Position grades are always a fun exercise, especially when the Bengals slay one of their biggest demons. This week, they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in Heinz Field for the first time since Week 8 of the 2015 season. Almost 6 years ago. The convincing victory also gives the Bengals an early lead for first place in the AFC North.
It wasn’t a perfect game from the Bengals, who sputtered a bit in the fourth quarter and gave Bengals fans across the world heart palpitations. That sputtering will be reflected in the position grades, mostly because we’ve seen the Bengals lose too many games like this in the past. But, to their credit, they buttoned up where it mattered. That will also be reflected in the position grades.
Offensive Week 1 Position Grades
Quarterback grade: A-
If you only look at the box score and watch the highlights, you’re likely to think Joe Burrow was an interception away from being nearly perfect on the day. It was certainly a great day for him. But, the interception was an absolutely boneheaded decision to throw into triple coverage with Terrell Edmunds also in the area. It was an interception reminiscent of some of the worst he’s ever thrown in a Bengals uniform. On top of that there was a pattern of overthrowing the ball that Joe will likely want to address in the film room. Luckily, on one of those overthrows, Ja’Marr Chase bailed him out with an incredible touchdown catch.
Other than that, you have to like what you saw from Burrow this week. He was mostly accurate, willing to scramble when he needed to, and didn’t let mistakes turn into patterns. At the end of the day, he only missed four throws and found the endzone three times. So, I really don’t have much to criticize.
Running Back grade: A
Joe Mixon’s 5.0 yards per carry was a huge reason the Bengals performed as well as they did this week. The Bengals only ran 42 offensive snaps as opposed to the Steelers’ 73, but they still managed to dictate the tempo of the game. That was mostly because Joe Mixon ran the ball so well.
The only reason this grade isn’t higher is because Mixon was largely non-existent in the passing game. However, Samaje Perine turned in an 8-yard catch on a scoring drive. So, you can’t knock the unit’s position grades too hard for that one element.
Wide Receiver grade: A+
Yelling and screaming about how the Bengals made the right choice taking Ja’Marr Chase with the No. 5 overall pick is starting to feel a bit redundant. At this point, it just feels like beating a dead horse. This week, Chase put the conversation to rest by becoming only the ninth receiver in NFL history to score a touchdown in each of his first three NFL games. In fact, he tacked another one on in the third quarter.
Tyler Boyd also got in on the touchdown action in the first quarter. He caught another 3 passes for a total of 36 yards across all four receptions. Despite the absence of Tee Higgins, Mike Thomas and Auden Tate both got their catches in on the day. Tate came down with his catch for 14 yards and Thomas went for 19. I’m not sure what more you could want from a unit that looks like one of the best in the NFL.
Tight End grade: C-
The Bengals’ tight ends didn’t really do much in this game to swing their position grades one way or the other. CJ Uzomah was only targeted once in the passing game. You could argue he could have been more aware of the ball and come down with the pass. But, I would argue it was Burrow’s fault for throwing the pass behind him. Drew Sample helped prevent a pick six on the interception, but that was about it.
Offensive line grade: A-
After two weeks, the Bengals’ offensive line looked dead in the water. Arguably, the worst performing member of the unit was Xavier Su’a-Filo. A knee injury kept him sidelined this week in favor of second round rookie Jackson Carman. It looked like a massive upgrade, and Burrow was barely touched all game. In fact, he was only pressured twice all game.
Upon further review, per PFF, Carman seemed to struggle a bit as a run blocker (35.8). However, he graded generally well as a pass blocker (68.8). His poor performance as a run blocker was essentially negligible given high quality run blocking performances by Jonah Williams (79.0) and Isaiah Prince (85.6).
In fairness, the Steelers’ defensive line was decimated by injuries. TJ Watt, Alex Highsmith, Stephon Tuitt, and Tyson Alualu were all out this week. Let’s see what they do against teams like the Ravens and Browns before we call this unit “fixed”. But, aside from a smattering of penalties in the first 35 minutes of the game, it was a refreshingly solid performance from a much maligned unit.
