While the Bengals offense regrouped, their defense went into Sunday's first division game of the season in Pittsburgh (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) better suited for an AFC North slugfest than at any time in head coach Zac Taylor's tenure.
In the first two games of the season, the Bengals' expensive defensive blueprint that took two offseasons and about $230 million in committed money to build has stirred. After stoning the Bears in Sunday's 20-17 loss on 206 yards for their fewest yards against in seven years, the Bengals are ranked sixth in the league defensively, a heady number for a unit that has not been ranked better than 26th in the last three years and not better than 17th in the last five.
According to Elias, it's the first time since 2017 the Bengals have been ranked in the top 10 any time after week two, when they were sixth after week nine.
"They're playing violently. They're playing aggressive. They're playing detailed. They're not giving up anything easy," Taylor said in his Monday media Zoom. "Even the throws that are out in space, the short throws underneath, I mean you see four guys rallying to get the ball carrier. That part has been really encouraging, really impressive. We're going to need that going forward.
"It's good for everybody on our team to see that. The offensive guys often times are doing their thing, so we make sure that they see that yeah, there's a lot of things we need to clean up, and we make sure everyone's aware of that. But there's also a lot of good things going on that we can continue to build on over the course of this long season."
Much of the money went into the defensive line and in the brief season its stock has soared as the most productive unit on the roster.
Edge rusher Trey Hendrickson, the richest Bengal in free agent history, maybe didn't cash a sack on Bears slippery rookie quarterback Justin Fields during Sunday's last excruciating third down of an excruciating day. But his first 1.5 sacks as a Bengal, along with a lethal sack and strip of Fields. put them in position to win and has been heaven sent from the Saints for revived a pass rush that generated the fewest sacks in the league last season.
The Bengals are suddenly tied for fourth with six sacks and have the fifth most pressures in the league with 15, according to Pro Football Reference. The numbers also show that aggressiveness. After finishing in the middle of the pack last season for the percentage of plays blitzed, they are currently seventh. Hendrickson leads the Bengals with four hits on the quarterback, as many as Von Miller, Aaron Donald and, yes, the Bears' Akiem Hicks.
Stately nose tackle D.J. Reader, their second-richest free-agent ever, and Larry Ogunjobi, his relentless Greensboro, N.C. neighbor who never seems to get blocked while playing on a hefty one-year deal, have teamed to bring the Bengals run defense back from the dead. Reader, who got his first Bengal sack in Chicago, and Ogunjobi, who is tied with a slew for third in the league with three tackles for loss, have helped the Bengals hold down two of the NFL's best running backs when the Vikings' Dalvin Cook and the Bears' David Montgomery managed just 61 yards each.
They've also had big help from Josh Tupou, B.J. Hill and rookie Cam Sample. Those are big numbers for a team that allowed seven 200-yard rushing games in the previous two seasons.
"It starts up front with our fundamentals. We're really well coached," said Hendrickson of a unit headed up by line coach Marion Hobby and assisted by senior assistant Mark Duffner. "We take coaching well and we apply it. If we continue to do that I think we'll be on the right track."
Ogunjobi, a Geno Atkins protégé who has provided them with their best interior rush since Atkins was in his prime, has emerged as an instant leader.
"He's electric. Super talented. I've been fortunate to have followed his career," said Hendrickson, who played at Florida Atlantic when Ogunjobi was at Charlotte. "He was in Conference USA for our entire careers. Larry's a great football player. When he came to the Dome in New Orleans he was a wrecking ball as well. I look forward to playing beside him."
One of the big obstacles for Taylor is his 2-10 record in AFC North games and a big reason why is they've allowed 153.5 yards per game on the ground on 5.2 yards per carry in division games. Those days seem over, but first-round Steelers pick Najee Harris is averaging just 3.2 yards per rush and you know they'll try to establish him against a team they've made a living out of running the ball against for decades.
The Bengals are giving up just 3.39 per rush, one of their best two-game starts of the century. Right there with Duffner's No. 9 defense in 2001 (3.22) and Marvin Lewis' last defense (3.2) in 2018. But that '18 club is a good lesson in not counting chickens. They would go on to allow one of the five worst rushing seasons in club history.
This defensive line is too deep and talented to do that. Going toe-to-toe in the AFC North is the object.
