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5Qs, 5As with the Bengals: What is behind Joe Burrow’s struggles to start the season?

“It’s hard not to point back at the five weeks of missed time from Burrow this summer and the lack of work”

Baltimore Ravens v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Rams are back on the road to take on the Cincinnati Bengals who are favored by 2.5 points according to DraftKings Sportsbook. LA is coming off a hard-fought home loss to the 49ers but will have to regroup before they take on Cincinnati in a rematch of Super Bowl LVI.

Fans should expect an exciting matchup on Monday Night Football in a big game for both teams under the primetime lights. I spoke with Anthony Cosenza from SB Nation’s Bengals blog Cincy Jungle to gain more insight on the opposition ahead of their Week 3 matchup.

Q - Last season, the Bengals also started 0-2 but recovered well by finishing 12-4 while making their second-straight AFC Championship appearance. How does this winless start compare to last year’s for Cincy and how does the team recover this time around?

A - There are similarities and differences with each respective start. Both provided a lot of doubt, but there were/are elements for optimism.

In 2022, Cincinnati had five turnovers and 13 sacks given up in the first two games to start the season. The numbers this year was just one and three, respectively. Cincinnati scored 37 points in the first two games of 2022, yet only 27 this year.

When looking at last season, the Bengals lost their first two games in last-second fashion, being tied at the very end of the games. This year, they were blown out by Cleveland and while it was a close versus Baltimore, the Ravens largely held leads of 7-10 points at various times.

The Bengals started off with two divisional rivals in 2023, and with the AFC North being arguably the most talented division in football (I had the Bengals splitting within the AFC North before the year), it was going to be a daunting stretch—particularly with the Joe Burrow injury, lack of practice/game time, etc. Still, while the Cincinnati offense finally showed some rhythm in the second half last week, the lack of consistency and murkiness of Burrow’s injury makes it a different animal.

How to turn it out around is to find offensive balance and sustain drives for longer periods of time—even if they don’t result in points. Through the first six quarters of this season, the Bengals’ offense has had 10 three-and-outs on 22 total drives. Their defense is gassed by the end of games and when you’re facing the likes of Deshaun Watson, Nick Chubb and Lamar Jackson, tackling gets tougher when you’ve been out there for long time.

Q - Much like his team, quarterback Joe Burrow has been known to be a slow starter as he holds a 1-7 career record in the Bengals’ first two games of the season. Burrow threw for a career-low 82 yards in a season-opening loss to the Browns and appeared to reaggregate his calf injury in Week 2 against the Ravens. What has Burrow struggled with most so far this season and how does he fix his issues moving forward?

A - The injury is bugging him, no doubt about it. The issue didn’t truly flare up again until late in the game against the Ravens, but with rainy conditions in the season-opener, you could tell he was favoring it a little bit.

The Browns have just plain been a matchup nightmare for the Bengals since about 2018. They way they’ve built their defense and offensive line has just negated most of the Bengals’ strengths. The Browns’ cornerbacks are physical and not afraid to go single-coverage against Cincinnati’s talented wideouts and they’ve been successful at it.

Some of Burrow’s poorest performances in the NFL have come consistently at the hands of the Browns. Throw in the aforementioned rain (Watson struggled throwing in it as well) and it made for a mess of an afternoon.

With the offense coming to life late in the Baltimore game, it’s hard not to point back at the five weeks of missed time from Burrow this summer and the lack of work. Since entering the NFL, Burrow has had COVID, a knee injury rehab, an appendectomy and a calf strain he’s had to traverse each training camp. For some those are excuses, but they point to the 1-7 start in the first two weeks of each season.

They’ll need to effectively sprinkle in Joe Mixon, who is running well, but they’ll also need to wisely pick their shots down the field, while getting into rhythm via other short, quick passes. Other guys like Irv Smith, Jr. need to start stepping up with needed plays to make it the multi-headed monster we’ve seen in the past.

Q - Expectations were high for Cincinnati heading into the season and Zac Taylor has failed to deliver. Yes, it’s still early but the Bengals have every reason to be concerned at the moment. It’s tough to question Taylor as he helped deliver an unexpected Super Bowl run and rightfully deserved credit for turning Cincy around after the aforementioned 0-2 start in ‘22. How much of the team’s issues fall on Taylor and how much faith should the team have in him being the guy to lead them to a coveted Lombardi Trophy?

