Bengals’ Bates: With no Burrow for final six games, team leaders need to step up

Cincinnati Bengals' Jessie Bates (30) intercepts a pass intended by Tennessee Titans' A.J. Brown during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)
Cincinnati Bengals' Jessie Bates (30) intercepts a pass intended by Tennessee Titans' A.J. Brown during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Joe Burrow reignited the Cincinnati Bengals fan base this season. Now that he won’t be on the field for the final six games, the Bengals have a new challenge: Staying relevant.

The No. 1 overall draft pick suffered a season-ending left knee injury Sunday in a 20-9 loss at Washington. Cincinnati gave up 13 unanswered points after Burrow’s third-quarter exit and fell to 2-7-1.

Although the Bengals have just two wins with Burrow, he kept them in games and had the offense churning even in a low-scoring affair with Washington. Backup Ryan Finley completed 3 of 10 passes for 30 yards and was sacked four times after replacing Burrow early in the third quarter.

“Unfortunately, it’s tough for us to get in the playoff run right now, but I don’t think your mindset changes,” safety Jessie Bates said Monday. “No one’s going to feel bad for us. I think we have six games left. I don’t think anyone should be counting down to those six weeks. This is where the leaders of this team will lead. The guys that are going to be here for a while will step up and make sure that guys don’t check out. Because it’s going to be easy to check out. These next six weeks it’s (not) going to be easy. It’s going to be cold outside. Nobody wants to do that hard part during the week. And it’s up to the leaders -- myself and other guys on the team that consider themselves as leaders -- to step up. The guys who do that, they’ll stay around for sure.”

Bengals coach Zac Taylor is expecting “guys to have a monster chip on their shoulder on Wednesday when they show up to work and win this game on Sunday.” Cincinnati hosts the New York Giants.

Over the past two days, players have spoken about “rallying behind Finley.” Bates recognized the need for the defense to step up to give the offense a chance to win games.

“That’s going to be key these next couple weeks -- taking care of the ball and our defense giving Finley confidence and more opportunities to score the football,” Bates said. “That challenge, it raises the bar for the defense as far as, there’s not going to be a lot of high scoring games, more than likely, honestly. That’s just calling a spade a spade. I think our defense is ready for the challenge. I’m excited to see who’s going to lay down and who’s going to raise up to the occasion.”

For players like wide receiver A.J. Green, Finley’s play could have a direct impact on a future contract. Green is playing on a one-year franchise tag deal and has one touchdown through 10 games but was starting to show signs of vintage Green with Burrow slinging passes for him to grab down the sidelines.

Green missed the entire 2019 season, so he’s never caught passes from Finley until now. Asked if he is concerned about having time to build chemistry with a new quarterback while trying to prove himself for 2021, Green shrugged.

“For me, I just gotta continue to get better,” Green said Sunday after catching the team’s lone touchdown. “Coming off of two injuries and a new offense. I’m not really thinking about what’s after this year. Right now, I’m just in the moment and whatever happens after that, we’ll see.”

Tyler Boyd caught 12 passes from Finley in three losses last year, totaling 163 yards, but the 2016 second-round draft pick felt like he and Burrow had an “elite” connection. He’s been around Cincinnati long enough to know how fans feel about the city’s sports misfortunes.

Burrow’s injury has been compared to Carson Palmer’s knee injury suffered during the 2005 wildcard playoff against the Steelers in his third season, second as the starter, after the Bengals drafted him No. 1 overall in 2003. Cincinnati fans also remember UC basketball star Kenyon Martin’s broken leg that shook the top-ranked Bearcats three minutes into a Conference USA quarterfinal loss that dropped them to a No. 2 seed for the NCAA Tournament. They exited in the second round.

The Bengals haven’t been competitive in Boyd’s five seasons but every time he thinks they are on the brink of turning things around, it seems to fall apart, he said. Cincinnati was 5-3 in 2018 when Green suffered his toe injury. The team went 1-7 the rest of the way.

“It’s always like that for me,” Boyd said. “We always say and I always preach that we’re going to be the team this year to beat. It never goes that way. We take blow after blow. All our key guys get hurt and hurt. But unfortunately for this injury, it was kind of an injury that Joe couldn’t avoid because he got rolled up on. … It’s kind of tough. It sucks for us to be in that position the last two years and lose key players, players that we need to help us win games (and) that are going to help us evolve this organization. But it sucks. It sucks. It sucks. But at the end of the day for me, I gotta continue to keep pushing and keep guys rolling and don’t let guys quit and just feel like we gotta get through this season. I want everybody just to finish strong so we can some carryover for next season or for next game.”

Asked why fans should continue to believe in the Bengals, Boyd said it’s about trusting “the process” because the team made moves to be better this year and just hasn’t been able to keep guys healthy.

“It’s still kind of been a rough start this year with all the pieces that we had,” he said. “I don’t want to look further into the future, but we’re going to get this thing turned around eventually. Next year, hopefully, and roll from there. Whoever’s with us now is going to be the ones that we’ll appreciate being with us when we are winning games.”

SUNDAY’S GAME

Giants at Bengals, 1 p.m., Fox, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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