There's nothing like four consecutive turnovers on the road to sober your optimism.
The Bengals ran (and threw) into a brick wall last Sunday against the Chicago Bears. Utilizing a similar game-plan that netted 27 points against the Minnesota Vikings a week prior, the offense found very little success during the first 40 minutes of their time in Soldier Field. Thanks to the efforts of their defense, the game stayed close up until Tee Higgins' fumble was followed by three Joe Burrow interceptions on three-straight passes.
Head coach Zac Taylor cited the turnovers as the primary reason for Cincinnati's downfall, but Taylor himself is not absolved of blame here. Let's start our four downs of the week here.
1st down: Offensive constraints are hurting more than they are helping
The question on everyone's mind was why the Bengals tried to run half of their passing game out of empty protection sets. On 14 attempts, the Bengals produced a positive expected points added outcome just five times, and one of them was an incompletion that resulted in a first down because of a taunting penalty against the Bears. It didn't take an NFL play-caller to figure out why they were unsuccessful the nine other times.
Not only did the Bears have the talent up front to pressure Burrow with just four pass-rushers, they had recent tape of the Bengals' offense to prepare for the quick passing game. Chicago's cornerbacks sat down on short routes, knowing they didn't have to worry about getting beat deep. The monotony did the Bengals no favors, as their quick route concepts were not achieving the required separation.
What happens when receivers aren't getting open in time? The ball doesn't get out of the quarterback's hands quick enough. An offensive line originally tasked with blocking four competent rushers for 2.5 seconds now have to hold their ground for longer with no additional help. As we saw, this led to more hurries, hits, and sacks on Burrow.
On the surface, this reads as placing the blame on the receivers for not generating separation in a timely manner, but that separation is hard to come by when the cornerbacks defending them know they can be aggressive. Taylor's play-calling allowed this to be, as the offense consisted almost entirely of runs and short route concepts for three quarters.
This was designed, of course, with good intentions. Getting the ball out of Burrow's hands fast and often should theoretically limit the number of unnecessary hits he takes for a 17-game slate. Good intentions aside, it can generate a stale output against quality defenses, which is what they ran into against the Bears. And if defenses can still pressure Burrow while defending an offense that rarely tests coverages, then it's a strategy without upside for the Orange and Black.
There are ways for Taylor to protect his quarterback without limiting the offense as a whole. It's up to him to find them.
2nd down: Trey Hendrickson's strong start may just be the beginning
To get to where he is now, Trey Hendrickson has put in a lot of work. He began his NFL career as a third-round pick out of a Conference USA team that won 15 games in his four years with the program. His time with the New Orleans Saints was spent mainly as a rotational player until he advanced himself up the depth chart. Even when he became a starter and produced 13.5 sacks last year, there was reasonable doubt that he could replicate his success on a new team with less surrounding talent.
So far, he's proving those skeptics (including myself) wrong.
Hendrickson had a great outing against the Bears, registering 1.5 sacks, one of them a strip-sack, and four pressures against Bears' left tackle Jason Peters. At 39 years of age, Peters is not the same pass protector he was for the 12 years he played for Philadelphia Eagles. Hendrickson's speed and fluidity around the edge gave Peters some trouble.
Even against the Minnesota Vikings two weeks ago, Hendrickson made use of his time against backup left tackle Rashod Hill, generating five pressures and a quarterback hit.
Are we witnessing the culmination of an ascending player's development, or simply a decent player taking advantage of opportune matchups? Perhaps it's a little bit of both. The Bengals should just be happy he'll have more chances to eat in the coming weeks. Dan Moore Jr., Cam Robinson, and Billy Turner are the next three left tackles on Hendrickson's docket.
3rd down: You good, Brandon Wilson?
Cincinnati gave just two of their internal free agents multi-year deals: Samaje Perine, and Brandon Wilson.
As a backup safety, Wilson's primary value comes with his kickoff-return ability. Through two games, Wilson has gained just 65 yards on four returns. His one return against the Vikings barely made it out of the end zone as he went sideways for about 15 yards before gaining forward progress at the 11-yard line. A week later, he muffed his first attempt against the Bears and made it nine yards out of his own end zone. His next two returns gave the offense field position at the 27 and 17-yard line, respectively.
Wilson has been electric in this role for the last two years. He has a return touchdown in each of those seasons and even led the NFL in return average in 2019. The club knows what he can do in these situations, but he's hurting the offense before they even step onto the field right now. Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons may start asking him to be more conservative going forward.
4th down: Jackson Carman's time is now
Injuries are a big factor in Sunday's game against the Steelers. T.J. Watt has been declared out after he was listed as questionable on the final injury report. Tee Higgins and Trae Waynes are both doubtful despite getting full practices under their belt Friday. Xavier Su'a-Filo is also doubtful after not practicing at all during the week.
Su'a-Filo's absence will spur a shakeup for the Bengals' offensive line, and Jackson Carman has got next at right guard.
Carman was expected to start at this position soon after the Bengals made him their second-round pick in April's NFL Draft. The team knew he had to make a transition from left tackle, but with Su'a-Filo being his only real competition, the opportunity for Carman was there the entire offseason.
With respect to Su'a-Filo, a veteran who's been grinding for years on multiple teams, he's not a long-term option at this point in his career. His injury doesn't seem too serious, but it may cost him his starting job if Carman plays well enough against a dangerous Steelers' pass rush.
Carman's performance probably won't make or break the Bengals' offensive plans, but improved pass protection at that spot could keep a handful more plays alive and give the coaching staff something to think about in the coming weeks when Su'a-Filo returns.
For a full preview of Sunday's matchup, check out Dadio Makdook, Dr. Hodgie the Electric Smodgie, and myself talk with Steelers analyst Mark Bergin:
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