After a hot 5-2 start, the Cincinnati Bengals looked to be among the class of the AFC and in position for a playoff spot. Two weeks later, they are limping into the bye week 5-4 after disappointing losses against the New York Jets and the Cleveland Browns. So far this season has gone much better than a lot of pundits predicted for the team coming into 2021. At this midpoint of the season, let’s look at the Bengals good, bad, and ugly
At the Bye: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly for the Cincinnati Bengals
Ja’Marr Chase Historic Rookie Campaign
Ja’Marr Chase has been everything Bengals fans hoped for and more. The current front-runner for Rookie of the Year has posted 835 yards and seven touchdowns through nine games. This pacing has him to best the rookie yardage record set by former LSU teammate Justin Jefferson last year. He has provided the deep threat the Bengals so desperately needed. He is playing at an elite level for a wide receiver, rookie or not. Look for him to continue his dominance after the bye. Historically, rookie wide receivers are far better in the second half of the year compared to the first.
Free Agency Signings Panning Out
Hopefully, the Bengals learned that it can pay to spend in free agency. Trey Hendrickson and Chidobe Awuzie, the team’s biggest ticket signings this year, have been the best Bengals among their position groups this year. Hendrickson leads the team with eight and a half sacks and 28 pressures. Per PFF he is top 10 among all pass rushers in sacks, pressures, hurries, and pass rush win percentage. Elsewhere on the defensive line, 2020’s big-ticket signing DJ Reader has been one of the best interior defenders in the game, ranking fourth overall at the position with an 85.8 grade.
Awuzie has easily been the best cornerback on the team this year. According to PFF, he is top 10 at the position.
On the offensive side of the ball, Quinton Spain has been an anchor at left guard. His 75.0 PFF grade puts him at a tie for 11th at the position. Riley Reiff has been unspectacular but has provided stability at a position that was a turnstile for the team the last couple of seasons.
Coming off of the season-ending injury last year, there was a lot of speculation on how long it would take Joe Burrow to get comfortable this season and produce like the QB everyone saw flash in his rookie year. Turns out the answer was not long. Through nine games Burrow ranks very favorably in most passing categories:
- 2,497 yards (5th)
- 20 TDs (T- 3rd)
- 68.2% completion (T-5th)
- 102.6 QB Rating (6th)
He is also PFF’s eighth highest-graded quarterback of the year thus far. The team and the fans believe in Burrow and he has shown he is the future of the franchise.
Center and Right Guard
Outside of Quinton Spain, the interior offensive line has been problematic. Like Burrow, Trey Hopkins made a tremendous effort to make it back from an ACL tear to start the season. Perhaps even more impressively, his injury occurred in Week 17. Unfortunately, the results have not been as encouraging as Burrow’s so far. Through nine weeks, Hopkins has a PFF grade of 43.5 good for 40th among centers. The eye test shows he has been the weak link on the line, struggling in both pass and run blocking. Hopkins has never been an elite, or even great, center. But he did a commendable job since taking over the role from Billy Price in 2018. This year however it is becoming clear the team needs to look for his replacement in the offseason, either through the draft or free agency.
At right guard, rookie Jackson Carman has struggled. He has started five games but has failed to set himself apart from the other options at the position. The job was won by Xavier Su’a-Filo out of camp, but he has been injured since Week 2. Hakeem Adeniji and rookie Trey Hill both have a start under their belts as well, but again neither has looked like they deserve the starting nod. It’s an area for concern for a team already criticized thoroughly in the 2021 off-season for not doing enough to improve the line following Burrow’s injury in 2020.
It really looked like Logan Wilson was on his way to a breakout season at the start of the year. He made some key plays, collecting three interceptions in the first three games including this acrobatic move against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 3:
Another interception from Logan Wilson as he blitzes and then drops back to find the ball in the air. Absolutely bonkers catch from the second year linebacker. pic.twitter.com/XK8235dfhC
— Mike (Sans) (@bengals_sans) September 27, 2021
On the season, however, the play of him and the other linebackers leaves a lot to be desired. Wilson and Germaine Pratt have graded out as the 61st and 46th best linebackers of the year so far. Against the Jets, neither could cover Michael Carter or Ty Johnson out of the backfield, contributing heavily to the upset. Tackling has been a major issue for the unit the last few games as well. The team has long struggled to find quality play at the position, so hopefully, Wilson, or someone, can take the step that is needed.
Burrow’s Interception Issues
Despite the amazing start from Burrow, his turnover issues cannot be ignored. He is currently tied for first in interceptions with 11. Half have come in the 4th quarter or overtime. He has thrown at least one interception in seven of nine games this season. While Burrow cannot be solely blamed for all of them, it is still a little concerning for a player who only threw five in 404 attempts as a rookie. His INT% has jumped from 1.2 to 3.8 this year, currently, third-worst this year behind only rookies Zach Wilson and Justin Fields. Some of the picks have been backbreakers, such as the poor throw to Chase in the red zone this past week against Cleveland that resulted in a 100-yard pick-six for Denzel Ward
DENZEL WARD. 100-YARD PICK-6. #Browns
— NFL (@NFL) November 7, 2021
Burrow and the coaching staff spoke on the issue following the loss to the Browns. It is apparent that they will focus on correcting it over the bye week. If it continues, it will be a major factor in holding the team back from the potential they’ve shown this year.
Week 8 and Week 9
The Bengals team that started 5-2 and beat the Baltimore Ravens handily in Week 7 looked entirely different from the one that took the field against the Jets and Browns. In both games, the defense, which did not give up more than 25 points in the first seven weeks, gave up over 30. They struggled to contain running backs both weeks after previously being stout. Bizarrely they seemed completely unable to cover the short passing game at all. Across the defense, tackling was a major issue, with multiple plays going for huge gains or touchdowns after broken or missed tackles.
The offense struggled, particularly in the red zone. Against the Jets, the Bengals missed an early touchdown opportunity after failing to convert 4th and goal. Burrow’s interception on the goal line in the opening drive against the Browns set the tone for the rest of the game. The play all around was sloppy. The team will need to spend the bye week going over the tape to discover what they can do to fix these issues. Otherwise, a promising season will slip away.
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