The Bengals played about as poorly of a first half as you could imagine on the offensive side of the ball. However, with a big day from Ja’Marr Chase and an excellent game from their defense, they still had a chance to steal victory from the jaws of defeat. But at the end of the day, the Steelers went back to Pennsylvania with a win, and Cincinnati has questions to answer.
After the second offensive play of the day, it was clear that it was going to be a weird day for the Bengals. The normally precise Burrow threw his first pick-six of the season on his first PASS of the season, and while that was bad enough on its own, it never really seemed to get better. Burrow would end up throwing four picks on the day while also fumbling the ball twice, one of which was recovered. A lot of that can be pinned on the offensive line, who themselves allowed seven sacks and failed to generate many rushing lanes for Joe Mixon.
And despite all of that, the Bengals should have, could have, and probably even would have if it weren’t for an injury to a player most NFL fans probably have never heard of. Clark Harris leaving the ballgame and the subsequent inability of Mitchell Wilcox to competently execute a long snap, directly cost the Bengals four points, any one of which would have ended the game and left Cincinnati in a much better mood come Sunday evening. There were takeaways from this game, mostly bad but some good as well, so let’s explore how Cincinnati performed in Week One and how they can correct it going into Dallas next week.
A Quick Mitchell Wilcox Rant (You Knew It Was Coming)
Before we get too much into the takeaways for the majority of the team, want to use this space to talk about Wilcox. He is certainly not the player I thought I would be talking about after the game, but here we are. Acting as the emergency long snapper after Harris’s injury, Wilcox was slow to deliver the ball on the PAT that would have given Cincinnati a one-point lead with two seconds remaining. Given the chance at redemption in overtime, he again gaffed on his snap attempt, delivering it high and never giving McPherson a chance to knock in what should have been an automatic field goal.
Wilcox is not the only player responsible for the Bengals’ loss today, but he might be the least redeemable. As the fourth tight end on the roster, it is difficult to see what he offers to the team. Mike Thomas had drops, but he also had an excellent play for a 2-point conversion. The offensive line was bad, but they held up decently in the fourth quarter and overtime in crucial moments. Joe Burrow had five turnovers, almost six, but he also had two touchdowns and made several critical plays that put them in a position to win. Wilcox…just blew it. I try to empathize with him because he has trained his whole life to be an NFL tight end, not a long snapper, and I do not envy the position he was put in. But as soon as Harris went down, Wilcox knew he was the guy, and CBS cameras caught him working on his snaps on the sideline. And yet…he blew it. He gets one of those snaps right, and the Bengals win this game; no other way around it.
Burrow Can’t Play Like That Again, and I Don’t Think He Will
Most would say that was probably the worst game of Joe Burrow’s career, and he would probably agree with that. His first-half performance was atrocious, as he continuously forced balls into coverage, leading to turnovers that did not need to happen. One of the picks, a tipped ball by TJ Watt that he was able to corral himself, is hard to pin on Burrow; that’s just an elite play by an elite player. But his first pick to Fitzpatrick, who returned it for a touchdown, was a very bad look for the third-year quarterback, as he stared down Boyd the entire time and delivered a floater that was picked off with ease. His second interception, to Cam Sutton, was just an example of Burrow getting too greedy at the wrong time, as he tried to hit Boyd on a deep crosser but failed to get enough on it, leading to the pick. He only had one turnover in the second half on a fourth-down ball, but it was also forced into double coverage, as the worrying trend of his play continued.
However, it wasn’t all bad for Burrow. For one, his connection with Ja’marr Chase is alive and well. Chase had a fantastic day, perhaps the only one on the entire offense, catching ten passes on sixteen targets for 129 yards and a should-have-been-game-winning touchdown. As I said earlier, Burrow did get better as the game went on, and in the fourth quarter and overtime, he looked quite sharp, leading the Bengals into position to win the game on a couple of different occasions. Burrow was forcing things on Sunday, which came back to hurt Cincinnati, but there were also positives to take away from his performance.
The Offensive Line is Still a Problem, but It Wasn’t as Bad as It Looked on Paper
Giving up seven sacks is bad. Inexcusable even. Cordell Volson was bad in his NFL debut, and Jonah Williams was routinely turned around by Alex Highsmith. TJ Watt beat La’el Collins on occasion and was routinely in the backfield. There was not much push in the run game, with most of Mixon’s biggest runs coming due to his elite vision. Despite all of those factors, however, a few takeaways from the performance were encouraging.
For one, I thought free agent additions Ted Karras and Alex Cappa did a solid job, especially in pass protection. While Highsmith, Heyward, and Watt were causing issues for Burrow all day, the new center and right guard were able to stonewall their opposition on most pass protection reps. Additionally, I did not think that Collins was too bad, either. It certainly wasn’t a performance to write home about, but he was able to manhandle a few guys in the run game to generate holes for Mixon, and his performance against Watt was not as bad as it looked on paper. There was one play where he left him untouched on a run play that led to Mixon getting blown up, but all-in-all, I thought he played much better than Williams or Volson on the other side. These guys need time to gel, and it might be time to bring back Quinton Spain to start at left guard. But while nobody in that room will be satisfied with this performance, it wasn’t all bad. Mostly bad, but not ALL bad.
Defense Played a Near Perfect Game
The Steelers offense is bad. We knew that going into the game, and they proved our case on Sunday afternoon. Pittsburgh’s young stud running back Najee Harris was held to 23 yards on ten carries, and he couldn’t even make up for it in the passing game, catching only two balls for three yards. Pittsburgh’s only offense came from misdirection and trick plays in the first half, and it was painfully obvious in the second half and overtime that they were not going to be able to sustain drives. Mitch Trubisky played a mistake-free ballgame, so credit to him for that, but he also did nothing to help his team win.
With all that being said, Lou Anarumo coached this game about as well as one could’ve hoped. The defense did a fantastic job of rallying and bringing down the ball carrier, something that many teams typically struggle with during the first week of the season. Pittsburgh only recorded 13 first downs, compared to Cincinnati’s 32, and only went 4 for 15 on third down conversions. Cincinnati only recorded one sack in the ballgame. Still, they were able to get pressure and get the Steelers off the field quickly, as evidenced by Pittsburgh losing the time of possession battle by over seventeen minutes. The craziest part of that stat: Pittsburgh had fifteen drives to the Bengals’ fourteen. Doing the math on that, Pittsburgh logged just over four plays per drive, compared to the Bengals logging just under seven. That’s right; the Steelers’ offense nearly averaged a three and out. Lack of offensive talent and coaching is a large part of that, but credit where credit is due: the Bengals’ defense came to play.
On to Dallas
This game was disappointing, heartbreaking, discouraging, and every other word you could possibly think of. However, it was also an excellent learning experience for the young Cincinnati squad. It is imperative that Higgins and Harris can recover from their injuries and be back for next week against a high-powered Cowboys squad, but any fans thinking this loss means the end is nigh should probably slow down a bit. It was an ugly ballgame, and that performance will not be good enough against the AFC’s best. However, there were also positives to take away from it, and we have to remember that Burrow will rarely, if ever, throw four picks again. Here’s to cleaning it up before they go to Big D next weekend. Who Dey.
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