As training camp approaches for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and with it the unofficial start to the season, we are taking a closer look at the opponents on the team's 2022 schedule. Next up is the defending AFC Champions, the Cincinnati Bengals. Tampa Bay will host the AFC crown jewel in Week 15 at Raymond James Stadium. The high-profile matchup is slated for a 4:25 p.m. ET kickoff on CBS.
As the 2021 season progressed, quarterback Joe Burrow boldly claimed, "I am tired of the underdog narrative. We are coming for it all." That statement emboldened the team. On the journey to Super Bowl LVI, the Bengals beat several prominent AFC powerhouses in the Las Vegas Raiders (Wild Card Round), Tennessee Titans (Divisional Round) and the Kansas City Chiefs (Championship Round). Although they fell short of the ultimate goal in their Super Bowl loss to the Los Angeles Rams, the Bengals were a far more formidable team than many gave them credit for being. Once an afterthought in the NFL, often picked to finish last in the AFC North, Cincinnati swept rivals Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens on the quest to the grand stage. In a roller-coaster season for the Bengals, they defied expectations to end a 33-year drought in Queen City.
The Bengals concluded the regular season with a 10-7 record following a 3-2 start in 2021. Coming off a home loss to the Packers in Week Five, the Bengals changed course. On the road, Cincinnati defeated the Lions at Ford Field in Week Six and the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium in Week Seven. The clash against the Ravens became Ja'Marr Chase's breakout game as he eclipsed the 200-yard mark, solidifying his spot among the league's elite. Despite the outcome of the club's Week 13 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, that game signified another turning point for the Bengals. Down 24-0, the club became one-dimensional to cut the deficit and Head Coach Zac Taylor unleashed Joe Burrow's handiwork downfield. The Bengals diversified the playbook to make it a 24-22 ballgame midway through the third quarter. Burrow made highlight-worthy throws to Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd during the comeback bid. With Burrow's ACL and MCL injury in the past, Taylor began to tap into his star quarterback's arsenal. Burrow began the 2021 season with hesitation in regards to re-injury precautionary measures, but in the latter half of the season he played at an MVP-caliber level as the Bengals gained traction among the NFL pecking order.
In the AFC Championship battle, the Bengals dethroned the Chiefs and created a spark in the second half, erasing a 21-3 deficit in Arrowhead. Burrow led a furious comeback and Evan McPherson drilled a 31-yard field goal in overtime to seal the deal. Vonn Bell intercepted Patrick Mahomes on the third play of overtime, putting the ball in Burrow's hands. The squad became Super Bowl-bound for the first time since the 1988 season. Burrow (23-of-38 passing, 250 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) made precise throws and extended drives with plays outside of the pocket when necessary. The Bengals totaled 359 yards of offense, led by Tee Higgins (six catches, 103 yards) in the aerial attack and Joe Mixon (21 carries, 88 yards) on the ground.
In the Super Bowl LVI showdown, the Bengals held a four-point lead going into the fourth quarter, but the Rams' pass rush proved oppressive. Burrow fell to the ground in the grasp of Von Miller to conclude the first drive of the final period. An incompletion to Chase and a run for no gain by Samaje Perine set up a crucial 4th-and-1. Aaron Donald blew past both Bengals' guard Quinton Spain and center help with a lethal swipe move to knock Burrow to the ground, ending Cincinnati's hope of overtime with a regulation-ending field goal. That play became a microcosm of the Bengals' O-line struggles down the stretch. In 2021, Burrow was sacked 70 times (including postseason), for the third-most ever recorded for a quarterback.
