconsistent. Burrow can’t move in the pocket and his limited mobility has totally sapped the Bengals explosiveness on offense. Zach Taylor gets too much criticism for the team’s shortcomings, but his handling of Burrow’s calf injury deserves real scrutiny. The Bengals have played almost exclusively out of shotgun to minimize how much Burrow needs to move, but that formula isn’t working. Their lack of diversity is making them too predictable, and it’s killing them.
But as frustrating as the offense has been, the defense was equally atrocious against the Titans. All Pro running back Derrick Henry was totally bottled up by the Browns, but he took the Bengals behind the woodshed. It’s been a recurring theme – for the first time in two years, the Bengals cannot stop the run. A leaky run defense combined with an offense that cannot sustain drives is a recipe for disaster, and that’s exactly what this game turned out to be.
The secondary too was abysmal. Dax Hill did manage to secure his second interception of the season, but he’s been the lone bright spot. New Titans receiver DeAndre Hopkins abused whichever corner was lined up against him. Chidobe Awuzie looks like he’s lost a step after his ACL tear and second-year corner Cam Taylor-Britt has been a total non-factor. The way Taylor-Britt stumbled on a Hopkins double-move gave the entire Bengals fan base flashbacks of Eli Apple. The Bengals were so inept in coverage, they made Ryan Tannehill look like Warren Moon.
Penalties have also been an unfamiliar problem for the Bengals in 2023. They’ve been one of the least penalized teams in the NFL over the past two seasons, but this year they continue to shoot themselves in the foot, especially on third down. Burrow straining his calf is one thing: nobody could have predicted or prevented it. But penalties are completely self-inflicted – and it’s another sign that this team is out of whack.
Shower the Titans with as much praise as you want. They were the more desperate team. The flea-flicker on the opening drive to DeAndre Hopkins fell incomplete, but it was a harbinger of things to come. The Titans were going to take their chances – and it paid off.
And it’s not like the Titans played particularly well. Their offensive line allowed three sacks and the Bengals won the turnover battle. This is all about the Bengals – and their failures in all aspects of the game. It might even be time to have the conversation that nobody wants to have – the one about Burrow sitting for the rest of the season.
Before you throw me to the wolves, consider this: it doesn’t appear that Burrow’s calf injury is going to improve (at least, anytime soon). Without a full-strength Burrow, the Bengals offense is permanently crippled. Unless he makes a miraculous full-recovery during the season – which is incredibly unlikely – this probably isn’t the last miserable offensive performance we’ll see this year.
So maybe you sit him. Sure, it’s basically like conceding the season, but it’s not like the Bengals have looked competent with Burrow at the helm anyway. If the Bengals lose next week to the Arizona Cardinals – which feels terrifyingly possible – those calls will start to escalate. After a one-week reprieve, it’s back to panic mode in Cincinnati, and unfortunately, it feels like we might be stuck there all season.