The Cincinnati Bengals end the first quarter of the season with a 1-2-1 record having defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars (week 4), losing to the Cleveland Browns (week 2) and Los Angeles Chargers (week 1), and drawn with the Philadelphia Eagles (week 3). The 2020 season for the Bengals has certainly not gotten off on the right foot or as fans hoped it would. Amongst the fan base, it was feasible to believe that at least 3 of the first 4 games were winnable, giving the fans a potential 3-1 record to be proud of after 4 games. Unfortunately, that was not the case. So without further ado, let’s take a look back at the first quarter of the season for the Cincinnati Bengals. ProFootballFocus (PFF) grades will be referenced throughout this piece so to give the reader some context, their grading system goes something like this: 90-100 = elite, 85-89 = all-pro, 80-84 = very good, 75-79 = good, 70-74 = starter, 65-69 = average, 55-64= below average, under 55 = not NFL level. Whether or not the reader thinks one should live and die by PFF grades is irrelevant as they are designed to give some sort of context as to how a player is doing in regards to the rest of the league at their respective positions and contributions.
Heading into the season, fans had high expectations and standards for this offense boasting AJ Green (projected to be the franchise leader in every major WR stat), 2020 2nd round pick Tee Higgins, former 1st round pick John Ross, and Tyler Boyd who has posted back to back 1,000 yard receiving seasons. Of those named, Boyd has been producing at high levels the most consistently, posting a PFF grade of 85.6 (Boyd) and through 4 games. Potential Hall-of-Famer AJ Green has struggled out of the gates to establish chemistry with the new QB after being out of football for what is essentially 2 years; he is 2 years older and hasn’t had to battle against corners every Sunday for practically 2 seasons so hopefully Green is able to turn a corner soon with a current overall PFF grade of 59.6. John Ross has been a healthy scratch for 2 consecutive games so it is safe to assume his time in Cincinnati is pretty much done considering his 5th year option was also declined during the offseason. Coincidentally, Tee Higgins has seen an uptick in targets, catches and yards in those same 2 consecutive games. As Higgins is a rookie, along with his QB, expectations will naturally be curved as the rest of the season progresses; Higgins currently graded on PFF at 65.8. With the passing game still finding its formula for success, the running game has also been inconsistent.
It’s been a disappointing start from Joe Mixon, who recently was given a big deal extension that would keep him in Cincinnati until at least 2023. Mixon has topped 100 yards rushing (and all-purpose yards for that matter) in a single game just once in these first 4 games (week 4 Jacksonville); he also found the end zone in only 1 of those 4 games (again week 4). His lack of production in those first 3 games could be attributed to poor offensive line performances, whose performance in week 4 appeared very good in week 4 against a poor Jaguars defensive line.
The biggest question heading into the season for this offense was the offensive line. 2019 1st round pick Jonah Williams exits the first quarter of the season as the highest graded lineman for the Bengals, according to PFF (70.1) as the LT. This is a good sign considering the 2020 season is essentially Williams’ rookie year after sitting out the 2019 season with a torn labrum. On the other side of the line, RT Bobby Hart has drawn the ire from Cincinnati fans for not being able to pass-block (his PFF pass-blocking grade supports this with a pass-block grade of 53.9). Hart’s overall PFF grade makes him look better than what Bengals fans say he is with a more respectable grade of 67.3; this is boosted because of his 80.0 run-blocking PFF grade. This obviously presents a problem of predictability should the Bengals try subbing Hart out on passing plays to provide Burrow with some much needed protection, hence, whether they have a better pass-blocker at RT on the bench or not, the Bengals are forced to play Hart the bulk of the offensive snaps. This would suggest then that the Bengals run the ball more and utilize Hart’s obvious knack for it, given his PFF grade. Unfortunately, this is where that plan gets thrown in the trash as every other lineman that have played in all 4 games grades no higher than 57.4 in the run-blocking category on PFF. The positions on the offensive line that Bengals fans should be most upset about are the guard positions. Billy Price has posted the lowest overall PFF grade among Bengals linemen at 38.8. Other guards that qualify, Michael Jordan and Alex Redmond, each have graded out at 54.6. Hopefully, when Xavier Sua’Filo comes off IR, he provides some stability at the guard spot having posted a grade of 75.5 overall in his lone game week 1 against the Chargers. As for the center, overall Trey Hopkins has performed a little below average (60.3 overall), but has done well in pass protection (77.0). The line is clearly lacking unison and consistency throughout the first 4 games.
The TE group has been nothing to snuff at, but also nothing to write home about. Sample has performed well in run blocking, but poor in pass protection. Uzomah did well in pass protection, but poor in run blocking. Sounding familiar? It’s a similar situation as the offensive line. There is a lack of consistency. Sample, currently performing at starter level (overall graded at 70.4), will be seeing most of the TE work with Uzomah out for the season after getting injured against Cleveland in week 2. Sample currently has seen 16 targets come his way, reeling in 12 of those for 100 yards receiving. Recently, Sample saw 2 end zone targets against Jacksonville; the first resulted in an interception by LB Myles Jack (a pass Sample should’ve caught before Jack had a chance to rip it from him in the end zone) and the second was a drop that he wasn’t able to bring down. Sample couldn’t have asked for better end zone opportunities from the rookie QB.
