Are Bengals' Blunders a Sign of Super Bowl Hangover?
NFL Week 1 - The last time we saw the Cincinnati Bengals play a football game, their heads were hung mourning a heartbreaking Super Bowl loss to the Los Angeles Rams. Their offseason plan was simple: rework the offensive line. The Bengals front office went all-out trying to protect Joe Burrow, bringing in veteran linemen Ted Karras, Alex Cappa and La'el Collins through free agency and rookie guard Cordell Volson through the draft. In total, four new starting linemen were brought in to provide added protection to Joe Burrow after he was sacked a league-leading 51 times in 2021.
There's no better way to stress-test that new-look offensive line than by going against the reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt and the rest of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense. The result felt all too familiar: the same 23-20 final score as the Super Bowl, the same amount of sacks (seven) taken by Burrow, and the same result.
Same as it ever was.
The first play of the game set the tone for both the Bengals offense and Steelers defense, at least for the first half. On a simple four-man rush, Cameron Heyward got home and sacked a scrambling Burrow looking to extend the play. The very next snap, Watt nearly made it back-to-back sacks, forcing Burrow to get the ball out quickly to Tyler Boyd on a comeback route. That's when Minkah Fitzpatrick hawked the pass and returned it to the house for the first score of the game.
The Steelers put both Burrow and the new Cincinnati offensive line to the test in this game, disguising both their coverages and defensive fronts with pre-snap motion of their own. Pittsburgh would line up with Fitzpatrick back as the lone safety back in a Cover-1 look, then drop two defensive backs into Cover-2 at the snap while Fitzpatrick lurked over the intermediate middle of the field. The Steelers defensive front employed similar levels of trickery, constantly moving their linebackers back and forth, feigning pre-snap blitz looks or delaying their rushes.
On Burrow's first fumble of the game, Pittsburgh shows a 4-2 front with Terrell Edmunds (34) hanging back 8 yards off the line of scrimmage. Edmunds creeps up to the line just before snap to signal the safety blitz, forcing Volson (67) to engage him and giving Alex Highsmith (56) the one-on-one assignment against Jonah Williams (73). The Steelers then send two additional linebackers on a delayed blitz, sending seven total pass-rushers. Burrow, seeing two linebackers, a safety, and a defensive tackle making their way upfield, tries to make a play. He just doesn't account for Highsmith off his blindside, getting home to make the strip on Burrow's outstretched arm.
Looking at the boxscore for this game—seven sacks allowed, a 12.2% adjusted sack rate, and five turnovers by your quarterback in a loss—would, in most cases, be an abject failure for a team who shared the same offseason goals as the Bengals. While it's not what the Bengals hoped for out of the focal point of their offseason, Cincinnati's offensive line did not suffer the total regression that seemed to show on paper. Next Gen Stats clocked Burrow with an average time to throw of 2.7 seconds, an improvement over last year by one one-hundredth of a second. Against one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL in their first game together, the Bengals may as well chalk that up as a minor victory.
Part of the numbers the offensive line allowed are a result of whom they must protect at quarterback. Burrow has a penchant for trying to make the most out of a play, for better or for worse. In most cases, it's what makes Burrow an elite quarterback, flashing the highly sought-after ability to make something out of nothing. In other cases, though, you get anomalous results like this: big sack totals and high turnover rates.
Where the Bengals offensive line actually struggled is in the run game. Cincinnati finished Sunday with 2.92 adjusted line yards (31st), a 32% stuffed rate (31st), and a 20% success rate on rushing attempts (32nd). Pittsburgh was able to shut them down with their standard front seven, as well. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Joe Mixon faced the third-lowest rate of eight or more defenders in the box in Week 1. Take away his lone 31-yard breakout and he finished with 26 rushes for 51 yards, good for 1.96 yards per carry.
I spend so much time talking about half this game because the other side of the ball for Pittsburgh was pretty pedestrian. It's a testament to their defense that Pittsburgh walked away with 23 points and the win. Aside from the Fitzpatrick pick-six, Pittsburgh's scoring drives in regulation started at the Cincinnati 34 yard-line, the Pittsburgh 41, and the Cincinnati 45. That last possession is credit to a 20-yard punt return by Gunner Olszewski, but for the most part Pittsburgh's offense was served scoring opportunities on a silver platter by their defense. The Steelers translated their defense's first three turnovers into 17 of their 26 points. Their longest offensive drive of the day was a 59-yard touchdown drive started off a T.J. Watt interception near midfield.
