CINCINNATI — The Cincinnati Bengals find themselves in a familiar hole to open the season, but while coach Zac Taylor said there was “nothing discouraging” about the way his team played Sunday, a second straight loss didn’t sit well with the players.
Cincinnati fell 27-24 to the Baltimore Ravens in the home opener Sunday at Paycor Stadium after giving up 178 yards rushing and failing to take advantage in two of four redzone opportunities. For the second straight season, the Bengals are 0-2.
Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins had individual bounce-back performances, and Charlie Jones scored on an 81-yard punt return, but Burrow’s interception at the goal line while trying to connect with Higgins in the endzone proved to be the difference.
Here are five takeaways from the loss:
1. Run defense struggles again
The run defense had another tough go with Lamar Jackson (54 yards rushing) and Gus Edwards (62 yards) combining for more than 100 of the 178 yards rushing managed by the Ravens. Last week in a 24-3 loss at Cleveland, the Browns racked up 206 yards on the ground.
Jackson’s longest run came on third-and-5, which he took for 12 yards to extend the final drive and keep the Bengals offense from getting the ball back, but Baltimore also converted a number of third-and-3 or less situations where the Cincinnati defense just couldn’t get stops to get off the field. Baltimore was 9-for-14 in third-down situations.
“Just Lamar, and they kept themselves in third-and-manageable,” cornerback Mike Hilton said. “They’re winning first and second downs, so third down is third-and-three, third-and-two – some easy third downs. Cut throat time, you know? Lamar kept the ball in his hands and was able to make plays with his legs.”
2. Not getting enough from limited possessions
The Bengals had just three first-half possessions thanks in part to long drives by the Ravens, and the offense didn’t do enough with those opportunities. They went three-and-out the first two drives, with a penalty negating one second-down conversion, and settled for a field goal on the last one.
Cincinnati went into halftime trailing 13-10 but got the ball first to open the second half and was in the redzone with a chance to take a lead when Geno Stone intercepted Burrow’s pass intended for Higgins at the goal line. That proved to be a pivotal point in the game.
Stone returned it 36 yards to improve field position, and then Jackson hit Zay Flowers on a 52-yard pass to set up a quick score, making it 20-10 with 8:39 left in the second quarter. Burrow threw two touchdown passes to Higgins before it was over, with another Baltimore touchdown drive in between, but the last one came with just 3:28 left and Cincinnati never got the ball back.
“When you play the Ravens, every possession is at a premium,” center Ted Karras said. “Usually, an NFL game is about 10-11 possessions (for an offense), and the Ravens cut that down usually to about eight. … We got it going in the second half. We don’t need to dip our toe in the water anymore. We need to dive right in and get some points right away.”
Burrow still finished strong with 190 yards passing in the second half, and Higgins went from a catch-less performance last week to making eight receptions for 89 yards. The offense just needs to get going faster.
3. Burrow’s calf still a concern
Last week when Burrow said his calf “was good enough” to play better at Cleveland, it wasn’t an encouraging sign about his health. Now, he says he tweaked it again on the second to last play for the offense, and it’s clear this could be something he is dealing with for at least a little while longer.
Burrow’s lack of mobility impacts what he can do with the offense, but in the third quarter he jumped to miss a defender and then ran out of the pocket, and that seemed to be the first sign that maybe he was getting that part of his game back.
After he tweaked the calf on the last drive, he stayed in to throw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Higgins but limped off as McPherson came on to kick the PAT. He was massaging it on the sideline and Jake Browning was getting warmed up, but Burrow said he planned to go back in if the offense got the ball back.
“We’re going to have to wait and see,” Burrow said. “I’m not sure how it’s going to feel the next couple of days. It’s pretty sore right now, but no telling how it’s going to feel so I think we’re going to take it day by day.”
4. Jones provides spark
The Bengals knew they were getting a quality return specialist when they drafted Charlies Jones out of Purdue, but the former Big Ten Return Specialist of the Year proved his value Sunday when he scored the team’s first touchdown of 2023 on an 81-yard punt return in the second quarter.
Jones found a hole around the 25-yard line and was past the last gunnar around the 30-yard line with open space in front of him going down the left sideline. A flag was thrown around the Bengals’ 40-yard line and the stadium waited in wonder if the touchdown would count, but eventually the flag was picked up and the signal given. Jones even said he gave the ball back to the ref thinking it wasn’t going to count.
“It was wide open,” Jones said. “They did a great job blocking and made my job easy. … Obviously the most important thing is getting the win, and we didn’t get that. But I know this team is going to bounce back.”
5. Been here before
The Bengals can’t rely on the fact they were 0-2 last year and still made it to the AFC Championship, especially knowing Burrow was healthy then, but that is something that helps instill some confidence they can do it again and still reach their goals.
Cincinnati was 0-3 in the division last year before winning the last three to claim a second straight AFC North title. The Bengals will try to bounce back Sept. 25 on Monday Night Football when they host the L.A. Rams.
“The beauty of this team is we know it’s a 17-game season,” Taylor said. “There’s no overreaction on our end. We have to be prepared for stuff outside our locker room, which is natural. We’re in a very difficult division. We would have loved to come out 2-0; 1-1 would have been fine too. Tis is exactly where we were last year, and this team is only going to get better with every game that passes. When you stumble early, you have to learn from it. So many years in the past, we’ve learned from early-season losses that have propelled us in November and December. This will be no different. I’m very confident in that.”
MONDAY, SEPT. 25
Rams at Bengals, 8:15 p.m., ESPN, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7