Thank God for the defense. Cincinnati’s defense celebrates Logan Wilson’s second interception of the night during the Rams-Bengals Monday Night Football clash at Paycor Stadium. (Photo credit: Ryan Meyer/Bengals.com)
By Dr. John Huang
(CINCINNATI, Oh.) – You are what your record says you are.
After three NFL regular season games, the Cincinnati Bengals are 1 – 2. That’s not great, but it’s a heck of a lot better than being 0 – 3.
Cincinnati, behind Logan Wilson’s two interceptions and a relentless pass rush resulting in six quarterback sacks, defeated the Los Angeles Rams 19 – 16 in front of 65,158 raucous white-clad fans at Paycor Stadium.
“You have to get that first win,” said a relieved head coach Zac Taylor immediately after his team’s huge Monday Night Football performance. “It changes the week, the momentum…Our guys managed this game well, and it starts with the defense. They set the tone while the offense was getting their feet underneath them.”
That may be a bit of an understatement. In my mind, Cincinnati’s defense may have just saved the season. You see, the Rams came into the game leading the NFL in efficiency both on third down and in the red zone. For the night, Lou Anarumo’s unit held Los Angeles to a stunning 1-of-11 on third down conversions and a 1-for-4 conversion rate in the red zone—and that one score coming on a desperation toss with just over a minute left in the game.
Wilson, whose nine total interceptions in the 2020s leads the league among NFL linebackers, was predictably humble when asked about his timely, momentum-turning picks.
“I’m blessed being in the right place at the right time,” the fourth-year pro out of Wyoming readily acknowledged. “And taking advantage of those opportunities when they come to you, because they’re rare in this league. I’m big on, as many times that we can get the ball back to our offense, the better off we’re going to be.”
The Cincinnati offense, meanwhile, did just enough to move the ball and pull out the victory. Quarterback Joe Burrow, still recovering from his much-scrutinized calf injury, completed 26-of-49 passes for 259 yards. A whopping twelve of those completions and 141 of those yards went to Ja’Marr Chase, who finally looked like the “go-to” receiver the team relied upon all of last season. Evan McPherson nailed field goals of 49, 53, 48, and 54 yards, and Joe Mixon’s 14-yard touchdown scamper in the third quarter accounted for the rest of the scoring.
Burrow, when presented with the choice between resting his calf muscle or his team avoiding going 0 – 3, chose team over rest. After a brief morning workout, the former Heisman winner knew he was good to go.
“You don’t want to go 0 – 3 to start the season,” Burrow told media immediately after the game. “Your chances of getting into the playoffs are, obviously, very slim. We understood that and we kind of viewed this as a game we needed to win anyway in front of our home crowd.”
Joe Burrow, of course, speaks truth. From 1990 – 2022, 265 teams started 0 – 2. Thirty of those teams made the playoffs, or about 11%. The Bengals pulled it off last season.
During that same period, just four of 158 teams to start 0 – 3 made the postseason (2.5%). Just two of those 158 won their division (1.3%) and none won the Super Bowl.
The win tonight was great, but this isn’t exactly the sizzling start Bengals fans had been hoping for. Just two short seasons ago, the Bengals and the Rams duked it out in Super Bowl LVI. A surprise trip to the Promised Land can predictably send fan expectations into the stratosphere. Now, however, it’s back to reality as Cincinnati finds itself in survival mode, thrashing about—like the teams of yesteryear—for a glimmer of playoff contention.
What’s required for climbing back into playoff contention? Let’s focus on three areas.
Get Joe Burrow completely healthy
Let’s face it. Any playoff talk is moot if there’s no Joe Burrow. His situation remains day to day. With this type of injury, a season-crushing set back can occur at any time. For Cincinnati’s offense to be effective, Burrow has to be able to extend plays. That can’t happen with a fickle calf muscle. The Bengals have a short week. Let’s all hope for a full uneventful recovery.
Clean up the penalties
Stupid penalties become drive killers, and the Bengals need to avoid those mental miscues going forward.
“It was three different people on three different snaps,” a frustrated Taylor said regarding the motion penalties early on. “We can’t have that because it affected our cadence going forward for a few possessions. They timed up their pressures after that. We have to rectify that, and it’s not been us. We’ve been a disciplined team that wins the penalty battle.”
Look for the long ball
With the Bengals this year, explosive plays have been missing in action. For fans and media alike, watching the offense dink and dunk downfield has been like pulling teeth. First it was the rain game in Cleveland. Then it was Baltimore’s two-safety help coverage. Tonight, it was Aaron Donald and crew keeping everything in front of them. It’s always something.
“Yes, those obviously make it a lot easier,” Burrow said, when asked about the lack of the long ball. “When you’re able to extend plays, those kinds of explosive plays are created in that way. So, I think going forward—the healthier I get—the more we’ll be able to do that.”
That’s it in a nutshell. The Bengals’ defense will keep them in every game. But for another legitimate run at this year’s Super Bowl, Cincinnati’s $275 million dollar man will have to deliver.
Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist, military veteran, and award-winning author. He currently covers the Bengals’ beat for Sports View America. He is the author/coauthor of four books—Cut To The Chase, Kentucky Passion, From The Rafters Of Rupp, and Serving Up Winners. His latest book, They Call Me Mr. Secretary, is scheduled for a fall release. You can follow Dr. Huang on social media @KYHuangs.