Bengals offensive regression capped by white flag moment in loss to Browns
CLEVELAND — On a bad night full of bad plays for Bengals, there was one in particular that epitomized the futility and failure of the evening. It came with 5:29 left in the game when Browns defensive end Myles Garrett and defensive tackle Taven Bryant rushed past the offensive linemen tasked with blocking them and ended up in a dead heat at the finish line that was Joe Burrow.
A master escape artist through his first three seasons, Burrow has found his way out of prickly pockets, including several incidents earlier Monday night.
But on this play, a mostly ineffective 48-of-50, Barrow had only one option – to pick up and pass.
It was the fifth and final sack in a game where the biggest question surrounding the Bengals was, “How will they make up for the absence I’Marr Chase?” to “Will he even score a fucking point?” as the Browns’ injury-depleted defense held them down through three quarters en route to a 32-13 loss at FirstEnergy Stadium.
“We’re a better offense than what we posted tonight, even without (Chase),” Burrow said. “There’s no excuse for that.”
After gaining 54 yards on their first possession, which ended with Garrett throwing a pass intended for Browns cornerback Tee Higgins AJ Green intercepted at Cleveland’s 16-yard line, the Bengals’ next six drives produced a total of 41 yards and four first downs.
That stretch included three sacks — one of which resulted in a blitzing Browns linebacker Sione Check takes the ball away from Burrow for the second turnover of the half – a bunch of checks and zero interest in running the ball against a Cleveland defense struggling to stop it.
The Browns were penalized for having 12 men on the field on the first play of the game. Every play after that, it looked like they were still working as the receivers struggled to get open for anything more than checkdowns and the offensive line repeatedly failed to keep pressure on Burrow.
“That’s what we get paid to do,” he says La’el Collins he said after the game. “There is no exception to that. We have to protect the quarterback, give him time to go through his reads and keep him upright. We have to get back to work and do a better job at it.”
The question is whether they can actually do it and whether the progress shown in the last few games was really just fool’s gold against two of the league’s worst passing yards in the league. Falcons and Saints.
When the Bengals have faced quality, it looks like it was on Monday night. Seven sacks against Steelers. Six in Dallas. Five in Cleveland.
“I have all the faith in the world in those guys to go out there, and I thought they played well enough to win,” Burrow said after scoring seven hits.
“I thought we did a really good job in the first half,” head coach Zac Taylor said. “(Garrett) got us to third one time. I thought we had a good plan. I thought our guys did really well. The worst thing you want to do against the Cleveland Browns is give them a two or three point lead and let their running game get going, their play action, and let their pass rushers get involved. That’s a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, that’s what we gave them.”
Pass protection wasn’t the only problem with the offensive line. The Bengals thought they found something in the multi-down running game Joe Mixon without a shot in the last 10 quarters. And the first two official plays on Monday were Mixon runs (a screen to Mixon on the opening snap was wiped out by a 12-man penalty for Cleveland).
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But Mixon ran it just four more times in a tense first half. The Bengals’ 10 rushing attempts as a team were not only the fewest in the Zac Taylor era, but also the fewest in franchise history, breaking the previous record of 11 set in a 50-34 loss to Chargers in 1982.
And it wasn’t like Taylor dropped out of the race because of Higgins and Tyler Boyd have picked up the slack due to Chase’s hip injury absence. Through three quarters, Higgins had two catches for eight yards and Boyd two for 25.
Until Trenton IrwinA catch on the final play of the third quarter gave him two for 27 runs by the team’s leading receiver Chris Evanswho had a 26-yard reception on the opening drive and was immediately sent back to the bench and only played more the rest of the game.
Still well-stocked with offensive weapons even without Chase, the Bengals offense had 148 total yards and zero points by the fourth quarter.
Was it a head scratcher for one of those weapons?
“Sure,” Mixon said. “To be honest, man, we needed a spark and we didn’t get it tonight.”
There was a dark atmosphere in the locker room that went beyond the typical post-defeat mood. Part of that was knowing the team leader and top quarterback Chidobe Awuzie suffered a right knee injury that appeared to be serious, as coaches and players took turns entering the blue medical tent to offer their condolences.
Part of that was down to dominance, which has rarely happened to this team, with their three previous defeats this season by a combined eight points and their last six by a combined 19 points. But their last two losses to the Browns in which the starters played were by a combined 44 points, and Cleveland extended its winning streak to five against the Bengals.
There was also the element of embarrassing myself again in prime time, so the franchise’s record is 1-24 in night games on the road, dating back to before some of the players on the roster were even born.
Then came the hard realization of falling to 0-3 in the AFC North and what that means.
“It’s tough, but it is what it is,” Boyd said. “We’re still staying the course and trying to continue our streak.”
“We can’t go back and redo things,” Mixon said. “The only thing we can do is go ahead and attack the week. We have a big week ahead of us Carolinaand it will get bigger every week.”
And therein lies much of the concern. This wasn’t just a bad day at Black Rock that can be dismissed as one of those games. It was a setback and a resurgence of issues — chief among them the pass protection — that could derail the season if not addressed quickly.
Losing Awuzie will put even more pressure on the offense, as will the continued absence of Chase for at least one and likely two more games.
“We’re not panicking,” Burrow said. “We know what went wrong in every game. We have to go back and look at the film, get this film right like we always do and get back to shooting next week.”
(Top photo: David Dermer / USA Today)
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