This Week in Bengals: Sunday prediction, D.J. Reader’s return and Okey Double Bugs
CINCINNATI – Somehow Joe Burrow’s press conferences have become more known for reactions to coughs these days than the actual answers he gives.
For people who actually care about the content of his thoughts instead of viral reactions, an important line snuck into the conversation this week.
He was asked about this stretch of Atlanta, at Cleveland on Monday Night Football and Carolina coming up leading into the bye.
“The three games stretch,” Burrow said, “I think will determine how our season goes.”
From the same producer who brought you, “let’s all just take a deep breath and relax,” and “nobody is panicking” we have this midseason run determining the direction of the year.
Yeah, that’s notable.
Every week feels like it means more in the moment. That’s just the nature of the intense scrutiny on the league. Consider the tone around these parts last week compared to this one: Pitchforks to praises.
In this particular case, it’s tough to argue with Burrow’s assessment.
The failures of the first quarter of the season have put the Bengals in this position. Anything worse than 5-4 at the bye (which would be the same as last year) would offer legitimate reason to wonder if they took on too much early water to bubble back up against a much tougher schedule on the horizon.
Through the first nine games the Bengals will have faced just one quarterback higher than Tier 4 in Mike Sando’s preseason QB tiers. That’s Lamar Jackson.
Burrow was one of six Tier 1 QBs in the league.
After Kenny Pickett or whoever ends up starting for Pittsburgh in Week 11 finishes off the run of unheralded QBs, the final seven games of the year expect to feature every quarterback in Tier 3 or higher.
A hiccup or two over this current stretch and the team will spend much time bemoaning the need to beat Allen and wondering how they lost to Cooper Rush, Mitch Trubisky and, say, Marcus Mariota.
That brings us to Sunday. The Falcons and Bengals looked like very different teams on paper before the season started. On the field through six weeks, you can find striking similarities. Both have won three of four. Both could easily have been better than 3-3. The three Falcons’ losses are by a total of 11 points. The Bengals are by eight.
The primary difference is the expectations the football world placed upon them. Atlanta clearly has deficiencies. The Bengals should be able to tear up a secondary that is both beat up and understaffed. This should be the type of game Burrow puts up monster numbers as you saw last week in New Orleans or during his hot stretch in the second half of last year.
Tradition suggests in this league, that should be enough. Yet, the league is shifting this year. The rise of these power running teams asserting their style back into the winning conversation has been the trend of the year. Atlanta is at the head of that with a line that can run block as well as anyone and diverse run scheme capable of taking over a game.
The number to determine a win or loss will be the Falcons’ rushing yards. Allow them to pound Paycor for 150 or more on the ground and the Bengals will be in jeopardy. Keep it under and this could be one where the Bengals breathe easy in the final minutes for a change.
Attrition up the defensive spine and recent results suggest this will be easier said than done.
I still think the Bengals and Burrow do it. Cincinnati’s red zone defense feels like the determining factor again.
Prediction: Bengals 27, Falcons 23
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) calls a play at the line against the New Orleans Saints during the first half at Caesars Superdome. Stephen Lew-USA Today Sports
The Bengals host the Falcons this Sunday at 1 p.m. ET at Paycor Stadium — the first 1 p.m. Sunday home game since the opener against Pittsburgh. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. The game will air on Fox with Brandon Gaudin and Robert Smith in the booth and Jennifer Hale on the sideline. Will be a treat to see Devon and Leah Still back in Cincinnati as Rulers of the Jungle. Leah is cancer-free and it’s such a joy to see a success story that started in such a difficult place come full circle. The way this city and the Bengals’ organization rallied around Devon and Leah in 2014 was one of the greatest storylines involving the team in 13 years I’ve been covering the club.
This Week in Burrow
I wrote extensively about Burrow on third downs and high-leverage situations this year, a major talking point around him as the Bengals offense starts to find its footing.
So, I’ll just say that this section has already been checked off.
I will, however, offer a bit of a deleted scene from the story.
I wanted to dive a little into the importance of Burrow’s knowledge of protections in the piece, but it ended up being one thing too many. But it was pointed out how important his relationship with the gregarious captain Ted Karras has been.
