Joe Burrow's injury, secondary attrition derailed Bengals in 2023

CINCINNATI -- Pinpointing where exactly things went wrong for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2023 isn't as easy as it appears.

The obvious choice is Week 11 at the Baltimore Ravens, when quarterback Joe Burrow tried to throw the ball on the sideline but couldn't because a ligament in his right wrist popped. But it was just one of many issues that derailed Cincinnati's hopes of making a deep playoff run for the third straight season.

One could go back to the beginning of the offseason, when safeties Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell signed with other teams in free agency, leaving a big void in the Bengals' secondary. Another inflection point occurred when the Bengals were unable to find a viable starting tight end in free agency.

And of course, there were the injuries that put Cincinnati off on a bad foot from the beginning.

"It was a weird year," Burrow said on Jan. 8, one day after the Bengals ended the year with a 9-8 record. "Never really felt like we really reached our potential to what we were."

An ailing quarterback

Things seemed doomed from the second practice of training camp.

That day, Burrow arrived wearing a compression sleeve on his right calf. During team drills, Burrow suffered a strained right calf when he rolled right on a pass play. Not only did Burrow miss more than a month of practice, but he was limited for the first several weeks of the season.

In his final news conference of the regular season, Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said the team's offensive game plan for 2023 was derailed once Burrow went down.

"We were trying to manage Joe the best we could," Callahan said. "So, a lot of the things that we had intended to do earlier than we did was more about that than anything else."

Through the first four weeks of the season, the Bengals operated out of shotgun on 93.6% of their offensive plays, according to ESPN Stats & Information. When Burrow's mobility improved, that number dropped to 85.4%.

And in the five games Burrow was healthy, the Bengals went 4-1, a stretch that included wins over the San Francisco 49ers and the Buffalo Bills and a narrow home loss to the Houston Texans. All three teams made the divisional round of the playoffs.

In 2022, the Bengals were .500 through the first eight games of the season before they won eight straight games and eventually won their second straight AFC North title.

Burrow's season-ending injury in 2023 came on a touchdown pass that gave Cincinnati a 10-7 lead on the road against the Ravens. That game ended in a 34-20 Bengals loss.

"An injury happened right where we usually start to take that jump in the year where we have in years past," Burrow said. "It was a tough year."

Offseason attrition

The salary cap squeeze was on the horizon once it became clear in 2021 that Burrow and wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase were going to command massive contracts to reward their importance to the team's future success.

That impact was felt months before Burrow signed his $275 million contract extension in September. Bates, Cincinnati's starting free safety for five seasons, signed a four-year deal with the Atlanta Falcons worth $64 million. Bell, who had been with the Bengals since 2020 as a strong safety, signed a three-year deal with the Carolina Panthers worth $22.5 million.

To replace them, Dax Hill, a first-round pick in 2022, took over for Bates, while the Bengals signed Nick Scott to a modest three-year deal worth $12 million, including $3 million guaranteed, to fill in for Bell.

That was part of a difficult year for Cincinnati's defense. The Bengals led the NFL in most plays allowed of 20 or more yards. Of those 82 plays surrendered, 65 were on passing plays.

When third-round pick Jordan Battle replaced Scott midway through the season, that gave Cincinnati three first-year starters in the secondary (Battle, Hill, rookie cornerback DJ Turner). Among the growing pains for the young group were in-game breakdowns that the Bengals were unable to solve.

"Some of the things unfold during the game that don't unfold during the week of practice," defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said on Jan. 3. "It's hard to fix if it's not fixable during the week. And so those are the things that we have to correct and figure out as we move forward."

On the offensive side, the Bengals also struggled to replace tight end Hayden Hurst, who signed a three-year deal with the Panthers worth $21.8 million. Irv Smith Jr., who began the year as the starter, didn't see the field in the final three games of the regular season.

Lack of big plays in the run game

Another key offseason decision played a role in how the Bengals looked offensively last season.

Starting running back Joe Mixon, the former Pro Bowler whom the team drafted in 2018, agreed to terms on a restructured deal that softened his salary cap hit for the 2023 season.

The total numbers show Mixon had a productive year. He was 12th in the NFL in total scrimmage yards with 1,410 (1,034 rushing, 376 receiving). That earned him a spot as a first Pro Bowl alternate.

But Mixon didn't hit on big runs. Against defensive boxes with six or fewer defenders, Mixon was 25th in success rate among running backs with at least 20 carries, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Rookie Chase Brown, who had his first career touchdown on a screen pass he converted into a 54-yard score, was last among 76 qualifying running backs in success rate against light defensive boxes.

Entering 2023, players and coaches said having an explosive running game was going to be important. As the Bengals get ready for 2024, that remains a focal point.

"I think we can be more explosive in the run game," Burrow said. "I think we've been efficient. The run game has been able to keep us on schedule. It would be nice to hit a couple of big runs."

Burrow said Mixon had one of his best seasons and praised how the duo looked at the end of the season. But the Bengals will have to decide again if that group is good enough to push Cincinnati back into title contention next season.