Speaking of which, losing Watt is such a major blow to this defense. The force multiplier created by Watt's presence cannot be understated. He necessitates a second blocker, opening up opportunities for others on the Steelers defensive line to wreak havoc. Finishing the afternoon with a sack, three tackles for loss, two pass breakups, and an interception, Watt picked up right where he left his DPOY season off. With Watt seeking alternate opinions on his elbow, the timetable on his pectoral injury ranges anywhere from one month to the rest of the season, spelling the difference between a significant yet short-term dip and the premature end to what could have been a top-five defense.
Mitchell Trubisky's 5.1 yards per pass attempt was the third-lowest average of any starting quarterback during the opening weekend, while his 55.3% completion rate was fifth-worst. Pittsburgh seems to have an exceptional receiving corps with Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and Pat Freiermuth at the helm, but this team is led by its defense. Trubisky does add an element of mobility not seen in Pittsburgh since Ben Roethlisberger was young and spry, but the end result was a handful of avoided sacks and three scrambles for 9 yards. If Trubisky is just an early season stopgap while Kenny Pickett gets acclimated to the pros, so be it, but the offensive capabilities of this team are capped until the changing of the guard happens.
By the VOA
No "Where the Game Swung" for our opening weekend of action, so we go straight to "By the VOA."
Both the Bengals and Steelers' offenses ranked in the bottom 10 of offensive DVOA, but Cincinnati's plummet is mostly fueled by their shocking first half. Cincinnati posted a -78.9% offensive VOA before halftime, with four of their six drives ending in turnovers. Pittsburgh's fourth-best defensive VOA propels them into the top 10 of our team rankings by total VOA.
Burrow finished Week 1 with the worst game of his career, at least from an efficiency perspective. His four interceptions and five turnovers are both career highs, and his -156 YAR is the lowest of his career thus far.
Based on our upgraded Post-Game Win Expectancy formula, we would expect Cincinnati to win this game 61% of the time. The Bengals may have had a lower total VOA, but they ran way more plays than the Steelers (94 to 59 not counting spikes/kneels) and the Steelers had more penalties (nine to five including declined and offsetting).
This certainly is not the result any Cincinnati Bengals fan was hoping for in the team's first game since February, but I am not ready to declare this the beginning of a Super Bowl (appearance) Hangover. If anyone can speak to that, it's prize heavyweight fighter and star of The Hangover Mike Tyson, who once wisely said, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."
The first two quarters were the Steelers collectively punching Burrow, the offensive line, and the Bengals offense in the mouth. For the rest of the game, Burrow was skittish in the pocket. There were certainly times when, had Burrow remained in the pocket in the face of incoming pressure for another half-second, he could have made a play to an open receiver. Burrow and the Bengals offense found a way to beat the Steelers' coverage with crossing routes. This below pass to Tee Higgins helped Cincinnati get into field goal range for their first points of the afternoon.
Not all of the interceptions thrown by Burrow were his fault, either. Pittsburgh did an excellent job pressuring Burrow into mistakes, just as they did on the second play of the game that resulted in a Fitzpatrick pick-six. Others, though, were out of Burrow's hands. One was ripped from the arms of Boyd as he fell to the turf. Another was less Burrow's fault and more earned by Watt, who leapt above right tackle Collins to pick Burrow off at the line.
Sometimes, things don't bounce your way. Just ask Evan McPherson. McPherson finished 52-for-54 on extra points in his rookie season and had never missed a field goal attempt inside 40 yards. One of the heroes of Cincinnati's miraculous playoff run had both occur on back-to-back kicks in this game (due in part to the struggles of backup long snapper Mitchell Wilcox).
The Bengals could have won this game on three separate occasions. Aside from the two misses by McPherson, Cincinnati should have reviewed a would-have-been touchdown grab by Ja'Marr Chase with just over two minutes left to go in regulation. The Bengals actually hurried to the line to get a play off before the two-minute warning to their own detriment, missing the opportunity for officials to review the catch in their favor.
An early upset with multiple opportunities to win does not feel like a harbinger of things to come the way the Rams' Thursday night loss to Buffalo seems to be. It took five turnovers, seven sacks, and two missed game-winning kicks to take down this Cincinnati team. Should there be tweaks? Absolutely, but the Bengals defense finished with a top-10 performance by VOA standards, and Burrow needed the worst efficiency game of his career to lose in overtime.
There's no need to sound the alarms for Cincinnati just yet, but the Bengals have officially received their wake-up call that the rest of the AFC North is ready to play this year.