Karras and Burrow have really connected. Partly because of how much Karras just absolutely loves football and line play. That prompted this anecdote from head coach Zac Taylor when asked about it.
“We finished a walkthrough and I heard him talk about ‘Okey Double Bugs’ with passion,” Taylor said of a unique protection call. “That’s the highest level of passion you could imagine about ‘Okey Double Bugs’ and different looks he saw. He wanted to make sure he got his points across. I walked away, those are player moments where he clearly wanted to take it over. He made me feel really good about how we would handle those looks the next day. The (offensive line) meeting ended. It was over. He decided to have another meeting. It’s 8:39 p.m. probably, right before the team meeting Saturday night.”
There was an otherwise forgettable play in Sunday’s game at New Orleans that stuck out to me all week. Joe Mixon caught a checkdown midway through the second quarter. As he pushed up the sideline cornerback Paulson Adebo made a flailing attack of Mixon’s legs trying to take him down.
Mixon snapped off a nasty jump cut to the outside that made the entire dome crowd go, “oooh,” in unison. The electric and loud nature of the crowd made it an even more noticeable reaction and Mixon deserved it.
I asked him about it this week and his answer was great.
“I’ll be real, I was running, and I tune everything out,” he said. “It’s literally me focused. I hear nothing. That was one play where I could really hear the whole crowd like, ‘ooooh.’ Then after the play, I was like, ‘Did the whole crowd just say oooh?’ It was a cool thing.”
Sure was. Cool to hear. Cool to watch. And for the Bengals, cool to see coming from Mixon, who struggled to make plays in space the first four weeks of the season. Against Baltimore and New Orleans, some of the old Mixon energy and playmaking has started to show up. He enjoyed his two best games for yards after contact. After only two rushes of more than 10 yards through the first four games, Mixon had four such rushes the last two weeks.
“That’s what I can do,” he said. “If I get the opportunity like that in space, I got to make them pay. When given that opportunity in those one-on-one situations, I got to make it count, no matter what.
“I’ll be honest, if I can get in space where it’s clear as daylight one on one, there’s no question I’ll win 10 out of 10 times. I’m supposed to feel like I’ll win 10 out of 10 times. That’s the type of player I’m capable of being.”
Quotable, Part II
Offensive line coach Frank Pollack is always one for quotability. He offered another on Thursday in reference to left tackle Jonah Williams.
Williams, notably, dislocated his kneecap just before halftime against the Ravens. He played through that pain, only missing six snaps in the “Sunday Night Football” game. Not only that, in Pollack’s eyes he played incredibly well.
“He hurt his knee in Baltimore and he had probably the best half I’ve seen him play,” Pollack said. “He went out and played with a bum knee this last week and played great. I told him I’ll take a bat to your knee every week if I need to.”
No word on the Bengals hiring offensive line consultant Jeff Gillooly anytime soon.
Twitter Question of the Week
@pauldehnerjr I must have missed it, when will Reader be back? They miss him in the worst way
— Doug (@doug_c_67) October 16, 2022
For one, Doug, you are spot on. The Bengals do miss Reader in the worst way. Jay Morrison detailed that well in his story on the struggling rush defense this week. He pointed out the Bengals gave up an average of 86 yards per game the first three weeks at 3.7 yards per carry. In the last three weeks, it’s 156 yards per game and 5.6 per rush.
Does it all direct back to Reader? No. They’ve played more talented rush offenses the last three weeks, but his absence represents a big slice of the pie.
As for when he will be back, his presence on the rehab field and the sideline this past week suggest he’s tracking in the right direction. He couldn’t even travel with the team to Baltimore because they don’t want players lacking in mobility on the sideline in case they need to move to avoid a play spilling out of bounds.
As for a more specific timeline, the probabilities still shade toward a post-bye return. He’s first eligible to come back for “Monday Night Football” against the Browns and the Bengals and Reader are obviously hopeful, not closing the door on it. However, understanding the big picture of the season with an extremely winnable game against Carolina then a bye after, it means Nov. 21 at Pittsburgh is a realistic aiming point.
