So what’s causing a unit that looks so stocked with promise to consistently misfire? Could it be an underlying anxiety of injury striking? After all, it’s not like the Bengals haven’t seen their fair share of training camp injuries.
We all remember the A.J. Green ankle turn on an Andy Dalton overthrow that resulted in surgery during the 2019 training camp. Jonah Williams wrote his rookie year off with a shoulder injury and as recently as last year injury struck with Trae Waynes big money signing tarnished by a pectoral injury which kept him out for the year.
Injury is part and parcel of every camp. Avoiding the severe blows that eat into the season and affect big names is the best you can hope for. The Bengals have been dealt small hits already, with rookie defensive end Wyatt Hubert likely not seeing the field in 2020.
The nervousness surrounding the Cincinnati Bengals and injury is palpable. Each update is viewed through squinted eyes.
Of course franchise quarterback Joe Burrow is claiming most of the headlines. After surgery on his injured knee on Dec. 2, it is a major achievement and tribute to Burrow’s dedication that he is taking snaps at all.
It was no surprise to hear slot receiver Tyler Boyd state that Joe was ‘iffy on his knee’.
Indeed coaches and trainers will have drilled into both Burrow and the defensive group how important it is for the star quarterback to avoid contact. That has to affect his comfort level in the pocket, something that is unlikely to change until Burrow reaches Week 1 safely.
The same can be said about the group charged with protecting him. Four predicted starters from the offensive line have spent time sidelined with a wide array of injuries. Most disappointingly, new signing Riley Reiff still remains in a t-shirt and shorts. Head Coach Zac Taylor knows the importance of Reiff, Jonah Williams, Trey Hopkins, and Quinton Spain lining up against the Vikings in Week 1 so they shouldn’t be rushed into training camp action.
Even at wide receiver, the Bengals know that they will only be at their deadliest with all three receiving threats working as one. Ja’Marr Chase is a lethal addition to a group with Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins but covering them is much less daunting should one end up hurt.
While you can argue that this is the same story up and down the league, the roster turnover in Cincy makes the problem more acute. The Bengals have torn down their playing staff with few remnants of the Marvin Lewis era remaining.
On paper, the Bengals starting units should compete with most teams. However, take out some key starters and the effect could be devastating.
Depth is primarily provided by young, recently drafted players. Look at the problems D’Ante Smith had dealing with Sam Hubbard. Expecting a player to step up from the AAC to the NFL in Year 1 needs to be avoided at all costs.
One question is why aren’t the defense suffering from the same wariness if the team is overly concerned with staying healthy? Well, this unit ranked 29th in DVOA according to Football Outsiders in 2020. They have a lot to prove and few expectations weighing them down.
All the talk has been about Burrow and the explosiveness of the offense. Training camp has been the opportunity the defense needed to grab the attention and they’ve done just that.
Could Trey Hendrickson be as dominant as Carl Lawson was? Mike Hilton and Chidobe Awuzie have a chip on their shoulder having been cast aside by their former clubs. Jessie Bates is eager to prove he should be the league’s highest-paid safety.
Not to mention the advantage the defense has as the offense installs concepts and plays while experimenting with what does and doesn’t work.
So, what should we expect going forward?
Well, don’t expect the trepidation surrounding Burrow to ease, nor the anxiety of losing one of the starting tackles to dissipate. As much as fans and coaches want free-flowing, unabridged practice, the reality is that deep down both groups are hoping the team makes opening weekend at full strength.
Ideally, Joe and co. will notch the odd practice victory here and there. Confidence will rise as Burrow links up more frequently with Ja’Marr Chase. While the outside noise is unlikely to dull, if Burrow is under center with Reiff and Williams at tackle and a full array of offensive stars at his disposal, everyone will breathe a sigh of relief.