Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor had a simple message to his team after its season-opening loss at Cleveland.
“This certainly isn’t the team we’re going to be, and we all understand that,” Taylor said in his post-game press conference when asked what he told the players.
Despite expectations being higher than ever coming off back-to-back AFC Championship appearances, the Bengals struggled out of the gate, falling 24-3 to the Browns on Sunday in the 100th “Battle of Ohio” matchup. An offense that didn’t get any first-team preseason snaps together looked not surprisingly out of sync considering the team had the equivalent of just two weeks of practices with starting quarterback Joe Burrow.
Here are five takeaways from the loss to the Browns.
1. Yet another slow start
Burrow hasn’t had a normal training camp yet but his last two were impacted more than his first two in terms of how much throwing he was doing with his receivers, and he looked almost equally as sloppy in both openers in 2022 and 2023.
The fourth-year quarterback missed five weeks because of a right calf injury and although he was physically in a better place than when he came back from an appendectomy last year, he only had a week and a half to get up to speed with his receivers prior to Sunday. It didn’t help the Bengals were facing a defense they’ve struggled with in the past.
As a result, the Bengals were shut out in the first half, and the offense amassed just 142 yards while Burrow threw for a career-low 82 yards the day after inking a five-year, $275 million extension. He had just 36 yards in the first half, Cincinnati punted on all seven drives before halftime and Burrow completed just 45.2 percent of his passes for the game.
In his post-game press conference, Burrow said his calf was “good enough.”
2. Higgins shut out
Tee Higgins didn’t land a catch despite Burrow throwing to him eight times, and while some of that might have been the effect of Burrow’s accuracy being off, it just seemed like the two of them were not on the same page.
On a couple of occasions, Burrow was looking for Higgins in a certain spot and he wasn’t anywhere near the throw.
Wide receiver Tyler Boyd said Friday that Higgins “got the short end of the stick” not getting a contract extension this summer, so perhaps there is a mental aspect to negotiations hanging over him. Last year, Jessie Bates said he felt like his first half of the season was impacted by added pressure of trying to earn a contract, but Burrow chalked up miscommunications with his receivers to “just some Week 1 stuff.”
“That happens in Week 1,” Burrow said. “Those things happen when the quarterback doesn’t perform in training camp. That was obviously something I would have liked to have done, but no excuses. It’s, obviously, not very good today. We got to do better.”
3. Defense did its part
The defense kept Cincinnati in the game, holding Cleveland to a field goal until the final minutes of the first half when Deshaun Watson ran in a 13-yard touchdown to make it a 10-0 lead going into halftime.
Cincinnati also got two turnovers the offense didn’t do anything with after Germaine Pratt forced a fumble that Chidobe Awuzie recovered and Dax Hill recorded his first NFL interception. The first led to a punt and the second a missed field goal.
Nick Chubb got going in the second half while the Bengals were likely feeling worn down by the amount of time the defense was on the field, and Cleveland was able to take advantage to extend the gap. Chubb amassed 106 yards on the ground. The Browns got two more field goals from Dustin Hopkins and a game-sealing touchdown pass from Watson to Harrison Bryant in the fourth quarter after a turnover on downs deep in Bengals territory.
4. Awuzie still working in
Awuzie started the game, but his workload was managed by rotating him with rookie second-round draft pick DJ Turner, who had a solid training camp and preseason to earn the role of the fourth cornerback.
The game marked Awuzie’s first since tearing his ACL at Cleveland last Halloween, and he only had about three weeks of full participation in practice while the Bengals tried to protect him by easing him back in. That could be the case early this season, and in the meantime, Turner is getting valuable experience.
Turner started the second half, and Watson targeted him on third down but Turner had good coverage to force a three-and-out. Two series later, Turner tackled Elijah Moore on third down to force the Browns to settle for a field goal. He finished with two tackles. Awuzie, who also is in a contract year, had three tackles and the fumble recovery.
5. Robbins gets tested
Rookie punter Brad Robbins had a tall task in his NFL debut, getting work on every drive the first half through heavy rain and finishing with 10 punts for an average of 40.9 yards per punt.
Robbins struggled early, including a low one down the middle for just 41 yards in the first half, but he ended up with a redemptive moment when backed into his own endzone. He boomed that one for 54 yards to reset the field a bit, and he finished with two inside the 20-yard line and one touchback.
It’s too early to read much into Robbins’ first game considering the difficult conditions. He had a hard time handling the snap on at least one of his punts, where the ball slipped out of his hands, and that led to a rushed kick. The ball is heavier in the rain, as well.
Browns punter Corey Bojorquez averaged 47.3 yards on his seven punts.
Ravens at Bengals, 1 p.m., CBS, 1530, 102.7, 104.7