Stories from the inside
There are two ping-pong tables inside the Bengals’ locker room. There’s an ‘A’ table and a ‘B’ table. When we are in there — typically during the Bengals’ lunch break — there are always games happening on them. Anybody hearing the sound of the balls hitting paddles in the background of our interviews posted on the podcast is well aware.
The two best players on the team are Mitchell Wilcox and Trent Taylor. They are regulars on the ‘A’ table. Their battles are wild. Both standing far back from the table, ripping shots from deep as you might see in Olympics highlights. An idea struck me while watching this and discussing how every team seems to have ping-pong tables in the locker room (that inevitably become some kind of storyline about a loose team when it arrives or a return of discipline when it’s removed).
It’s time to replace the coin toss before games.
Instead, each team sends its best ping pong player to the 50-yard line, where a table and two paddles await. They play a quick game to seven to determine who gets to decide to defer or receive. It’s like when the XFL tried rolling out the football in a fumble recovery drill to determine the winner, just without the injuries.
This will be submitted to the competition committee in March.
This game presents a spread rarity. This year Atlanta is 6-0 against the spread. Nobody expected them to be as feisty as they’ve been, and it’s shown in the final scores.
The Falcons come to Cincinnati as 6.5-point underdogs.
Considering Atlanta covering every game, the Bengals’ penchant to playing in close contests and neither team losing by more than a score, 6.5 feels like a generous number.
However, there’s not much history to suggest the Falcons’ momentum will continue the trend.
There are eight teams — including Atlanta — that started the season 6-0 against the spread since the turn of the century. Four of them covered the spread again in their seventh games, three did not. Winners include the 2021 Cowboys, 2018 Chiefs, 2007 Patriots and 2008 Titans.
There’s little reason to believe the Bengals would be taking Atlanta lightly considering how the Falcons dismantled San Francisco last week, 28-14. Still an interesting trend to ponder.
Overly researched stat of the week
The Bengals’ red zone defense continues to be among the best in the NFL, currently ranking third allowing a touchdown 35.3 percent of the time. It saved them in New Orleans. The Saints entered that game boasting the second-best red zone offense in football (80 percent) but left just 1 for 5. In a matchup of strength on strength with the game in the balance, the Bengals prevailed.
Meanwhile, Atlanta now comes to town riding similar red-zone success. The Falcons rank fifth in the league with a 66.7 percent touchdown rate.
The difference between the two would be the approach to pushing it over the goal line.
New Orleans threw the ball in the red zone 62 percent of the time prior to last week, ninth most.
Meanwhile, Atlanta has the second-highest run rate among all teams in the red zone at 69 percent.
When those crucial downs take place, look for extra linebackers to end up part of three-down alignment to play tendencies.
Either way, it does play into what has also been a strength of this defense. Of the 40 plays run against Cincinnati in the red zone this year, 15 have been runs. Only one went for a touchdown (a 1-yard plunge by Tony Pollard in Dallas) and only a six-yard sweep by CeeDee Lamb went for more than four yards.
The Bengals rank second in the league in yards allowed per carry in the red zone.
More strength on the strength coming Sunday.
Bengals post of the week
Fans might not think much about the investment in the content team that’s been made by the Cincinnati front office, but for somebody who has been close to that world for a long time, I can tell you it’s a mind-boggling shift.
That’s the NFL world we live in now. Behind-the-scenes video, extra content, documentaries, you name it. In-house content has become valuable to the league, teams, fan bases and the NFL has its arms hugged tightly around its rights.
The Bengals have piled resources of all varieties into that world in recent years and the perfect example was the 15-minute look at Ja’Marr Chase and his family returning home that Marisa Contipelli and Shea Stephenson put together. They were even able to convince NFL Films to help out by dropping a mic on Chase during that game that has turned out to be a treasure trove of incredible content.
Chase was breaking ankles thanks to the return of his grill 😏@Real10jayy__ | @Bengals pic.twitter.com/tcoYa7qcZj
— NFL Films (@NFLFilms) October 20, 2022
Contipelli and Stephenson went to New Orleans earlier this season for background content then were all over the place this past Sunday capturing the sights and sounds of a special moment for one of the premier personalities on the team and in this league.
