The Bengals were 0-3 this season in games that went down to the final possession until Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase turned the tide for Cincinnati last week at New Orleans.
Head coach Zac Taylor said the game-winning score and subsequent defensive stand shifted the energy for the Bengals (3-3) entering Sunday’s date with the surprising Atlanta Falcons (3-3).
“I don’t think you can discredit that,” Taylor said of the Bengals rediscovering late-game magic in New Orleans. “Sometimes when things look really bleak and dead, Joe (Burrow) finds a way out of the mess. You don’t know how he does it. He just does it. It’s special to see when it happens.”
Leaky pass protection leading to 22 sacks in six games has been the hottest recurring headline around the Bengals this season. But Burrow, who rushed for a score and is on pace for another 4,000-yard season, recalls being 5-4 when they hit the bye week last November and confidence remains high in Cincinnati.
“Defenses can play us however they want,” running back Joe Mixon said of the Bengals’ evolving offense. “We can do anything we want to. We are capable of running any offense we want. … Like I told y’all, they can pick their poison and do whatever they want to do. We found a recipe where you can’t stop either.”
Falcons head coach Arthur Smith said the Bengals’ multifaceted offense brings a unique challenge. He’s also interested in seeing how his young team handles recent success. Atlanta was also 3-3 at this stage of the 2021 season.
“When you win, you have to turn the page, just like when you lose. I think you’ll find out more, kind of how we respond this week, how you handle success is just as important as how you handle any kind of failure,” Smith said Wednesday. “It’s a big week for us.”
While Mixon hasn’t gained great traction, the Bengals might have a cure for their ailing pass protection. Burrow took just two snaps under center against the Saints and the Bengals brought more read-option looks that included Burrow’s 19-yard TD run.
“These guys are playing really well the last couple weeks. They’re meshing as a group,” Burrow said of the offensive line. “Just playing together more. Understanding concepts, what teams are trying to do to us.”
If Week 6 was an awakening, it came at the right time. The Falcons are flying under the radar but a grinding ground game has driven Atlanta into a tie with Tampa Bay atop the NFC South standings. The Bengals’ run defense — yielding 121 yards per game — ranks 21st in the NFL and has been smacked for 383 yards the past two weeks.
Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota was Offensive Player of the Week in the NFC last week after accounting for three total touchdowns (two passing) and 50 rushing yards in Atlanta’s impressive win over the San Francisco 49ers.
“There’s more than one way to win, we’re just doing it our way,” Smith said.
Behind the NFL’s third-best rushing attack (165.2 yards per game), the Falcons are winners of three of their last four by doing little things well and not beating themselves. Atlanta’s special teams are also getting the job done. The Falcons lead the NFL with a 17.8-yard punt return average and are fourth in kickoff returns.
The Falcons have been without top running back Cordarrelle Patterson (knee) since Week 4, when he was injured against the Cleveland Browns.
The Falcons have rushed for 150-plus yards in five of six games, including 168 on a season-high 40 attempts last week. That performance led Smith to toast his entire offensive line with bottles of Bud Light at the club level bar postgame. Smith received permission from the front office before running the tab and said he wouldn’t be making incentive-based beers a habit.
The strategy is easier employed when leading a game, naturally, and Atlanta led all four quarters last week in a 28-14 takedown of San Francisco.
“Everybody is feeding off Mariota’s energy,” Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts said.
Smith, 10-13 since being named Falcons head coach prior to last season, has remained committed to the run-heavy approach he adopted from his early days as an assistant for Joe Gibbs in Washington. It helps that rookie Tyler Allgeier is the top-rated rookie running back according to Pro Football Focus, which measures in-game performance.
Behind that dominant running game, the Falcons are No. 3 in the NFC (eighth overall) in scoring at 24.3 points per game even with Mariota topping out at 229 passing yards as a single-game high.
Keeping up with the Bengals became more difficult this week after Atlanta cornerback Casey Hayward (shoulder) landed on injured reserve. The Falcons’ other starter, A.J. Terrell, left last week’s game with a thigh injury but said he could’ve returned. Terrell practiced Wednesday. Darren Hall is listed as Heyward’s replacement in the starting lineup on the team’s unofficial depth chart.
“We have a lot of confidence in Darren Hall,” Smith said Wednesday.
Chase had seven catches for 132 yards and two scores at New Orleans, his second 100-yard game this season, just as sidekick Tee Higgins returned to the lineup. He missed the Week 5 loss to the Baltimore Ravens and has been dealing with a nagging ankle injury.
The Bengals are likely to be without linebacker Logan Wilson, who Taylor described as day-to-day despite re-injuring his surgically repaired shoulder last week. Wilson did not practice Wednesday.
–Field Level Media