It's been a jam-packed three weeks, but we're finally back.
So much has happened since we last did this in late September. The Manning-cast stole our hearts and is currently taking a month-long hiatus, the top of the college football rankings started snorting cocaine, there was a double punt, and Jon Gruden went from closet racist to all-around bigot who rightfully lost his job.
The Cincinnati Bengals are also 2-1, and have boosted their record to 3-2.
A season with nearly 20 last-minute game-winning scores already, the Bengals have been involved in two of them. They would've accounted for one more had a quick gust of wind not blown Evan McPherson's 49-yard kick a few inches to the east on Sunday. Alas, the Packers came out on top and broke the streak of five-straight missed field goals late in overtime.
It's been a few days since that whacky ending. Let's enter four-down territory as Cincinnati begins a three-week road trip.
1st down: Early down progress stunted by turnovers
The Bengals' offense featured a self-inflicting problem during the first four weeks of the season. They were 31st in early-down pass rate despite being 11th in Expected Points Added per drop back on such plays. Their refusal to pass the ball before third down was just one aspect of their overall offensive inadequacy.
Against the Packers, head coach and play-caller Zac Taylor opted to flip the script. He called 15 passes to just three runs in the first half. From the start of the second half to overtime, he called 16 passes and 15 runs. A near perfect split.
The 31-18 total split is a step in the right direction, but it did not get the offense out of their own purgatory. They generated an abysmal -.096 EPA per play on early down passes, which was 25th in the league last week. There's a reason why it ended up that low, though. Both of Joe Burrow's interceptions came on first down plays. If you take out Burrow's interceptions, their EPA per early down pass attempt jumps up to .22, which would've been good enough for ninth in the league for last week.
That is where this offense should reasonably end up week after week. They have the most important on-field components working well together right now. Their game plan against Green Bay was a step in the right direction, but what they didn't account for was Burrow making two uncharacteristically bad throws. The fear of their franchise quarterback making rare mistakes shouldn't prohibit them from using his arm more often early in drives.
They've taken the first step towards progress, but they have many more steps to go.
2nd down: Ja'Marr Chase owns the two-minute drill
When the Bengals have the ball right before halftime, the defense better know where Uno is lining up.
It's insane. The one thing the offense knows how to do is something they simply couldn't do at all last year. Chase's immediate impact as a deep threat has helped him secure not one, but two Rookie of the Week awards in just five games. It's why he's already in the company of Randy Moss in terms of not just box score impact, but how defenses should start treating him.
And he's creating these plays when he's really needed.
Three of Chase's five touchdowns on the year have come during two-minute drills right before halftime. When you add up how much time was left after each time he crossed the goal line, you'd get two minutes and 15 seconds.
When the opportunity has presented itself, Cincinnati have made it clear they want to waste no time remaining before the get the ball back in the third quarter. Their aggression in these situations has been nothing short of refreshing to witness, but one has to wonder if the results would even be possible without Chase's presence.
Chase has proven he can win in the short and intermediate parts of the field, but these touchdowns have all seen him take the absolute top off of the defense. They aren't slowly matriculating the ball down the field and scoring at the very last second, they're trusting Chase to get open deep, and Burrow has dipped back into his LSU bag with the way he's slinging it downfield.
The magic can't continue at this rate forever, but until defenses become interested in giving Chase more attention, he'll keep doing the Griddy as a pre-halftime celebration.
3rd down: Time is running out for Trae Waynes
Full disclosure, there should be no ill will directed towards Waynes. Players don't chose to be injured, they can only chose how to respond. By all accounts, Waynes did everything in his power to return as fast as he could've. Sunday proved that he may've returned a bit too soon.
Waynes is back on Injured Reserve as he tries to re-heal his hamstring by the time the second half of the schedule begins. This injury will have forced him to miss at least six of the Bengals' first eight games this season. And, of course, no one has forgotten the pectoral injury he suffered last year and the full season he missed because of it.
The best Waynes can hope for is a fully healthy back half of the year, because at this point, the club has to be thinking about alternative long-term options. Waynes is in exact middle of his three-year contract and is scheduled to count for a team-high $16 million against the 2022 cap. The team can release him and save over $10 million in cap space, or they can hold onto him and see if can start for a full season for the first time since 2019.
Waynes' case is why the Bengals traditionally steered clear of high-priced unrestricted free agents. There's an inherent risk in investing so much team salary in a single player they're unfamiliar with. If Waynes was the only outside free agent they signed to a multi-year deal in the last two years, perhaps their perception of the free agency process would remain unchanged from the pre-Zac Taylor era.
This team is where it is right now in large part because of the other free agents they've brought in alongside Waynes. D.J. Reader, Trey Hendrickson, Larry Ogunjobi, Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton, Vonn Bell, and Riley Reiff have all contributed positively to their 3-2 start. Hell, most of those guys play on defense with Waynes. There's no way they'd be seventh in defensive DVOA and ninth in EPA per play allowed right now without deviating from their offseason norms.
Waynes may not work out at this point, but the new-look process that brought him here has yielded more positive results than not. And that's what matters.
4th down: Who's lining up at right guard in Detroit?
What a conundrum this has turned out to be. Jackson Carman landing on the COVID-19 list earlier this week threw a wrench in the offensive line's plans. Carman ended up missing Wednesday and Thursday's practices, and the team ended up using two different reserves in his place. D'Ante Smith had first dibs Wednesday, but suffered a meniscus injury that has him on I.R. now. Trey Hill, another rookie who hasn't played this year, took over for Smith Thursday.
Carman thankfully was cleared to practice Friday, but Taylor didn't announce him as the starter for Sunday. Instead, it's going to be a game-time decision between Carman and Hill.
This mystery comes at a tough time for Carman. Not only did he deal with maybe having COVID for a week (we don't know if he was a close contact or if he contracted the virus), but he's coming off the worst game of his young career. The Packers had their way with Carman in both phases of blocking. That he was potentially going to miss this game would've given Smith a good chance to take his job away. But without Smith available, Carman's only other competition is Hill, a sixth-round pick who was drafted to play center.
Whoever plays shouldn't stop the Bengals from beating the Lions, but you have to think Carman needs this week to reassert himself as the right choice going forward.
For a full preview of Bengals vs. Lions, check us out at D&H Sports!
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