While the jury is still very much out on the 2021 Cincinnati Bengals, their current trajectory appears to be where the Detroit Lions hope to be in a year or two. It’s now Year 3 under head coach Zac Taylor and the Bengals are finally starting to bear fruit from their exhaustive rebuild.
The Bengals went aggressive in free agency this offseason and also got a couple of flashy pieces in this year’s draft. As a result, they may be... good?
Let’s take a closer look at the Lions’ Week 6 opponent.
- 4-11-1 record (4th in AFC North)
- 29th in points scored, 22nd in points allowed
- Overall DVOA: 30th (29th on offense, 27th on defense)
Last year, the Bengals were one of the worst teams in the league. They didn’t do anything particularly well, but the play of rookie Joe Burrow kept the hope alive in Cincinnati. Much like the Lions this year, the Bengals have been in rebuilding mode for the past two years since hiring head coach Zac Taylor, and last year’s 4-11-1 record was actually a small step in the right direction.
That is, until Burrow tore his ACL and MCL in Week 11.
Key free agent additions: OT Riley Reiff, DE Trey Hendrickson, CB Chidobe Awuzie, CB Mike Hilton, DT Larry Ogunjobi, CB Eli Apple, S Ricardo Allen
Key losses: WR A.J. Green, WR John Ross, RB Giovani Bernard, OT Bobby Hart, DT Geno Atkins, DE Carl Lawson, CB William Jackson
2021 NFL draft picks:
Round 1: WR Ja’Marr Chase
Round 2: G Jackson Carman
Round 3: DE Joseph Ossai
Round 4: DE Cameron Sample
Round 4: DT Tyler Shelvin
Round 4: OT D’Ante Smith
Round 5: K Evan McPherson
Round 6: C Trey Hill
Round 6: RB Chris Evans
Round 7: DE Wyatt Hubert
The Bengals were very active in free agency, with a specific focus on their defense. They added starting nickel corner Mike Hilton, one of the top outside corners in Chidobe Awuzie, and even got better on the defensive front with Trey Hendrickson and Larry Ogunjobi.
On offense, they lost long-time receiver A.J. Green, but signed Riley Reiff to help their offensive line issues that were, in part, responsible for Burrow’s injury last season.
In the draft, Cincinnati faced a dilemma with their fifth overall pick. Do they bolster their offensive line with a guy like Penei Sewell or get Burrow a weapon he’s familiar with in Ja’Marr Chase. We all know how that has played out.
They attempted to address their offensive line issues with second and fourth round picks on linemen and added more defensive front help in between.
2021 season thus far (3-2)
- 18th in points scored (22.8 PPG), 7th in points against (20.0 PPG)
- 12th overall in DVOA (16th on offense, 7th on defense, 9th on special teams)
The Bengals’ heavy focus on the defense has paid off thus far. They’ve allowed the seventh fewest points through five games, and haven’t allowed more than 24 points in regulation thus far. They’re particularly stout against the run, allowing just 4.1 yards per carry (13th). But they can also stop the pass pretty well. They’re allowing a passer rating of just 89.8 (eighth) and ceding 6.9 yards per attempt (eighth).
Offensively speaking, while the running game is off to a slow start (3.9 YPC), Burrow has picked up where he left off prior to his rookie season injury. He currently ranks fifth in yards per attempt (8.8), fourth in completion percentage (71.7) and seventh in passer rating (106.4). He also ranks eighth in PFF grade among quarterbacks.
Overall, the Bengals have been in every game they’ve played in and they nearly stole one last week from the Packers. It’s unclear if this team is a true contender yet, but they’ve passed the eye test thus far.
Key injuries: CB Trae Waynes (IR), DE Joseph Ossai (IR), LB Jordan Evans, G Xavier Su’a-Filo (IR), WR Mike Thomas (ankle)
Reserve/COVID-19: G Jackson Carman, RB Samaje Perine
The Bengals lost Trae Waynes to injured reserve this week after the starting cornerback played in just two games this season. Eli Apple will likely start in his place, and Apple has been one of the worst cornerbacks in the league this season.
The other big problem area is right guard. Starter Xavier Su’a-Filo is on injured reserve and rookie second-round pick Jackson Carman—his backup—was placed on reserve/COVID-19 on Monday. If Carman doesn’t clear COVID protocol, the Bengals will turn to fourth-round rookie D’Ante Smith, who is transitioning from tackle.
Biggest strength: Wide receivers
Much of Burrow’s success can be attributed to the phenomenal play of rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase. It looks like those two have maintained their chemistry from their days at LSU, as Chase current ranks seventh in receiving yards (456) and second in receiving touchdowns (five).
But don’t sleep on slot receiver Tyler Boyd (75.7 PFF grade) and even WR2 Tee Higgins, who led the team in receiving last year with 908 yards and six touchdowns.
Biggest weakness: Offensive line
The Bengals, as expected, have struggled to protect Burrow thus far this season. The Bengals rank 29th in sack rate allowed and have allowed 19 sacks this year (t-sixth most). The struggles in the run game can also be attributed to poor offensive line play, as the Bengals rank 21st in PFF run blocking grade.
Vegas odds for Sunday: Bengals by 3.5