Just excellent work, impressive hustle, an efficient plan and a perfect example of what hiring great people and supporting them can do for connecting a fan base to its players.
Highly recommend watching the full-length feature (the trailer was awesome, too).
Watch the full feature here: https://t.co/VZs2byry5r
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) October 20, 2022
Atlanta (3-3): Josh Kendall joined HTPG this week with fantastic insight on Atlanta. He also wrote why the Bengals are a bad matchup for the Falcons.
Around the division
Steelers (2-4): Mitch Trubisky, Kenny Pickett and halftime altercations, all the fun is happening in Pittsburgh.
Browns (2-4): Cleveland is ‘headed nowhere soon’ according to Zac Jackson. A man very familiar with teams heading nowhere.
Ravens (3-3): Baltimore’s running game is coming together just in time for a critical stretch.
The Athletic Wormhole
The Christian McCaffery trade to the 49ers was a fascinating one from both sides. First, the latest cautionary tale about paying running backs. As the Panthers basically paid $27 million for six games of an extension. The Bengals will be contemplating this situation with Mixon contract in coming years. These things rarely work out well. In fact, Mixon might be one of the most successful examples and his contract hasn’t exactly been a jewel of the Bengals salary cap situation.
These backs nearly always start to break down and see health situations ruin them. This has been known and discussed at length for nearly a decade now. Yet, teams still keep piling money into the position instead of picks. Joe Person wrote about how that is essentially the legacy of McCaffery in Carolina.
On the flip side, the Rams’ “F— them picks” model shows back up. This time in San Francisco. I’m actually stunned the 49ers would give up the 2023 2,3,4 and 2024 5th for McCaffery. The guy can play. He’s a star, no question. But that is a significant ransom to turn over for any running back, particularly one with injury history. Those are the types of trades that eat at the core of your future. Tim Kawakami wrote an enlightening piece about how this was the 49ers showing their hand about this season.
The first draft of my story about Burrow and his third-down magic this week included multiple Frozen (and Frozen II) references, including an ideal analogy involving an ice palace on the North Mountain.
I eventually decided they all needed to be edited out. As a girl dad, it was a deep cut.
I’ve developed a real appreciation for Frozen and Frozen II in watching it 94 times over the last few years. A Disney tale where two sisters stand up for each other is great messaging compared to “You better get a man and become a princess or you will be cleaning chimneys and organizing the attic the rest of your life” from the Cinderella days.
Equally, Encanto has become the new house favorite around here. My girls are obsessed with it. Again, another new Disney movie with a significantly better message than the early days. The concept that it’s OK not to be perfect and being yourself is all you need is a far cry from, ‘Hey look at this cute deer, bang, she’s dead.’
Unbelievably, found a Disney on Ice Show about Frozen and Encanto together is coming to Heritage Bank Arena. It’s almost as if my girls were in charge of planning this year’s tour. The excitement level will be at its peak come March.
This has also prompted me to go on record with my top five ranking of songs from those three movies because I’ve had way too much time to think about this over the past few years.
- Let it Go, Frozen: There’s a reason it’s so popular. One of the best individual songs from any Disney song in history.
- Lost in the Woods, Frozen II: Let’s be honest, this one was for the parents. When all the reindeer show up in true 80s style is a top three moment in the entire Frozen series.
- Surface Pressure, Encanto: The chorus is incredible. Lin Manuel-Miranda’s style showing up in a big way. Sometimes after dropping the girls off somewhere the phone will revert back to when Encanto was playing before. If it’s Surface Pressure, I let it finish before switching back.
- All of You, Encanto: Perfectly pulls all the themes of the movie together and the line, “OK, so …. we gonna talk about Bruno?” is one of my favorites.
- In Summer, Frozen: More Josh Gad in our lives, please.
OK, I feel better getting that off my chest. Hopefully, it makes up for axing my line about Grand Pabbie explaining the inherent danger of magic.
(Top photo of Joe Burrow: Chris Graythen / Getty Images)