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Bengals Look Through The Rain As Ravens Beckon In Sunday's Paycor Opener

LB Germaine Pratt (left) and DE Trey Hendrickson celebrate during the Bengals-Browns Week 1 game of the 2023 season on Sunday, September 10, 2023 in Cleveland, Ohio.
LB Germaine Pratt (left) and DE Trey Hendrickson celebrate during the Bengals-Browns Week 1 game of the 2023 season on Sunday, September 10, 2023 in Cleveland, Ohio.

CLEVELAND _ The Bengals have won each of the last two AFC North titles surviving big losses to the Browns and they're on that path again after Cleveland had all the answers in Sunday's 24-3 Opening Day victory.

After watching his team gain the fewest yards in his five-year tenure with 142 and eight three-and-outs, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor told them this wasn't them. Taylor has crafted one of the NFL's most successful cultures with the philosophy that a season is an evolution rather than a series of 17 set pieces. Everything he does in concert with his training room, weight staff, and his quarterback with the 13-3 December-January record is with an eye to the finish.

"This certainly isn't the team that we're going to be. We understand that," Taylor said. "There are going to be some things that we have to learn from this game and we're going to be in another type of game like this, whether it's the weather or on the road and things aren't going our way early. We just have to stick together. This is a team that knows that. On our end, we all understand that. We're going to quickly put this one behind us and go have a great performance at home next week."

Taylor wanted a better start, of course, against a Browns team that somehow has a 6-1 record against the Bengals since 2020 and 22-23 against everyone else.  They did it Sunday like they have done it before. Running back Nick Chubb (106 yards on 18 carries) had his sixth 100-yarder against the Bengals while Myles Garrett logged his 12th career sack against them on the game-breaking fourth-down sack.

In 2021, Cleveland won by 25 at Paycor Stadium. Last Halloween night it was by 19 at this very Cleveland Browns Stadium. That was the last time they had lost in the regular until Sunday's rather odd game played in a steady drizzle and frustration. The Bengals couldn't budge the ball and the Browns had almost as much trouble against the Bengals' good-enough-to-win defense.

The offenses combined to miss 23 of 29 third-down conversions while accumulating fewer than 500 yards and amassing just two touchdowns. Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson got them both, one passing and running for the killing touchdown on a 13-yard quarterback draw with 17 seconds left in the first half for a 10-0 lead.

"The ball was heavy. The ball was wet," said Watson after he was done dancing and prancing down the Bengals sideline after the last score. "They couldn't throw it, either."

Bengals Pro Bowl quarterback Joe Burrow could have used plenty of excuses for his worst outing in the NFL. The wet ball. The minimal practice time because of his strained calf. The perfect storm of perfect storms spawned by playing a first game with a soft tissue injury on a wet field. The Browns defensive line mixing it up with the ends and tackles interchanging with each other to hit him ten times.

"The field was pretty torn up," said Bengals kicker Evan McPherson, who didn't blame his miss from 51 yards on it.

But Joe was Joe. No excuses and all business.

"When it is raining like that, it's something that you've got to handle. We didn't handle it today," Burrow said. "It's one week. Obviously, not up to our standard, not up to my standard. Got 16 more. Just got to keep trucking.

"We had a good week of practice. Stuff like this happens. We have been here before. We are going to come back stronger. We will have a good week of practice, get better this week and come back on Sunday, hopefully get a win."

This Sunday, of course, is the Paycor opener (1 p.m. - Cincinnati's Local 12) against the Ravens, the team they beat in the last two games last year. One clinched the AFC North. The next one was a Wild Card Win. Neither was against Lamar Jackson. Captain and center Ted Karras calls it "of utmost importance to get this win."

Karras called Sunday's communication, "poor." He didn't have a reason for the lapses, such as Burrow's lack of practice.

"I don't know if it was surprising," Karras said. "It was disappointing more than surprising."

Taylor said he thought Burrow did some good things. Burrow laughed when he heard that.

"I don't know (what they are)," he said.

Taylor: "It's a real challenge when the passing game is going to be like that with those conditions. Especially in the first half. I thought we settled down."

Taylor knows one of the reasons for Sunday. His team showed up for a rainy AFC North game with its youngest special teams corps in the last two decades and the 100th Battle of Ohio turned into a war of soggy field position. They got out-returned by 30 yards. The Browns had nine more yards in average field position and more than six yards in average net punting.

"I think playing in our division, it certainly is," Taylor said of the importance of the kicking game. "Playing in that weather it absolutely is. It's two-fold there. We just didn't do a good enough job handling that."

But talk about perfect storms. Rookie punter Brad Robbins and rookie punt returner Charlie Jones made their debuts in the wind and the rain and there were some understandable growing pains. Needing to flip field position in a 3-0 game in the second quarter from the Browns 38, Taylor called on Robbins to pin them, but got a touchback instead.

When the Bengals ended the Browns' first possession with sacks of Watson by linebacker Germaine Pratt and tackle B.J. Hill, they couldn't capitalize. Jones probably should have let a 66-yard missile go, but he caught it on the 6 and could only get it to the 14 and the Browns won another flip with a three-and-out.

"Special teams and field position," Taylor said. "I think they did a better job handling that today than we did."

But the Bengals still left Cleveland as the two-time AFC North champs with plenty to build on:

_2022 first-rounder Dax Hill made his first NFL start at safety and his Pro Bowl closing speed showed up. He not only got his first Bengals' interception, but two of his six tackles were behind the line of scrimmage. The new safety tandem held the fort. Nick Scott and Pratt each led the team with 11 tackles. Hill thought he and Scott had the proper communication.

"I feel like it went well. As the weeks go on, it's going to get better," Hill said. "Week one wasn't bad. We can always learn from this game."

_After going on one knee to pray in the end zone before stepping on the field where he tore his ACL last Halloween, cornerback Chidobe Awuzie had a triumphant return. Splitting some snaps with rookie cornerback DJ Turner, Awuzie came up with a fumble recovery in a scoreless game on the Bengals 13 on a ball punched out by, who else, linebacker Germaine Pratt. He also added three tackles.

_Taylor said the defense played well enough to win holding Watson to four of 14 on third down and the usual suspects were on hand before they got worn down on 72 plays. Pro Bowl sacker Trey Hendrickson got his first one of '23. Pratt got another huge forced fumble in the red zone. Scott ranged into the end zone to break up a touchdown pass for Olympic long jumper Marquise Goodwin. Cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt used his recovery speed to knock away a long pass.

"The defense looked like them," Karras said.

_Running back Joe Mixon kept them in the game as best he could. He showed some terrific yards after contact and yards after catch finishing with 4.3 yards per on 13 carries and catching three more for 17 yards. His 22-yard bolt that had at least one missed tackle was their longest play.

_Robbins, a sixth-rounder, may have struggled early, but he seemed to get better as he went. His 10 punts came within one of tying the Bengals record for most punts in a game.

"My approach is just to get better each by week," Robbins said. "I know I struggled a little bit, but sometimes when adversity hits it's just about how you respond and grind through it."

The grind has officially begun.

"It's a rep in the elements that you don't get a lot," Burrow said of his day in the rain. "You live and you learn from it. We are going to come back better so next time we are in a game like that we are going to be more well-equipped to handle those elements and come out on top."

WEEK 2 · Sun 09/17 · 1:00 PM EDT


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