Bengals QB Joe Burrow ( (Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The Cincinnati Bengals offense wasn’t supposed to operate like this in 2022. The defending AFC champions are loaded with skill players and employ a quarterback in Joe Burrow who was supposed to be an MVP candidate this season.
Cincinnati also rebuilt its much-maligned offensive line in the offseason, drafting Cordell Volson and signing Ted Karras, Alex Cappa and La’el Collins.
Offense was expected to be the Bengals’ team strength, but it’s been far from the explosive juggernaut most expected. Cincinnati came into Thursday night’s game against the Miami Dolphins ranked just 20th in total yards.
The good news is that Cincinnati has won back-to-back games to get to .500. The Bengals have scored 27 points in back-to-back games, and Burrow has cut down on the mistakes that plagued him during an 0-2 start.
The bad news is that the Bengals offense still has issues that could keep Cincinnati from being a legitimate title contender.
Numbers Can Be Deceiving
Let’s not sugarcoat it. Burrow was a borderline disaster over the first two weeks of the season. He had five turnovers in the opener, held the ball too long, too often against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 2 and was sacked 13 times over the first two weeks.
The Bengals lost their first two games by a combined six points, and it’s hard to argue that Cincinnati might now be 4-0 with a little smarter play from the quarterback. We’ve seen that over the past two games, as Burrow has been turnover-free and has only taken three sacks.
Looking solely at the stat sheet, one could be forgiven for believing that Cincinnati’s offensive issues have been resolved. Burrow passed for 275 yards and three touchdowns against the New York Jets in Week 3. He threw for 287 and two scores against the Dolphins. Cincinnati amassed 371 yards of total offense and converted eight of 15 third-down attempts.
Yet the Bengals should still be uncomfortable with where they are offensively. They were unable to get superstar receiver Ja’Marr Chase heavily involved until late in the game, and their ground game continues to be a major disappointment.
Starting running back Joe Mixon came into Thursday averaging a paltry 2.8 yards per carry. He averaged just 2.5 yards per rush against the Dolphins.
While Burrow’s final numbers look good, he was inconsistent throughout the game. His first big play came against a terrible coverage decision by Miami—with no safety help over the top of wideout Tee Higgins.
Burrow’s second big play—a 36-yard fourth-quarter strike to Chase—came after Miami’s top cornerback, Xavien Howard, left the game with a groin injury.
In between, most of Burrow’s completions were short-to-intermediate passes, Taking those two plays out of the equation, Burrow averaged 10.7 yards per completion. He was 9-of-16 for 132 yards in the first half, with 59 yards coming on one throw to Higgins.
Oh, and let’s not forget that Miami hasn’t been particularly good at defending the pass this season, even when Howard has been in the lineup. Only the Baltimore Ravens allowed more passing yards through the first three weeks.
We simply haven’t seen much of the explosive quick-strike offense that made the Bengals so dangerous a season ago. We also haven’t seen the sort of consistency and offensive balance that makes a true championship-caliber offense.
Play-Calling Is Part of the Problem
Let’s be honest, Zac Taylor isn’t in danger of losing his job after taking Cincinnati to the Super Bowl last season. However, his play-calling through the first month of the season has to be questioned.
The offense has struggled to find a rhythm, and Cincinnati’s decision to stick with early-down runs has too often left Burrow to pick up the slack on second and third downs.
Taylor has also made some questionable decisions with down-and-distance management, like opting for a toss sweep on 4th-and-1 in field-goal range.
Richard Skinner @Local12Skinny
#Bengals HC Zac Taylor goes with deep toss sweep on 4th-and-1 and Mixon stopped short … second straight week a 4th-and-1 toss sweep failed .. last week it was Chase
Cincinnati’s offense has become relatively predictable in 2022, which shouldn’t happen with Chase, Higgins, Tyler Boyd and Hayden Hurst as weapons. Taylor’s inability to get Chase and Burrow on the same page is particularly concerning.
Chase was good through the first three games, catching 21 passes for 212 yards and two touchdowns. However, he hasn’t taken over games as he often did en route to winning Offensive Rookie of the Year last season.
Against the Dolphins, Chase caught four passes for 81 yards, but 23 of those came on a gimmick pass from Boyd.
In no way should Chase—who logged 1,455 receiving yards as a rookie—connect with Burrow for only 58 yards against a subpar Dolphins secondary. This came after Chase had just 54 receiving yards against the Dallas Cowboys and 29 against the Jets.
If the Bengals are going to be the offensive force we saw a year ago, Taylor needs to find a way to spark the ground game, allow Chase to dictate opposing defenses and keep opponents guessing.
What we’ve seen from Cincinnati thus far, even in victory, hasn’t been enough.
There’s Room for Hope, But Changes May Be in Order
Here’s where we put a positive spin on things. Cincinnati has climbed back to .500 and still has a chance to avoid a Super Bowl hangover. The defense (four interceptions in the last two games) has come up big to help deliver wins, and no team appears ready to run away with the AFC just yet.
However, a big showdown with the 2-1 Baltimore Ravens looms Sunday Night Football for Week 5.
The Bengals have enough weapons—Higgins went off for seven catches, 124 yards and a touchdown against Miami—to pose a threat when Chase isn’t dominant. The new-look line seems to finally be gelling in pass protection after falling flat over the first two weeks.
The lack of running success is a major problem, though, and one that may not get fixed without some significant changes. The Bengals came into Thursday ranked 30th in yards per rush (3.3), and they may be ranked lower after averaging 2.2 this week.
While the line has been better at protecting Burrow over the last two weeks, it continues to struggle to open holes for Mixon, Samaje Perine and the ground game. Cincinnati may have to seriously consider bringing in better run-blockers or a back who can create space on his own—assuming anyone can even be found before the trade deadline.
If the running game continues to flounder, teams will continue trying to lock down Chase and defend the deep ball. Play-action won’t be effective and defenses will continue to test Cincinnati’s pass protection.
Right now, the Bengals offense feels too vanilla, too one-dimensional and too inconsistent to stack up against the best teams in the AFC. We’ll find out a lot about where this offense is headed next week when the Bengals visit Lamar Jackson and the Ravens.
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