Zac Taylor was a young, lightly qualified Sean McVay acolyte entering this season on the hottest of hot seats. Quarterback Joe Burrow was an exciting prospect with a lot of question marks and an ugly knee scar. Ja’Marr Chase was the first wideout off the 2021 draft board — taken, it seemed, in the unlikely hope that he and Burrow could dominate in the pros just like they did together at LSU. But given that Chase’s selection precluded the Cincinnati Bengals from drafting a blindside protector for Burrow in the first round,1 the odds the two of them producing the same results in orange and black stripes as they did in purple and gold ones seemed low.
But Bengals owner Mike Brown made clear before the season that he expected Taylor to produce results.
After Sunday’s 41-17 beatdown of the Baltimore Ravens in Baltimore, the results have surpassed any for which Brown could have reasonably hoped: Chase has broken the all-time record for rookie receiving yards through seven games,2 Burrow is in (or very near) the top five in many key passing stats, and Taylor’s Bengals are 5-2. Thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker, they’re currently ahead of the Ravens for first place in the AFC North.
Look beyond the scorelines and highlights, and the Bengals appear to be what their record says they are. They’re No. 6 in the league in Sports-Reference’s Simple Rating System. They rank sixth in the league in Pro Football Focus’s overall team grades and ninth in Football Outsiders’ weighted Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). And FiveThirtyEight’s predictions give them a 787 percent chance of making the playoffs.
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But a quarterback and receiver can’t do all that by themselves — and the strongest argument that the Bengals are for real is how well-rounded they are. They’re ranked even higher in points allowed (fifth) than they are in points scored (seventh), and they’re tenth in yards allowed per game. Despite facing the third-most passing attempts in the league, they’ve allowed the 17th-fewest yards per game and third-fewest passing touchdowns. They rank third in rate of scoring drives allowed and fourth in per-drive points allowed. In fact, out of the 13 dimensions of the game in which Pro Football Focus grades teams, the Bengals rank eighth or higher in all but four.3
Per ESPN Stats & Information, the Bengals join the New Orleans Saints as the only two teams that can boast at least 10 expected points added (EPA) in all three phases of the game: offense, defense and special teams.4
|Expected Points Added|
|New England Patriots||+18.98||-4.60||+24.26|
|New Orleans Saints||+10.27||+17.83||+11.02|
|Kansas City Chiefs||+56.18||-74.75||+3.66|
|New York Giants||-2.85||-40.58||+2.35|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||+77.01||+7.90||+1.70|
|Green Bay Packers||+38.92||-17.04||+0.48|
|Washington Football Team||-4.63||-61.27||-0.76|
|Las Vegas Raiders||+34.44||-21.33||-1.36|
|New York Jets||-48.15||-43.02||-4.90|
|San Francisco 49ers||+15.27||-19.83||-10.37|
|Los Angeles Chargers||+39.83||-27.10||-13.53|
|Los Angeles Rams||+79.21||-1.08||-18.88|
Of course, the Bengals aren’t perfect. Though they rank 10th in rushing attempts and 14th in rushing yards, their 4.0 average yards per attempt ranks 21st. Their -13.37 rushing EPA not only ranks 10th-worst in the league, it also explains why their offense’s overall EPA isn’t as high as you’d think given Burrow’s passing success (their passing offense has contributed 49.02 total EPA, 10th-best in the league).
A deeper look reveals some big issues in the trenches. The Bengals’ poor PFF run-blocking grade is borne out by a meager 1.85-yard average rush before contact — 29th in the league. The runners make up for some of that, ranking No. 2 in yards after contact with 2.17. But big plays and first downs are still coming almost entirely through the passing game; they’re 24th in rate of 10-plus-yard runs, and they’re 31st in both rushes per first down and third-down rushing conversion rate.
On the other side of the ball, the low PFF pass-rush grade is also backed up by the Bengals’ fourth-worst pass-rush win rate. Yet thanks to their coverage unit, they’ve managed the 10th-best sacks-per-dropback rate, sixth-best opponent passer rating and second-best defensive success rate.
So barring a big trade or dramatic improvement in line play, the Bengals’ hopes of challenging the AFC’s best this year rest on Burrow and Chase continuing to beat opponents’ defenses for more yards and points than opponents’ passing games can muster against theirs.
There’s good news for Bengals fans on that front. As NFL Media’s Judy Battista wrote, the Ravens tried to replicate the game plan that bottled up Los Angeles Chargers phenom Justin Herbert — but Taylor anticipated and countered John Harbaugh and the Baltimore coaching staff. Taylor deployed Chase heavily on slants and back-shoulder throws, getting him open underneath the Ravens’ deep coverage. Rather than beat Baltimore deep, the Bengals got the ball to Chase quickly and let him gobble up yards in the open field. Through the season’s first six weeks, Chase was a consummate deep-ball specialist: He ranked fourth among NFL pass-catchers in average air yards per target and 56th in average yards after the catch. But against Baltimore, he racked up 114 yards after the catch, ranking second in the league for the week behind only Alvin Kamara.
If Taylor and his staff can now out-chess-match top coaches like Harbaugh, and their young stars can execute different tactics and schemes this well, then the Bengals’ future isn’t just bright — it’s already here.
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