Defensive Week 1 Grades
Defensive line grade: A
Another week, another great performance from the Bengals’ most improved unit in 2021. The four sacks from BJ Hill, Trey Hendrickson, Cameron Sample, and Sam Hubbard felt like an homage to the early 2010s Bengals units that dominated in the trenches. Najee Harris couldn’t get a thing going on the ground, putting up a measly 2.9 yards per carry. Six times the Bengals managed to stop a Steelers ball carrier in the backfield for a negative gain. The Bengals are looking like a truly competitive team through 3 weeks, and this unit looks to be the most responsible.
Linebacker grade: A+
Logan Wilson looks like the next elite NFL linebacker. Not only did he lead the team in tackles (14) but he also recorded two interceptions on Ben Roethlisberger. The first interception came a few plays after Joe Burrow’s interception, essentially nullifying the impact. The second interception set the Bengals up in the red zone for an easy touchdown drive that gave the Bengals a 24-7 lead in the middle of the third quarter.
Germaine Pratt, Akeem Davis-Gaither, and Jordan Evans also assisted in some really big stops. On the whole, the unit was above average in pass coverage, elite against the run, and instrumental in creating turnovers.
Cornerback grade: C
Opposing teams seem to be catching on to the fact that Eli Apple is a liability. Chase Claypool tripled the receiving production of anyone else on the team other than Najee Harris, likely due to there being an obvious mismatch. Apple was regularly getting burned by Claypool and combined with Chidobe Awuzie for a pair of infuriating pass interference penalties that didn’t need to happen. Darius Phillips also struggled on the day, particularly down the stretch.
Other than that, it was a pretty solid performance from this unit. Awuzie may have had that pass interference on 3rd and 11 that gave the Steelers a free first down. But, he generally held his man in check most of the day. Mike Hilton rarely got beat and got to enjoy celebrating a much needed revenge win over his former team.
Safety grade: B
It was another day where the safeties didn’t have to get involved much, which is always nice. It’s a huge change of pace from last year where Jessie Bates was required to be the superhero so often. This week, he played well on cleanup duty, only once allowing a play to go for more than three yards when he got involved. Vonn Bell was used sparingly as a blitzer and contributed to the pressure the Bengals were able to generate on Roethlisberger. But, other than a single pass deflection, he didn’t have much of an impact on this game.
Special teams grades: C-
Kevin Huber continued to prove he is an absolute weapon this week, pinning the Steelers inside the 20 three times and inside the 10 once. Unfortunately, the same sentiment can not be had about the punt coverage, or the return unit. Early in the game, Huber punted the ball inside the Steelers’ 6, but poor coverage allowed a 14 yard return. The defense held the Steelers to a punt on the following drive, but mistakes like that could be critical against more explosive teams.
Evan McPherson did hit a 43-yard field goal early in the second half that gave the Bengals some momentum coming out of halftime. But, it wasn’t exactly the prettiest kick. It’s nit-picking, for sure, but it was probably the first time I’ve seen McPherson attempt a kick that I wasn’t 100 percent sure was going to go through after it came off his foot. But, he did hit it, and converted all his extra points. So, it’s still infinitely better than what the Bengals dealt with at kicker last year.
Coaching grade: A
Personally, I went into this game thinking – if they lose, I’m out on Zac Taylor. But, if they win, that’s huge for their confidence and momentum going forward. Well, they won, and I think Zac earned at least the rest of the season to make his case for continuing to be the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals.
It was a very well coached game from start to finish. For the second time this season, the Bengals held onto a lead despite the best efforts of the opposing team. The play calling was on point all game, the gameplan was clearly well thought out, and the Bengals generally avoided most huge mistakes.
Even when mistakes were made, they didn’t turn into meltdowns, which has been an issue the Bengals have needed to solve during Taylor’s tenure.
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