The Cincinnati Bengals are in dire straits with Friday's news that Joe Burrow is out of the season with a torn ligament. As they saw in the second half of their blowout loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday night, there’s a big dropoff from Burrow to Jake Browning, their current backup quarterback.
With Burrow out, the Bengals will need a total team effort to save their season and get into the postseason — and quite frankly, they needed to be playing much better when Burrow was in the lineup.
The problem for the Bengals is they just might not be good enough to see their goals through this season. The offense being banged up is one thing, but right now, the defense is just flat-out bad.
The past two Bengals squads have gotten off to similar disappointing starts. In 2022, Cincinnati started 0-2 and fought its way all the way to the AFC title game, where it ended up falling short against the eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. It was a remarkable achievement, given the margins for error were so slim after dropping the first two games of the season.
That doesn’t feel possible for the 2023 Bengals, whose defense has fallen off a cliff. According to RBSDM.com, the 2022 Bengals ranked eighth in expected points allowed per play (minus-0.045) and seventh in success rate (42.2%). Pair that with a top-five offense and that team had what it takes to dig itself out of a hole and go on a run. This year’s Bengals defense ranks 22nd in expected points allowed per play (minus-0.001) and 30th in success rate (46.4%).
They just don’t have the juice on that side of the ball right now. They lost Pro Bowler Jessie Bates III, Vonn Bell and Eli Apple to free agency from a strong secondary in 2022 and are still waiting for some of their recent draftees in the secondary to develop into consistently startable talent. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo is widely respected as one of the better playcallers in the game, but it’s hard to call a great defense in the NFL when the talent dissipates. Cincinnati’s secondary currently includes three rookies and two second-year players, with three of those five (safety Dax Hill and cornerbacks Cam Taylor-Britt and DJ Turner) playing significant roles on defense. Time will tell if those players can lead a cohesive and strong pass defense, but they aren’t there yet.
In a way, the Bengals are in a similar spot as the AFC rival Buffalo Bills. They have a supremely talented quarterback with enough of a supporting cast to have faith in their performance, but a good chunk of the roster around them is starting to get old or walked out of the building this offseason. This is where the expectations around teams that win a lot can get a bit muddy. It takes a consistent reloading process year after year to avoid a down season like this — something that’s really hard to do. One bad offseason can set a team back, but on the flip side, it takes only one offseason for a team like the Bengals to spring back to the top of the AFC.
Even if the Bengals can get players like pass rusher Sam Hubbard, who's currently battling an ankle injury, back on their defensive line, the overall roster doesn’t have the depth and talent needed to sustain Super Bowl aspirations this season. When Burrow was healthy and throwing to Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins (when he gets back), the Bengals still had the top-end talent to stay in a game with any team, but they no longer have the overall personnel to consistently win against every team.
The Bengals don’t even have a normal 5-5 record, it’s a bit more dubious. They’re 0-3 in the AFC North, lost the season series with the Ravens and are 1-5 against AFC teams this year. Attaining a tiebreaker in time to reach the seventh seed gets more difficult by the day.
It’s a tough pill to swallow when a team has a quarterback good enough to win the Super Bowl, but the Bengals are inching closer to their offseason plans by the week. The defense is young and underperforming, Burrow is done and the path toward the seventh seed is muddy. Sometimes, it just ain’t your year. Load up for fall 2024, Cincinnati.