A - There are problems everywhere right now—not just from Taylor. And, every time the Bengals’ offense sputters, it’s Taylor who becomes the de facto scapegoat from the masses—fair or not.

Some have claimed the Bengals haven’t properly schemed Ja’Marr Chase open, but I think there’s both truth and myth to that. Chase himself said this week, he wants more deep shots and while I think there’s merit to that sentiment, but some were attempted in Week 1 and those aforementioned Cleveland corners took care of business.

Some are clamoring for a more run-heavy approach, which also makes some sense with Burrow’s injury and Mixon landing at 4.4 yards per carry this year. But, the risk there becomes predictability and this offense runs through Burrow and his trio of excellent wideouts.

While Taylor has yet to live up to the resume of his former mentor in McVay, he’s definitely a guy who can lead this team to a Lombardi Trophy. He’s bright, professional and has helped galvanize the city of Cincinnati.

What’s more is he was at the forefront (along with offensive coordinator Brian Callahan and input from Burrow) of a reinvention of the Cincinnati offense last year after that 0-2 start. The hope is that the group will once again make the needed transitions for another deep playoff run.

Q - While we’re on the subject of the coaching staff, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has also had his struggles. His defenses have failed to get off the field consistently through two games. What has been the biggest killer for the defense in those two games and what should the Rams plan of attack be against this unit?

A - As I mentioned above, the Cincinnati offense has consistently put the Bengals’ defense in precarious positions because of a lack of sustained drives. For instance, Cincinnati’s defense opened the Ravens game with a gashing, 13-play touchdown drive by Baltimore. The Bengals promptly followed it up with a 3-play, 2-yard drive, sending them back out there without much time for communication, adjustments, etc. Baltimore followed it up with a 7-play drive (missed field goal), to which the Bengals responded with another 3-play, 2-yard drive and then after a defensive stop, scored on a punt return touchdown. So, even when there’s a positive play, the defense is being rushed back out there on really quick turnaround times.

This has been a theme for the Bengals this year. That said, the Cincinnati defense hasn’t mustered a consistent pass rush and have been missing top rotational edge guy Joseph Ossai, while tackling late in games has been a bit suspect.

While they undoubtedly miss the leadership and scheme familiarity that Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates brought them from the safety spots (both left in free agency), Nick Scott has been serviceable and Dax Hill has looked pretty good in his first NFL starts. The thing the Rams can do is put together long, plodding drives—even if they net zero or just three points—and have their defense step up to create short, ineffective drives by the Cincinnati offense. Win the war of attrition, in a sense.

Q - The Bengals are listed as a 2.5-point favorite with an O/U of 44 according to DraftKings Sportsbook. What are your expectations for this game and what do the Bengals need to do to avoid falling to 0-3?

A - I understand why [the small betting line] with the cloudiness surrounding Burrow’s injury. While we have yet to fully understand the severity and potential domino effect of playing on it (i.e. potential for other severe injuries), my gut tells me that if this is strictly a calf pain management issue, Burrow will keep playing—even if it borders on the pain being severe.

The question would then become one of effectiveness, ability to plan on the leg, etc. This is an uber-important game for the Cincinnati Bengals for a number of reasons. First and foremost and as you mentioned earlier, championship expectations are high this year and an 0-3 start to the season sees that window of opportunity get really narrow.

Secondly, this is the Bengals’ Ring of Honor game, where past greats Chad Johnson and Boomer Esiason will be inducted, heightening the buzz around this game. And, lastly, this is a rematch of the McVay/Taylor storyline (which, for some weird reason, isn’t being talked about a bunch this week). Taylor has to start stepping out of the massive McVay shadow and this game has the earmarks of one to completely turn around the Bengals’ season.

For Cincinnati to seize victory, they need to build upon the offensive positives I spoke about before. Improved offensive line play this year, making plays with Mixon and finding some passing game rhythm in the second half of last week are all areas for Taylor, Callahan and Burrow to work on concocting an effective plan.

The Bengals are 8-6 under Taylor in primetime games (including the postseason), which is much better than what the winning percentage was under his predecessor, Marvin Lewis, but still isn’t overly-dominant. Burrow also has an overall winning record from 2021-2023 coming off of losses, so that’s a plus for Cincinnati.

I think the Bengals start putting things together and pull out a tough win this Monday, barely edging out that -2.5 number.