Joe Burrow had a rough first game of the 2020 season (60.1 PFF grade vs LAC), but showed flashes of what we would see in the games following towards the end of the game. Burrow would follow up his debut with a grades of 68.5 against Cleveland, 86.5 against Philadelphia, and 80.8 against Jacksonville. His debut seems to be the case of first-game jitters based on his PFF grades. Clearly something Bengals fans are excited about. If there is anything negative to say about Burrow thus far, it’s that he doesn’t have the arm strength that others in the league are advertised with (ex. Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, or even fellow rookie Justin Herbert), however this was the main concern with Burrow heading into the 2020 draft. Fortunately for Burrow, his placement and pre-snap reads appear to be getting better as the games progress. Burrow, and the rest of the Bengals offense for that matter, will have tough matchups in the next 4 games against higher rated opponents in the Ravens, Colts, Browns (part 2), and Titans.
Where to begin? We might as well start with the line and branch out from there. This defensive front so far has been disappointing overall to say the least. The Bengals are currently dead last in QB knockdowns, tied for 18th in sacks, and 15th in QB pressures. To be somewhat fair, probable Hall-of-Famer Geno Atkins has not been available at DT to pair with the Bengals big offseason signing in DJ Reader, who has been performing at a starter level according to PFF with a 71.3 overall grade (the highest on the defensive line). In place of Atkins (and Mike Daniels), defensive coordinator Lou Anouroumo has tried multiple rotational pieces as an apparent attempt to catch lightning in a bottle. Christina Covington and Freedom Akinmoladun each have posted below-average level PFF grades with Amani Bledsoe posting the sole average grade in his one game suiting up for the Bengals in week 4. There seems to be a lack of consistency and reliability with the interior, but that is to be expected with a franchise great in Geno Atkins sidelined with an injury. It doesn’t get much better on the line from there.
Outside of Carl Lawson, who’s currently graded at 70.5 overall, the remainder of the exterior defensive line has been incredibly underwhelming. Veteran Carlos Dunlap, currently grading just outside the “non-NFL level” of the PFF grading scale with 55.4 overall, has had probably the roughest start to a season of his career recording 0 sacks and 2 QB hits in the first 4 games. Cincinnati native, Sam Hubbard has performed at average DE level to start the season; his weak link thus far being his pass rushing (pass defense graded at 49.2). As bad as the defensive line has been, it is unfortunately not the worst performing group of the 2020 Bengals defense through these first 4 games.
The linebacker position has often been cited in the last half-decade as the biggest need with this defense. The team finally seemed to address this need in the 2020 offseason signing Josh Bynes and spending 2 Day-2 draft picks on the position. Along with the remaining members on the LB depth chart, the best word that seems to describe this start for the LBs on this team would be “abysmal”. The highest graded LB would be veteran Bynes at 51.2. If that doesn’t give you an idea of what this core is looking like, let us be reminded that anything below 55 on the PFF grading scale is deemed not NFL quality of play. With Akeem Davis-Gaither and Logan Wilson, it’s fair to give them more opportunity and leeway given their rookie status, but that is not the case for guys like Bynes, Germain Pratt and Jordan Evans who are all performing below NFL standards. It does get at least a little better once we look at the secondary.
The Bengals started the season without their other big signing in Trae Waynes and aren’t likely to have him for the entire season, so there is still something to be desired for the depth chart of the cornerback position. Former 1st round pick William Jackson III has been the standout of the group, but that isn’t saying much given his average level overall PFF grade of 67.5 (pass defense grade of 71.3). Mackenzie Alexander and Darius Phillips both are performing at below average levels. Newly acquired Vonn Bell has also been underperforming given his price tag and PFF grade (58.7 overall). The lone bright spot of the entire secondary, and the entire defense, would be FS Jessie Bates III, who ranks number 1 at his position across the league and for his entire team with an overall PFF grade of 87.2 (pass defense grade 89.3). Bates also leads the team in tackles through 4 games and has clearly proven his value as one of the remnants of the Marvin Lewis era.
While exciting as their offseason may have been for fans, Who Dey Nation has been given a reality check to start their season. With all the money and draft capital invested in the defense, it has underachieved. And with all the supposed talent and weapons on the offensive side of the football, it renders those talents useless or hinders their effectiveness if the offensive line cannot create enough opportunities for both the passing and running games. This ultimately falls onto the head coach’s shoulders. While it may come across as coach-speak to his defenders, it doesn’t present a good look when Zac Taylor publicly supports and defends the ability of the offensive line. It’s concerning that AJ Green is performing the way he is under the franchise tag. However, it is encouraging to see Joe Burrow continue to develop so quickly and form chemistry with his targets (not named AJ Green at the moment). In fact, Burrow’s development, along with Jessie Bates’ stellar start, seem to be the two things that keeps the fan base hopeful they can turn a corner. Although conventional wisdom says that won’t be the case as these Bengals seem far more likely to go 0-4 in this next stretch than they are to go 2-2 or even 1-3. From one hometown fan, here’s to hoping they do turn that corner and start performing well against the tougher teams and play up to their competition. No doubt, this will lead to better PFF grades across the board, a happier fan base, and an even happier locker room.