In one of the hottest games ever recorded in the Frozen North, the Bengals came out with a fire on offense, taking their first drive 71 yards down the field in ten plays for a touchdown.
Of course, they ultimately lost – after failing to score on the first possession of overtime, they conceded an offsides penalty to Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. As he is wont to do with free plays, Rodgers took a shot down the field (and found receiver Geronimo Allison for the sixth time that game), leading them well within range for an easy walk-off field goal.
While losses all count equally in the standings (tiebreakers excluded), this was the only game so far this season where the Bengals’ offense looked like a unit capable of winning an NFL game. With 13 games left in the season and the AFC North sitting at a combined 4-8, there’s cause to have faith in Cincinnati if they build up from this showing in weeks to come.
Broncos come up short against the Bills
Four Quick Notes
• Divisional Notes: The AFC North went a combined 0-4 in Week 3, with Pittsburgh playing to less than the sum of their parts in Chicago, Cleveland playing catch-up late against Jacoby Brissett’s prolific Colts offense, and Baltimore looking utterly lost as the London Jaguars stomped on them. For what it’s worth, frankly, Cincinnati was the only team from the division that didn’t embarrass themselves on Sunday.
• Inter-conference Notes: The Bengals were one of four AFC teams to play an NFC opponent in Week 3, and one of three to lose. Pittsburgh lost to Chicago, as mentioned above. Tennessee shredded a suddenly-fangless Seattle team; Oakland in turn was mutilated on Sunday Night by Washington. Behind the Titans, the Bengals looked like the second-best AFC team out of the four games.
There’s no linear path to the playoffs by beating non-conference opponents, but it stands to reason that teams benefit extra from taking wins against the NFC if their competitors for a spot in the AFC bracket can’t. If you’re Cincinnati, you cheer (especially) for Chicago beating Pittsburgh – the Steelers losing is a direct boon to the Bengals’ playoff chances, while the Bears winning is inconsequential to them. They just have to make sure to beat Chicago when their turn comes around in December.
• An actual note about Sunday’s game: the biggest change that new coordinator Bill Lazor made to the offense in Week 3 was implementing Joe Mixon as the feature back. That goes beyond simply giving him the majority of the touches; the entire offense was schemed around him. Mixon’s presence – between the running, the play-action set up from the running, and the blitz-countering backfield routes – was what allowed the offense to function. The drop-off on drives where Lazor deviated from that script was obvious.
Mixon had more touches on Sunday than he had through his first two games combined, despite the high temperature leading the coaches to rotate players more frequently than usual. Any NFL game can be made into an exercise of if-X-happened-then-Y, but if Mixon hadn’t slipped before receiving a handoff on a 3rd-and-2, then another Bengals drive could’ve easily ended in a score and the team would be a game out of the division lead.
• Another note about Sunday’s game: receiver A.J. Green looked like himself, racking up 111 yards and a touchdown on ten catches. More impressive: Green became the third receiver in NFL history to pass 500 catches and 50 touchdowns in their first 90 career games. The other two? Marvin Harrison and Larry Fitzgerald. Not exactly bad company.
Carl Lawson: After flashing ability in his extremely limited pass-rush opportunities over the past two games, Lawson would’ve recorded 3.5 sacks if his last hadn’t been called back on a penalty. Lawson has come out of the gate looking far better than one would expect for a fourth-round rookie, and he should be a darling of the national NFL media by season’s end.
William Jackson III: Another rising young talent on the Bengals, Jackson’s pick-six against Rodgers in Sunday’s game put an exclamation point on what has otherwise been a quietly good season for him. A first-round pick in 2016, Jackson should expect to be a starter by his second year in the league, and he appears to be ready for the job.
Adam Jones: There can only be so many cornerbacks on the field, and the rise of William Jackson should effectively cover the phasing out of Adam Jones. After missing the first game of the season with a suspension, Jones dropped two poor performances against Houston and Green Bay. At 33, Jones isn’t necessarily in the winter of his NFL career, but his contract with the Bengals only lasts through the 2018 season. He won’t return to the Bengals after then given his current level of play.
Brandon LaFell: In a game where the offense finally found an identity, Brandon LaFell found two targets. LaFell didn’t particularly do anything wrong, but Lazor discussed rebuilding the offense around maximizing the usage of their most talented players. That doesn’t mean LaFell won’t have a role once Lazor is settled in, but if roles are defined in descending order of talent, LaFell is well down the list. Green and Mixon dominated the box score on Sunday. Tyler Boyd is back in the lineup. Tyler Eifert and John Ross are on deck.
Four Things Looking Ahead
• There’s an overwhelming chance that, when Cincinnati travels north to play Cleveland in Week 4, one of the two teams will win the game. Cleveland, at 0-3 with losses to both Baltimore and Pittsburgh, is the reason that Cincinnati is still third in the division despite not having won a game.
• Eifert wasn’t a factor in the offense when he was available earlier in the season, and it could be a few more weeks before he’s available again. While it’s rare that a player of Eifert’s pedigree is allowed to leave a team, the tight end is in a contract year and looks as injury-bitten as he’s always been through his now five-year career. If Lazor doesn’t have Eifert on the field, he can’t gauge his value to the offense. If no value is in place, Eifert may have to test the market. How Tyler Kroft looks in the meantime is another variable.
• Aside from Eifert being out longer-term, other injuries on the Bengals are more nebulous. Trey Hopkins may have a ways to go, but his case is light on details. John Ross’ situation is even lighter on details, although in a less damning way – he could be easily be back in time for week 4. It’s also possible that he isn’t, but the injury report won’t provide significant evidence to suggest either until later in the week.
• The clearest who’s-back of them all: Vontaze Burfict. Freshly returned from a three-game suspension, the Bengals were given a roster exemption to allow Burfict to practice with the team as a 54th player through 4pm Thursday. By then, the Bengals will have to work out dropping or moving a player. Most likely undrafted free agent linebacker Hardy Nickerson will be cut – he made the team effectively in Burfict’s place and should easily clear waivers – but there’s other less-historically-characteristic options available.
– Andrew Hammel is the managing editor for cover32/Bengals and covers the Cincinnati Bengals for cover32