The Cincinnati Bengals Week 1 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers did not go as planned. Cincinnati was coming home off of an AFC North Divisional title and a Super Bowl run but fell flat. They lost the turnover battle, five to nothing; one was even a pick-six. The sky looks like it’s falling.
Four Quick Reactions from the Bengals Week 1 Loss
Burrow’s Style = Double-Edged Sword?
We know what Joe Burrow is. Burrow is a playmaker, he loves to extend plays and work out of messy situations. Unfortunately, that results in turnovers. Last year, Burrow threw 14 interceptions in the regular season and two in the playoffs. Those 14 interceptions were “good” for sixth-most in the NFL. Oddly enough, guys like Matthew Stafford, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert threw more. The aggressive playstyle giveth, the aggressive playstyle taketh away.
Was Joe Burrow the reason the Bengals lost this game? The argument could be made. However, was Joe Burrow a big reason why it took 70 minutes to fell this team? Two of his interceptions were forced balls to Tyler Boyd, one was a great play by T.J. Watt at the line, and one was, essentially, an arm punt on fourth down. Plus, Burrow lost a fumble after Alex Highsmith took Jonah Williams‘ lunch. The box score looks a whole lot worse when you just look at the numbers. It was a bad game by Burow, there is no getting around that. But credit where credit is due: Pittsburgh had a near-perfect defensive game plan for this offense.
Despite all of that, Burrow never really wavered. Most quarterbacks would just about quit if they gave it up four times in their first five drives with seven sacks in the game. However, down the stretch, Burrow led the offense to what should have been three scoring drives.
Both the Rams and Bengals lost in Week 1.
It's the 1st time since 1999 (Broncos & Falcons) and the 5th time overall that the two Super Bowl teams from the previous year each lost their season opener. pic.twitter.com/OxoD3X4N9r
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 11, 2022
Moving forward, red zone execution will have to be better. He had what should have been a touchdown to Ja’Marr Chase on the drive that ended via downs on the Steelers two but Coach Zac Taylor did not challenge it. All in all, Burrow’s final stats on the day were 33/53, 338 yards, two touchdowns, four interceptions, and 47 rushing yards on six attempts.
He’s going to be okay. It was just a really, really bad game. And they still nearly won.
The Defense is Still Pretty Good…But The Pass Rush May Need Work
If someone told you that the Bengals out-gained the Steelers 432-276, the Steelers leading rusher was Chase Claypool, and gave up just one offensive touchdown, you’d think Cincinnati won easily. Obviously, that’s not the case. The Bengals Week 1 showed up and played well enough to win this game. They held the Steelers to five three-and-outs. In the Pittsburgh scoring drives, two were off of short fields due to turnovers.
Mike Hilton, Logan Wilson, and Germaine Pratt led the way with eight tackles each. Overall, they hit Trubisky five times, had four passes defended, four tackles for loss, and a sack. Chidobe Awuzie looked quite good out wide and made a number of massive plays to stymie the already inept Pittsburgh offense. Eli Apple played well as Awuzie’s CB2.
The issue was the pass rush. Given, the Steelers ran a number of gimmicky plays and have continued their game plan of getting the ball out quickly, the only sack they earned was from a Trubisky scramble where he ran out of bounds behind the line. The Pittsburgh offensive line is awful but Cincinnati could not capitalize.
Regardless, the defensive line dominated in the run game. Pittsburgh running backs averaged just 2.3 yards per carry. The majority of their yards came off of Claypool end-arounds. All in all, the defense is a strength of this team and will (hopefully) make Burrow’s job a little easier this year.
Zac Taylor Needs to Improve
The jury just went out again on Zac Taylor, Despite winning the division and conference last year, Taylor seems to have reverted back to his 2019 self. He’s now 19-34-1 as a head coach and this was one of his ugliest and most disappointing losses.
Did Taylor turn the ball over five times himself? No, of course not. However, he made a number of coaching decisions that hampered the team’s ability to work.
The most egregious was how he handled the injury to long snapper, Clark Harris. Harris was injured covering a punt in the fourth quarter and they had to resort to a tight end buried on the depth chart to snap. He had three snaps: the blocked extra point, the missed field goal, and the overtime punt. The extra point was blocked because the timing was off due to a slower snap. The field goal was missed, in part, due to a high and slow snap.
Zac Taylor should get a game ball from the Steelers. Left time on the play clock here. Game management malpractice. pic.twitter.com/nFWruaXOsY
— Andrew Fillipponi (@ThePoniExpress) September 11, 2022
After scoring with just two seconds to go, Cincinnati had all the momentum in the world with a beaten up and fatigued Steelers defense on its heels. Why chance it with an extra point when you could have just gone for two? The game was tied, so even if they failed, it was going to overtime anyway.
Another issue, if you can call it that, was the lack of Dax Hill on defense and Chris Evans on offense. Unless there was some undisclosed injury, there likely is no good reason to keep a couple of playmakers off the field. Is Michael Thomas a better option than Chris Evans? We can agree to disagree but Evans has flashed in just about every chance he’s had.
While taking the ball out of Burrow’s hand is a dumb idea on any given day, Cincinnati was able to get good penetration when running the ball downhill, straight at the defense. We can appreciate being aggressive, but it probably should have been Mixon on 2nd & 4 in overtime instead of a prayer to Samaje Perine. Keep the clock moving, stay in field goal range. Even with the misses, Evan McPherson is still one of the best kickers in the game. He had already decided that the field goal was the goal on that drive, why allow the clock to stop?
It’s not time to call for Taylor’s job. It’s just Week 1. However, he needs to show improvement because if he fails to make the postseason with this roster, there will need to be change.
The Offensive Line Still Needs Work/Preseason Matters
All offseason, it was all about how rebuilt this offensive line was. The seven sacks they allowed determined that may have been embellished. Seven. Sacks. For as bad as the unit was last year, they didn’t allow more than six all regular season. The fact that the first play was a sack and ended with seven total is inexcusable.
Williams got beat numerous times. Volson was bullied by Cam Heyward. T.J. Watt did just about whatever he wanted. Even when he came up injured, he blew right by Collins and had an opportunity to tee off on Burrow.
This unit looked like a pick-up group you’d see in the alleyways where none of the kids know each other. It’s evident that when you change four of the five positions, communication and familiarity is key. Perhaps more than just Volson should have taken a few preseason snaps.
On paper, this offensive line SHOULD be better moving forward. Of course, on paper, the Bengals are multiple scores better than the Steelers. NFL games — and especially AFC North divisional games — are not played on paper. It was a tall ask of a brand-new rookie out of North Dakota State to keep Cam Heyward at bay. If this is a team that wants to get back to the Super Bowl, it’s going to need to figure it out.
It Wasn’t All Bad But There’s Work to Do
Despite losing to a team many believed to be destined for the bottom of the division, there are plenty of positives to come from the Bengals Week 1 loss. Ja’Marr Chase is still him. Joe Mixon is still a great running back. Hayden Hurst was well worth the one-year, “show me what you can do” contract. Awuzie is a legit CB1. Basically, Cincinnati played its worst game of football in recent memory and it still took a buzzer-beater field goal to beat them.
The Bengals will be fine.
Last year, Cincinnati lost to the Bears, Jets, and Browns (twice). The Bills lost to the Steelers. The Packers lost to the Saints. Good and great teams have bad games. It happens. The question is whether or not this Bengals team responds as they did last year.
Is this a whole lot of cope? Absolutely! But the NFL season is 17 games long. Burrow has that dog in him and this roster is too talented to give up on.