ARLINGTON, Texas — Life with Joe Burrow is not supposed to be this hard.
Life with Joe Mixon shouldn’t feature 3.0 yards per carry.
Life with an overhauled offensive line of established veterans was definitely not supposed to produce 13 sacks in two games and a running game lingering on liability.
No, the offense with all the firepower and award winners is not supposed to be the problem and reason the defending AFC champions are now mired in an 0-2 hole at the hands of Mitch Trubisky and Cooper Rush.
“We are itching for a win right now,” Mixon said. “No need to panic, but at the end of the day, we got to start going. We know what we got in our locker room. Our defense has been playing their ass off. We have to do whatever we can do on offense to counter what’s going on. It’s an unfortunate situation but we got to be the ones to dig ourselves out.”
The Steelers and Cowboys followed the same model of slowing Burrow and Bengals. They are seeing a heavy dose of Tampa 2 deep shell coverages designed to keep everything in front of them. They want no part of Chase catching passes over the top or replication of the 12 plays of 50-plus yards that littered the run to the Super Bowl last year.
They force the Bengals to be patient, throw underneath and sustain long drives. Drives like the epic 19-play, 78-yard game-tying jaunt that took 8:46 off the clock. It featured three third-down conversions, a fourth-and-6 conversion and a two-point completion to Boyd.
“That’s the way it’s supposed to look,” Burrow said.
Maybe. And as impressive as the drive was, it’s not a sustainable model for success.
“Teams are going to keep playing us in soft zone until we prove that we can beat them that way,” Burrow said. “We are going to have to win a different way this year. We need to figure that out quickly so we can get on the win column.”
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Figuring it out starts with a running game that ranks as the biggest disappointment in two weeks full of them. The glass-eating aggressors in front of Mixon were supposed to open up the possibilities of the run game. Instead, it’s served as an extension of the running attack that fell apart the final 10 games of last season.
Mixon had one 10-yard run on the first play of the second half and that was the extent of the effective run game. He had five carries for five yards in the first half. There were no holes. There was no taking advantage of the light boxes and space that is supposed to be provided when teams play the cautious two-deep coverages.
If the Bengals don’t run teams out of the deep coverages then this will be their plight: slogs and uphill climbs. And more repeating the phrase of the day in the somber postgame locker room.
“It’s just part of the bigger picture of the offense not executing,” left tackle Jonah Williams said. “We are not executing well enough up front and as a whole, we are not executing.”
Lack of “execution” led to falling behind 17-3 for the second consecutive week. Players bemoaned the slow start and discussed a need to start fast. This after a week of stating the need to start fast and avoid the pitfalls of last week. Burrow said his focus was to not turn the ball over and for that, he succeeded. He didn’t throw any interceptions.
The culprit of the ugly first half this week was made out to be first downs.
“It felt like we were in first-and-15 the entire first half,” he said.
Only two of the 10 first-down plays run in the first half went for more than four yards. Two went for negatives (sack, false start by La’el Collins). Those situations led to a game in which not a single deep pass was attempted. In the first half, Burrow only threw one pass farther than five yards in the air.
Chase after the game called for more deep shots to be taken. Ironically, he did the same after a similar dreadful offensive showing in Week 2 last year at Chicago — a game they also lost to a backup quarterback by three points.
“It’s a give and take,” Burrow said. “We think if we start running the ball a little better, that will open it up and teams will have to get out of the 2 Tampa shell. The second-half run game is how it should look.”
Head coach Zac Taylor talked about communication not being very good in the first half, which led to a number of the early-down negative plays. In his eyes, it all played together to zero attempts to be explosive in the passing game other than hope for broken tackles on short slants.
“We called some (shot plays),” he said. “Had to check out of them, rightfully so. And they did a good job trying to stay on top. That was one thing — tried to double Ja’Marr, tried to play a lot of Tampa 2. When your first-down efficiency isn’t very good, it’s easy for them to try to take that away, particularly early.”
With the Bengals in poor down-and-distance, that led to the issue that has dogged them forever and was supposed to be fixed this past offseason with the addition of four new starters on the offensive line. Six more sacks of Burrow left the quarterback visibly frustrated and at times shaking his head and grabbing at his ribs.
Of course he was, by the way. Taking this many hits in two weeks is beyond unsustainable. And coming off of the 70-sack 2021 season, it’s concerning as the Bengals end up going back down the path again. Against Pittsburgh, the actual play of the line wasn’t as bad as the seven sacks would have suggested. Burrow was not going to turn it over five times every week. You could paint a picture of optimism despite the loss. On Sunday in Dallas, even if the Bengals had pulled off the comeback and won the game, it would have felt like a magic trick covering up a real problem.
You can’t have an offense that looks like a train wreck for a half and survive. You can’t sustain the kind of pressure that rarely allowed Burrow to climb the pocket and mostly made him look uncomfortable. Burrow and Taylor both claim he didn’t seem uncomfortable, but it’s hard to feel anything but empathy pains watching the punishment Micah Parsons and company put on him.
Burrow was holding the ball trying to make a play. That’s part of his game, but none of the sacks came faster than 2.9 seconds. This wasn’t about free runners and total whiffs. These were scrambles and escapes thwarted.
“Second half I thought the protection was great,” Burrow said. “I can do a better job of getting the ball out quickly.”
As the conversations about what’s going on with the offense unfolded across the visitor’s locker room of AT&T Stadium, the ideas and explanations were all over the map.
Burrow thought the communication was great, Taylor did not. Chase thought there should be more deep shots. The lack of run game was a culprit, first downs a problem and too many sacks. Some of the sacks are on Burrow, some on the line, some on the scheme.
There were so many issues to point to, they produce direct contradictions.
“We need more big plays,” Mixon said. “We have to take what the defense gives us.”
Yeah, figuring out why life is so hard for this offense can be puzzling and opinionated. The explanations sounded the same as the offense looked: like everybody is trying to figure out what the heck is going on.
“We are an explosive, fast offense,” Boyd said. “We take pride in that. End of the day, we can do anything. You want to play quick game, go deep, whatever you want we will make it work. We got one of the best quarterbacks in the game. If we have to make corrections and figure out a new game plan, that’s the game plan we got to go with.”
The Bengals lost two games in a row on two separate occasions last year, but it never ballooned to three. They will need to beat the Jets (1-1) in order to avoid that fate. Otherwise, it gets late fast. Losing to names like Trubisky, Rush and Joe Flacco when Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson and Tom Brady await down the line makes the discouraging start worse.
Taylor says the growing concern with the scuffling offense is a symptom of losing.
“People are going to look back at two games last year and say something very similar,” Taylor said. “These reactions always happen when you lose a game. It’s a long season. That’s what we tell our players. We’re just going to take ownership of these losses and continue to get better. We know that we have a good football team. We shot ourselves in the foot a little bit early on here in two games. Long season yet to go and our guys are going to continue to improve and play better and get some wins.”
“O-and-two is tough, but there is no panic,” Burrow said. “There’s a lot of ball left to be played.”
Will it be played like the first half or second half from Sunday? Will anybody figure out why the Bengals offense is such a mess right now? Depends on who you ask. The one aspect nobody can dispute is that it shouldn’t be this hard.
Everyone is searching for answers and thanks to the failures Sunday at Dallas, the urgency to find them has increased.
“Whatever we got to do,” Collins said, “we got to do it and do it quickly.”
(Top photo: Richard Rodriguez / Getty Images)