Bengals at Washington: 5 storylines to watch in today’s game

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) throws a pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) throws a pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

Credit: Don Wright

Credit: Don Wright

The Cincinnati Bengals have played games where the offense or defense were lagging. Last week was the first time this season they’ve struggled in all three phases, and it resulted in their biggest loss.

Facing a Washington Football Team (2-7) experiencing its own share of struggles, the Bengals (2-6-1) theoretically should be in decent position to bounce back, but it won’t be that easy. Washington boasts the league’s best pass defense in terms of yardage, and Cincinnati has relied mostly on Joe Burrow’s ability to throw the ball even under pressure.

The Bengals say they won’t let the Week 10 loss at Pittsburgh to detract from the progress made before the bye when they were coming off a surprising win over AFC South-leading Tennessee. This game marks the start of a four-game stretch featuring three teams with losing records.

Here are five storylines to watch today:

1. Taylor’s first road win ahead?

The Bengals have yet to win a road game under coach Zac Taylor, 25 contests into his tenure in Cincinnati, and this would be the first one since Oct. 7, 2018, if they can pull it off.

Small or no crowds (Washington won’t have fans Sunday) haven’t changed home field advantage much when it comes to the results. Four teams have better road records than at home this season, and both of Washington’s wins were at home.

When asked what it will take to get the first road win, running back Giovani Bernard said, “great communication” is the key.

“Obviously they’re not going to be having fans out there so the communication should be pretty easy to handle, but we just got to make sure that we’re on our P’s and Q’s and we stay on top of things,” Bernard said.

2. Top two draft picks reunite

This is one of the more intriguing individual matchups for Burrow this season, as he will be trying to avoid pressure from former Ohio State teammate Chase Young – a defensive end he beat out for the Heisman Trophy and the top overall draft selection.

Washington took Young second overall after the Bengals took Burrow first, though Washington coach Ron Rivera said he would have taken Burrow if Cincinnati went with Young. Burrow played with Young through two spring practice seasons and in the fall of 2017, before he decided to transfer to LSU after Dwayne Haskins – now a backup quarterback for Washington – beat him out for the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback job.

Young has 3.5 sacks and nine quarterback pressures, and Cincinnati has struggled to protect Burrow, as he has been sacked 32 times – second most in the league.

“He’s long, he’s fast, he’s strong,” backup tackle Hakeem Adeniji said. “He’s got some pretty good moves. He’s not as refined as a rusher, but the physical traits are off the charts.”

3. Help for Burrow

The Bengals will need to do everything they can to take pressure off Burrow – both by blocking and providing some help in the running game.

Washington allows just 194.7 passing yards per game, the fewest in the league, and it all starts up front with the defensive line, featuring edge rushers like Young, Montez Sweat (five sacks) and Ryan Kerrigan (4.5). WFT has posted 28 sacks as a defense, ranking fifth most in the league.

Burrow has done well even under pressure in a lot of games this season, and the return of Jonah Williams and Bobby Hart should help as Quinton Spain likely replaces Alex Redmond (biceps) at right guard. But Washington cornerback Kendall Fuller also could present challenges for the receivers, as he has four interceptions to lead the Washington secondary.

“They’re very disciplined in their schemes,” Burrow said. “They don’t give up a lot of big plays. When they play their quarters coverage, they keep everything in front of them, make you earn it all the way down the field and stay consistent throughout the entire drive. So they’re very well coached and very disciplined.”

The Washington run defense, on the other hand, is 21st while allowing 126.0 rushing yards per game, so Cincinnati could see opportunity to move the ball there, even though the Bengals will be without Joe Mixon again. The Bengals on Saturday placed Mixon on injured reserve. Mixon injured his right foot in Week 6 vs. Indianapolis.

4. Alex Smith continues comeback

When he stepped on the field coming off the bench in Week 5, Smith completed an incredible two-year journey back from a horrific compound leg fracture that led to sepsis and 17 surgeries to prevent amputation. He got his first start last week and threw for a career-high 390 yards on 38 completions and nearly led Washington to a comeback victory, falling short of Detroit on a last-second field goal.

Smith’s improbable return and performances the last two games (he also helped Washington rally against the Giants in Week 9 in another three-point loss) show his resiliency, so he’s not going to be shaken easily. However, Washington is one of the worst pass-blocking teams in the league – just slightly better than the Bengals in allowing 30 sacks.

“It’s just like as resilient as he’s come with his injury, he just showed that he can definitely … change the game for them and make plays and make throws,” linebacker Josh Bynes said. “And (he is) definitely still mobile and he’s definitely a really smart quarterback and you can’t put nothing past him (just) because he’s been out for so long. He’s definitely showed that.”

Terry McLaurin is his biggest weapons. He has 787 yards receiving and has great speed and run-after-catch ability, according to Bynes. Antonio Gibson is another weapon out of the backfield, adding 202 yards receiving to his 436 yards rushing.

5. Missing in action

Both teams have been impacted by COVID-19 this week, while all teams now enter intensive protocols for the remainder of the season. Washington had a player test positive early this week, while the Bengals had two more practice squad players go on the Reserve/COVID list tis week.

The Bengals got back Fred Johnson and Margus Hunt from that list Friday but will once again be without some coaches for a second straight game. Wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell, secondary/cornerbacks coach Steve Jackson and secondary/safeties coach Robert Livingston will be unable to attend for COVID-19-related reasons.

Assistant wide receivers coach Troy Walters will assume Bicknell’s responsibilities for the game, while defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo will assume Jackson’s, and defensive quality control coach Jordan Kovacs will assume Livingston’s

In terms of other absences, Mixon is the only active player out Sunday. Hunt, Johnson, Redmond, Mike Thomas (hamstring) and Xavier Williams (back) are questionable. Washington placed offensive tackle Gerin Christian on injured reserve with a knee injury Thursday and will be missing a handful of others: backup defensive end Ryan Anderson, safety Deshazor Everett, offensive tackle Cornelius Lucas and linebacker Jared Norris also are out with injuries.

TODAY’S GAME

Bengals at Washington, 1 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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