Pass protection left much to be desired, making Joe Burrow's accomplishments even more impressive. The AP Comeback Player of the Year took the league by storm passing for over 4,600 yards while adding 34 touchdowns in the regular season. The Bengals' drafting of Chase paid dividends as Burrow's former teammate at LSU put on a sensational show between the hash marks. He averaged over 85 yards per game, accumulating 1,455 yards on the season with 13 touchdowns. Cincinnati made several key acquisitions in free agency to round out the roster, spurring the team to the Super Bowl, including Chidobe Awuzie, Trey Hendrickson, Mike Hilton and Riley Reiff. Joe Mixon made an impact on the ground, garnering a Pro Bowl nod. He set career-highs in rushing yards, receiving yards and touchdowns. With a young nucleus and fortified offensive line, the future of the Bengals looks bright after a euphoric 2021 campaign.
The defending AFC Champions added key acquisitions this offseason including guard Alex Cappa (four-year deal), center Ted Karras (three-year) and tackle La'el Collins (three-year) to bolster the front in protecting Burrow in the pocket. Cincinnati retained the majority of their starters and added additional young talent by way of the draft, including safety Dax Hill (pick number 31) and cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt (60). After investing in the offensive line in free agency, the Bengals' addressed the defense in the draft, boosting the pass defense. Hill primarily played in the slot at Michigan but possesses the athleticism to line up deep. Additionally, the Bengals signed tight end Hayden Hurst to add another dimension to the offense and a target for Burrow over the middle of the field after the departure of C.J. Uzomah.
After a breakout year for the Bengals, defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers to boost their interior pass rush. Tight end C.J. Uzomah joined the Jets as the former No. 1 will take his services to the AFC East. The Atlanta Falcons are thin at wide receiver and added to their corps with Auden Tate, who played sparingly behind Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd on the depth chart. Offensive tackle Riley Reiff, guard Quinton Spain, center Trey Hopkins, linebacker Jordan Evans and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III remain unsigned free agents.
What Else is New?
Apart from the roster moves noted above, the Bengals haven't experienced much change in 2022, which is understandable and even desirable following a run to the Super Bowl. If there is anything new about how Cincinnati operates, it may be in the offensive play-calling. Joe Burrow has expressed his belief that opposing defenses are going to present his crew with a lot more two-high looks this season in an attempt to limit his deep completions, particularly to Ja'Marr Chase. By rushing four and dropping seven into coverage, defenses aim to mitigate vertical concepts, forcing the ball underneath. Burrow knows that the Bengals are going to have to be more efficient in some areas in which they weren't near the top of the league in 2021, such as third-down conversions and red zone efficiency. According to the young quarterback, that means being more consistent on short and intermediate passes to exploit what the defense is giving up, benefiting Hurst's skillset.
How will a revamped Cincinnati offensive line hold up?
The Bengals should be a contender in 2022 but a lot rests on the production of the offensive line and their ability to win matchups up front. The team sought reinforcements during the offseason, bringing in former Cowboys' right tackle La'el Collins and a premier guard in former Buccaneers' anchor Alex Cappa. Jackson Carmen is likely the consensus favorite to start at left guard, but he had a limited role last year and will have to transition to guard from playing left tackle at Clemson. Hand placement will be a critical element in the learning curve as he acclimates to playing on the interior. Both rookie Cordell Volson and second-year pro D'Ante Smith will compete for the role. The Bengals are left with the bitter memory of the final play of Super Bowl LVI with Burrow on the ground, and adjustments were made accordingly. Time will tell if continuity materializes, and production ensues to generate a clean pocket.
What impact will Hayden Hurst have on the offense?
Previously in Hayden Hurst's career, he was overshadowed by Mark Andrews in Baltimore and Kyle Pitts in Atlanta. Now, with the departure of C.J. Uzomah, Hurst will have an increased workload and the opportunity to make an immediate impact in the pass game for Cincinnati. Last year for the Falcons, Hurst accumulated 221 receiving yards on 26 receptions and three touchdowns. As defenses focus on Chase, Higgins and Boyd, Hurst can emerge as an integral part of the Bengals' offensive attack. With natural ball skills and aggressiveness before and after the catch, Hurst can reinvigorate his career. He creates a bigger target for Burrow on underneath and intermediate routes to exploit defenses. Hurst has often been overlooked throughout his career, but a fresh slate begins in Cincy.