CLEVELAND — On a bad night full of bad plays for the Bengals, there was one in particular that embodied the futility and failures of the night. He came with 5:29 left in the game when Browns defensive end Myles Garrett and defensive tackle Taven Bryant passed the offensive linemen tasked with blocking them and tied at the finish line which was Joe Burrow.
A masterful escape artist in his first three seasons, Burrow found his way out of the toughest pockets, including a few incidents earlier Monday night.
But on this game, the 48th of what would be a mostly ineffective 50, Burrow had only one option – turtle and surrender.
It was the fifth and final sack of a game where the biggest question regarding the Bengals was “How are they going to make up for Ja’Marr Chase’s absence?” to “Are they even going to score a fucking point?” as an injury-worn Browns defense shut them out for three quarters en route to a 32-13 rout at FirstEnergy Stadium.
“We’re a better offense than what we put on tonight, even without (Chase),” Burrow said. “There is no excuse for this.”
After gaining 54 yards on their first possession, which ended after Garrett tipped a pass intended for Tee Higgins and Browns cornerback AJ Green intercepted it at the Cleveland 16-yard line , the Bengals’ next six drives produced a total of 41 yards and four first downs. .
That stretch included three sacks – one of which resulted in Browns blitz linebacker Sione Takitaki snatching the ball off Burrow for the second halftime turnover – a bunch of checks and no interest in running the ball against a Cleveland defense that struggles to stop it.
The Browns were penalized for having 12 men on the field in the first play of the game. Every play thereafter, it seemed like they always did as receivers struggled to open up to anything other than checks, and the offensive line repeatedly failed to keep the pressure on Burrow.
“That’s what we get paid for,” right tackle La’el Collins said after the game. “There is no exception to this. We have to protect the quarterback, give him time to do his readings and keep him on his feet. We need to get back to work and do a better job at this.
The question is if they can actually do it and if the improvement shown in recent games was really just a gold medal against two of the league’s worst passing runs at the Falcons and Saints. .
When the Bengals faced quality, it looks like it did on Monday night. Seven sacks against the Steelers. Six in Dallas. Five in Cleveland.
“I have all the faith in the world in these guys to go out there, and I think they played well enough to win,” Burrow said after conceding seven hits.
“I really think in the first half we did a good job,” head coach Zac Taylor said. “(Garrett) got us once on third down. I thought we had a good plan. I think our guys executed very well. The worst thing you wanted to do against the Cleveland Browns is give them a two or three point lead and let their running game play out, their play actions and let their passing throwers come in. That’s is a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, that’s what we gave them.
Pass protection wasn’t the only problem with the offensive line. The Bengals thought they had found something in the running game with more downhill plays for Joe Mixon without a shotgun in the past 10 quarters. And the first two official plays of Monday’s game were Mixon runs (a screen to Mixon on the opening snap was wiped out by Cleveland’s 12-man penalty).
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But Mixon only ran it four more times in a tight first half. The Bengals’ 10 rushing attempts as a team were not only the fewest in the Zac Taylor era, but the fewest in franchise history, breaking the previous record of 11 set in a 50-34 loss to the Chargers in 1982.
And it wasn’t like Taylor dropped out of the race because Higgins and Tyler Boyd were taking over for Chase’s absence with the hip injury. In three quarters, Higgins had two catches for eight yards and Boyd had two for 25.
Until Trenton Irwin’s catch on the final play of the third quarter gave him two for 27, the team’s leading receiver was running back Chris Evans, who had a 26-yard reception in the first. practice and was quickly sent back to the bench and only played more break the rest of the game.
Still well-stocked with offensive weapons even without Chase, the Bengals’ offense was 148 yards and zero points heading into the fourth quarter.
Was it a headache for one of these weapons?
“Most definitely,” Mixon said. “To be honest, man, we needed a spark, and we didn’t get one tonight.”
There was a dark vibe in the locker room that went beyond the typical vibe after a loss. Part of that was knowing that team leader and top cornerback Chidobe Awuzie suffered a right knee injury that appeared to be serious, as coaches and players took turns going to the blue medical tent to offer their condolences.
Part of that was down to dominance, which has rarely happened to this team, with their previous three losses this season by a total of eight points and their last six overall by a total of 19 points. But their last two losses to the Browns in which the starters have played have been a combined 44 points, with Cleveland leading their winning streak to five against the Bengals.
There was also the element of being embarrassed in prime time, bringing the franchise record to 1-24 in night road games, dating back to before some of the players on the roster were even born.
Then there was the hard realization of falling to 0-3 in the AFC North and what that means.
“It’s tough, but it is what it is,” Boyd said. “We always stay on course and try to start a streak.”
“We can’t go back and do it again,” Mixon said. “The only thing we can do is move on and attack the week. We have a big week ahead with Carolina, and each week is going to get bigger.
And therein lies much of the concern. It wasn’t just a bad day at Black Rock that can be considered one of those games. It was a regression and re-emergence of issues – the chief pass guard among them – that could derail the season if not resolved in a hurry.
The loss of Awuzie will put even more pressure on the offense, as will Chase’s continued absence for at least one and likely two more games.
“We’re not freaking out,” Burrow said. “We know what went wrong in every game. We have to go back and watch the film, make our corrections in this one like we always have and get back to filming next week.
(Top photo: David Dermer/USA Today)
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