CHICAGO -- By the time the Cincinnati Bengals brought Soldier Field to an uneasy silence, it was too late.
The visitors had played too poorly for too long to avoid a 20-17 loss to the Chicago Bears on Sunday. In the end, a couple of late touchdowns weren’t enough to gloss over an otherwise lackluster offensive showing.
And a game that could have created some early-season momentum instead raised a very important question about the franchise’s future. The defeat showed why Zac Taylor the head coach might have to take a hard look at Zac Taylor the playcaller if he wants to put himself in the best position to succeed during a critical third season.
In Taylor’s first two years in Cincinnati, the offense struggled to be effective. During that span, the Bengals ranked 29th in yards per play and 30th in points per drive, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
The hope was that in ’21, Cincinnati could turn things around after investing key draft resources to retool the offense. In 2020, the Bengals drafted quarterback Joe Burrow with the first overall pick. This year, wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase was the fifth player off the board, as he was reunited with his former LSU teammate.
Cincinnati’s offensive playmakers knew on Sunday what needed to be done to exploit a Chicago defense that allowed 34 points in a Week 1 loss. But a lack of application rendered that knowledge useless.
Comments from Burrow and Chase raised questions about the offensive approach.
“We waited to the last minute to take shots,” Chase said regarding the lack of downfield targets.
In his postgame news conference, Burrow said the Bears knew the Bengals would try to use a quick passing game to negate a pass rush that was still effective without injured defensive tackle Eddie Goldman.
Burrow said the Bears' defense was sitting on Cincinnati's short routes underneath the coverage, which Chase confirmed and vocalized as well. The way to loosen the coverage, Burrow said, was to test Chicago downfield.
“You got to throw the ball over their head,” Burrow, who threw three interceptions, said. “At least make them feel like you are going to be able to do that and call some plays that go over their head.”
The Bengals did what the Bears expected. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Bengals averaged 2.54 seconds per pass attempt, significantly lower than the 2020 league average of 2.74 seconds.
The game didn’t turn until Burrow flung a deep ball to Chase for a 42-yard touchdown reception.
Taylor said Chicago's Week 1 loss to the Los Angeles Rams made the Bears focus on taking away deep passing threats on Sunday. However, Taylor also pointed out that the Rams were able to put Chicago on its heels by using longer passes.
Cincinnati did the opposite. In the first half, Burrow did not have a single pass attempt over 10 air yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
And the offense sputtered. The Bengals were held to 85 yards in the first half, which marked the sixth time Cincinnati failed to cross the 100-yard mark in the opening two quarters -- the most in the NFL during that span.
The Bengals clawed their way back with two late touchdowns, but the uneasiness inside Soldier Field was quickly removed. With under three minutes remaining, Bears rookie quarterback Justin Fields scrambled for a first down to extinguish any hopes of a Cincinnati win that could have produced some much-needed momentum for the weeks ahead.
Before the season started, Cincinnati’s front office clearly expressed its expectation for a team with six wins in the past two seasons to be much better. The Bengals have drafted key players such as Burrow and Chase and also made uncharacteristic signings in free agency.
But on Sunday, Cincinnati’s offense looked like the one that has sputtered the past two seasons. Fixing the offense might take the head coach examining the playcaller. For Taylor, it’s a question of introspection that impacts the fate of this year’s season.