Our 2023 NFL Preview takes us from the Windy City to one fit for a queen, as the Bengals look to finally reach the summit and bring the franchise its first-ever Lombardi Trophy. After coming up short in Super Bowl LVI and last January’s AFC Championship Game by the smallest of margins, Cincinnati has been knocking on the proverbial door of greatness for a few years now, with the brain-trust of (Director of Player Personnel) Duke Tobin and (Head Coach) Zac Taylor hoping that a few minor tweaks are all that is necessary to vault these striped felines into the promised land. Will (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Joe Burrow continue rising up the Quarterback hierarchy? Will the Offensive Line remain intact to protect him? How will a reshuffled Secondary come together? Let’s take a journey through the jungle and see if these Bengals really do have a title run in them…
Getting Over the Hump
A 23-20 loss in Super Bowl LVI. A 23-20 overtime defeat at Arrowhead Field in the AFC Championship Game a year later. Over the last two seasons, Joe Burrow has led the Bengals further than most predicted that he would, though ultimately failed in delivering the franchise its first-ever Lombardi Trophy. However, anyone that has watched the career of the 26-year-old unfold has learned not to doubt him on the gridiron. A year after earning Comeback Player of the Year honors following a lengthy rehab from tearing multiple ligaments in his knee, Burrow (pictured to the right) put together another stellar campaign in 2022, completing 68.3% of his passes for 4,475 yards on 6.52 net yards per attempt, with a career-high thirty-five touchdowns in comparison to twelve interceptions, despite missing (fellow Pro-Bowler) Ja’Marr Chase for five games due to injury, a porous Offensive Line that struggled to protect him throughout the first month of the season, and opposing defenses adjusting to take away the big plays that were so prevalent in 2021. What we saw last year was a more measured, mature Burrow who was much more willing to simply take what he was given, while patiently probing for weaknesses underneath the coverage. So, what else can he do, you ask? Well, it would be nice to see Taylor and (Offensive Coordinator) Brian Callahan get a bit more creative in the passing game, for there was an awful lot on their Quarterback’s shoulders last season. More three-step drops and quick throws were to be found in an attempt to mitigate the lack of pass-protection, which forced this big-play unit to become far more methodical in their approach, which had some other noticeable side-effects for Burrow, who saw a career-high twenty-four passes batted down at the line of scrimmage, seventeen passes intentionally thrown away, and a drop percentage that increased from 4.5% to 5.8% (which was also influenced by Chase’s absence). The former number one overall pick also enjoyed the fewest pocket time of his career (2.2 seconds), leading him to flee on twenty-seven occasions, six more than the previous season. The hope is that better protection (much more on that shortly) will translate to more time in the pocket, which will in turn afford Taylor and Callahan more creativity on this side of the football.
For the second consecutive offseason, upgrading Burrow’s protection has been the priority for the Bengals, who hope to have finally made good on their efforts of keeping their Quarterback upright and clean. Two years ago, Burrow was sacked an NFL-high FIFTY-ONE times, including another nineteen during their run to the Super Bowl. Last season, that figure declined to forty-one sacks during the regular season and another ten in the playoffs. However, a deeper dive will show the improvement that the Offensive Line made throughout the campaign; of that total, thirteen of them came in the first two weeks alone, with Burrow only being sacked more than twice in a single game on three occasions the rest of the season. Furthermore, he was sacked on 16.5% of his drop-backs, which was a significant drop-off from the 24.5% he experienced in 2021. Unfortunately, his protection completely unraveled as the playoffs arrived, with (Tackles) Jonah Williams and La’el Collins suffering season-ending injuries in successive weeks, while (Right Guard) Alex Cappa was lost for the postseason due to injury as well. And it is with that said that Tobin and Taylor got serious about bolstering the trenches, which they did in a major way with the acquisition of (four-time Pro-Bowl Tackle) Orlando Brown Jr. via a four-year, $64 million contract with over $31 million in total guarantees. At 6′-8″, 363 pounds, Brown (pictured above) is a mountain of a man with excellent feet who can play on either flank, though will be manning Burrow’s blindside in Cincinnati, which is a move that ruffled the feathers of his predecessor, Williams, who remains on the roster despite demanding to be traded in the Spring. Simply put, this was a HOME RUN for the Bengals, who added a decorated, 27-year-old Tackle on a reasonable contract, while prying him away from their rivals in Kansas City in the process. Now, all eyes will be on Right Tackle, where there will be a competition between presumably Williams, (third-year Lineman) Jackson Carman, and eventually the aforementioned Collins, who will begin the campaign on the PUP list after tearing both his ACL and MCL late last season.
Over the last two seasons, the best kept secret in Cincinnati has been their defense, which has quietly been one of the best in the NFL despite sporting no big names of merit. (Defensive Coordinator) Lou Anarumo has done a tremendous job of developing and utilizing the talent at his disposal, while walking a fine line between simplicity and creativity in crafting a bend-but-don’t-break group. As a unit, the Bengals ranked eighteenth in total defense (350.9) and seventeenth in points allowed (22.1) in 2021, while finishing sixteenth (335.1) and sixth (20.1) in those same categories a year ago, prompting the 56-year-old to interview with a number of teams for their head coaching vacancies. Indeed, keeping Anarumo (pictured above) in Cincy for one more season was a stroke of good fortune for Tobin and Taylor, as they will count upon the venerable skipper to oversee the transition of the Secondary, who will see a number of new starters this Fall. First and foremost, both (starting Safeties) Jessie Bates and Von Bell departed in Free Agency after finishing fourth and third on the team in tackles, while sharing the team lead in interceptions with four apiece. Replacing them is likely to be (Sophomore Safety) Daxton Hill and (2022 third-round pick) Jordan Battle, with the former receiving plenty of reps last season in sub packages, while the latter has been well-schooled in a variety of positions within the Secondary during his time at Alabama. Furthermore, (Sophomore Cornerback) Cam Taylor-Britt effectively replaced the outgoing Eli Apple late in the campaign, while Tobin and Taylor selected (Michigan Cornerback) D.J. Turner sixtieth overall last April. Thankfully, it isn’t entirely all new faces in the secondary, where (veteran Cornerback) Chidobe Awuzie returns after missing over half of last season due to a knee injury. The 28-year-old made quite the impact when he arrived from the Cowboys via Free Agency two years ago, posting career-highs in interceptions (2) and passes defended (14).
Projected Finish: 11-6
After being one of the final four teams left standing in each of the last two playoffs, the Bengals stand poised to remain in that position come January, though there are a few things to keep a close eye on that could effectively make-or-break their championship run. With the addition of the aforementioned Brown, have they finally solved the issues that have plagued them in protection? How will the pieces fall at the other four positions along the Offensive Line, and will they be healthy come playoff time? Defensively, will Cincinnati suffer a setback as they make the transition to a young Secondary featuring as many as three new starters? The path through the AFC is treacherous, though this is a team with the Quarterback and weapons to go toe-to-toe with the likes of the Chiefs, Bills, Ravens, and more, and given their track record of developing so much talent inhouse, we expect them to be just fine…