CLEVELAND — On a bad night full of bad plays for the Bengals, there was one in particular that epitomized the futility and failures of the evening. It came with 5:29 left in the game when Browns defensive end Myles Garrett and defensive tackle Taven Bryant cruised past the offensive linemen tasked with blocking them and finished in a dead heat at the finish line that was Joe Burrow.
A masterful escape artist through his first three seasons, Burrow has found his way out of pricklier pockets, including a couple of incidents earlier Monday night.
But on this play, the 48th of what would be 50 mostly ineffective ones, Burrow had but one option — turtle up and surrender.
It was the fifth and final sack in a game where the biggest question surrounding the Bengals went from “How will they make up for the absence of Ja’Marr Chase?” to “Will they even score a freakin’ point?” as an injury-depleted Browns defense blanked them through three quarters en route to a 32-13 rout at FirstEnergy Stadium.
“We are a better offense than what we put out there tonight, even without (Chase),” Burrow said. “There are no excuses for that.”
After gaining 54 yards on their opening possession, which ended after Garrett tipped a pass intended for Tee Higgins and Browns cornerback AJ Green intercepted it at the Cleveland 16-yard line, the next six Bengals drives produced a total of 41 yards and four first downs .
That stretch included three sacks — one of which resulted in blitzing Browns linebacker Sione Takitaki stripping Burrow of the ball for the second turnover of the half — a bunch of check downs and zero interest in running the ball against a Cleveland defense that struggles to stop it .
The Browns were penalized for having 12 men on the field on the first play of the game. Every play thereafter, it looked like they still did as the receivers struggled to get open for anything more than check downs, and the offensive line repeatedly failed to keep pressure off Burrow.
“That’s what we get paid to do,” right tackle La’el Collins said after the game. “There’s no exception to that. We have to protect the quarterback, give him time to go through his reads and keep him upright. We have to go back to work and do a better job at that.”
The issue is whether they can actually do that and if the improvement shown in the last few games really was just fool’s gold against two of the worst pass rushes in the league in the Falcons and Saints.
When the Bengals have faced quality, it looks like it did Monday night. Seven sacks against the Steelers. Six at Dallas. Five in Cleveland.
“I have all the faith in the world in those guys to go out there, and I thought they played well enough to win,” Burrow said after taking seven hits.
“I thought really in the first half we did a nice job,” head coach Zac Taylor said. “(Garrett) got us the one time on third down. I thought we had a good plan. I thought our guys executed really well. The worst thing you want to do against the Cleveland Browns is give them a two- or three-score lead and let their running game get going, their play actions, and let their pass rushers key in. That’s a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, that’s what we gave to them.”
The pass protection wasn’t the only issue with the offensive line. The Bengals thought they had found something in the run game with more downhill plays for Joe Mixon out of shotgun over the last 10 quarters. And the first two official plays of the game Monday were Mixon runs (a screen to Mixon on the opening snap was wiped out by the 12-men penalty on Cleveland).
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But Mixon only ran it four more times in a tight first half. The 10 rushing attempts the Bengals had as a team were not only the fewest in the Zac Taylor era, but the fewest in franchise history, breaking the previous record of 11 set in a 50-34 loss to the Chargers in 1982.
And it wasn’t as though Taylor abandoned the run because Higgins and Tyler Boyd were picking up the slack for Chase’s absence due to the hip injury. Through three quarters, Higgins had two catches for eight yards and Boyd had two for 25.
Until Trenton Irwin’s catch on the final play of the third quarter gave him two for 27, the team’s leading receiver was running back Chris Evans, who had a 26-yard reception on the opening drive and promptly was returned to the bench and played only more snap the rest of the game.
Still well-stocked with offensive weapons even without Chase, the Bengals offense had 148 total yards and zero points heading into the fourth quarter.
Was that a head-scratcher for one of those weapons?
“Most definitely,” Mixon said. “To be honest, man, we needed a spark, and we didn’t get one tonight.”
There was a somber vibe in the locker room that went beyond the typical mood after a loss. Part of that was knowing team leader and top cornerback Chidobe Awuzie suffered a right knee injury that appeared to be serious, as coaches and players took turns going into the blue medical tent to offer their condolences.
Part of it was due to being dominated, something that has rarely happened to this team, with their three previous losses this season coming by a total of eight points and the last six overall by a combined 19 points. But their last two losses to the Browns in which the starters played have been by a combined 44 points, with Cleveland running its winning streak to five against the Bengals.
There was also the element of getting embarrassed in primetime yet again, running the franchise’s record to 1-24 in night games on the road, dating back to before some of the players on the roster were even born.
Then there was the harsh realization of falling to 0-3 in the AFC North and what it means.
“It’s tough, but it is what it is,” Boyd said. “We’re still staying the course and trying to get a streak going.”
“We can’t go back and redo things,” Mixon said. “The only thing we can do is move forward and attack the week. We’ve got a big week coming up with Carolina, and every week is gonna just get bigger.”
And that’s where much of the concern lies. This wasn’t just a bad day at Black Rock that can be dismissed as one of those games. It was a regression and reemergence of issues — pass protection chief among them — that could derail the season if they aren’t fixed in a hurry.
The loss of Awuzie will put even more pressure on the offense, as will the continued absence of Chase for at least one and probably two more games.
“We’re not panicking,” Burrow said. “We know what went wrong in each game. We have to go back and watch the film, make our corrections in this one like we always have and come back out firing next week.”
(Top photo: David Dermer / USA Today)