"Obviously we have a lot of faith in those guys because of their approach and the work ethic and how detailed they are in what we're asking them to do. So early on that's encouraging," Taylor said. "But I think a lot of stories have been written after two games over the course of the history of the NFL, and it's a long season. We just have to focus on being consistent. We lost, so nothing we did was good enough yesterday. Yes, there were some good performances and some good drives, but we lost. At the end of the day, we want to allow zero points, however it shakes out, and we've got to play better on offense."
CHASE-ING HISTORY: Wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase made history Sunday when he caught Joe Burrow's 42-yard touchdown pass. According to Elias he became the only man since Sammy White did it in 1976 to catch two balls of at least 40 yards for touchdowns in his first two games during the 51 years of the merger.
And he wants more and the Bengals want to get it to him. After the game, both Burrow and Chase mused about loosening up the defense with more deep balls. Chase's play came in the last five minutes or so and was one of two passes longer than 14 yards.
Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan were trying.
"I understand the frustration," Callahan said Monday. "Ja'Marr hit a go ball late in the game and we threw one go ball out of bounds to him. We threw a post route to Tee (Higgins) that was over the top and had a chance to be a big play.
"It's always easy to say you want to do more, 'Hey, we just have to throw the ball deep more often because Ja'Marr won late in the game,' all of a sudden we should've thrown it 10 times down the field like that. I struggle with that logic, but I do understand that he's proven he can go win versus off coverage. He's made two plays in two-straight games and so he's earned the right to be able to go take shots down the field."
This is the way Taylor saw it:
"We had some shots called. Sometimes the coverage takes that away."
With the Bears secondary sitting on routes and jumping them all day, what seemed to have Taylor and Callahan just as frustrated is getting running back Joe Mixon just 3.5 yards per his 20 carries against what they call "a light box." That usually means just six players in there.
"A lot of it is fundamentals and finish, both by the running back spots and the spots up front. We just weren't in sync yesterday," Callahan said. "We didn't play well enough to run efficiently. And it's just disappointing. I thought we'd be better than we were. When you watch the tape, all those things show up. It's hand placement, it's a backside finish. It's a read by the back. It's just a number of little things, fundamentals and details."
A week after going more than half the time from under center, the Bengals went the complete opposite and got into the shotgun 74 percent of the time in Chicago. On Monday, Taylor was asked what he wanted his offensive identity to be.
"That we can build off of our run game," Taylor said. "And still be able to have an efficient run game that really challenges people so they have to put extra guys in the box then take advantage of the playmakers we have on the perimeter. "
Burrow won the Heisman Trophy making all kinds of throws out of an empty set at LSU and the Bengals are trying to find him that same kind of time against NFL rushers. They were in that look much of the day in Chicago and it was hard sledding for Burrow getting sacked four times and hit five other times.
Left tackle Jonah Williams was asked Monday about the challenges blocking in such a formation.
"There's a little bit of an added element that you have to be watching in the linebackers and the secondary, because you don't have the (running back) to pick up blitzes. That onus goes on to the O line," Williams said. "From a technique and fundamentals standpoint any dropback pass play is effectively the same, just the rules and responsibility changes a little bit when you go into empty.
"It adds a little bit more pressure and a little more challenge, but it also allows us to have more wide receivers spread out, and we have great talent at that position and we have a great quarterback who can get them the ball. If it takes a little bit more responsibility from us, but it helps the offense succeed, then I'm happy to be in empty all day.
NOT SUPER PLEASED JONAH: Williams is one of the more cerebral Bengals, so there is no one better to break down a tough outing for his guys against the athletically gifted Bears front. It's not every day you face two guys with more than 150 sacks between them in Robert Quinn and Khalil Mack.
And he wasn't happy with his performance. He backed up Callahan calling for more consistency. (Pro Football Focus charged Williams with a sack, one of three the web site gave to the line.)
"I completely agree with Coach." Williams said. "That's one of the things that comes with football being a team sport. I think O-line is the epitome of that aspect of the game. You have five players and if one isn't completely perfect on one play then the whole line looks bad and the whole team looks bad.
"I just need to be more consistent. I'm very capable of handling D-ends and I've shown that I can do that in this league, I just need to do it consistently every single rep. That's the challenge of O line play, but that's what I've got to work towards … I think there were some moments where I was playing well, did a good job, whatever, but it doesn't really matter. On O-line you have to do it every single play and there were plenty of plays where I didn't play to that standard I need to."
Williams is in his third season and injuries have prevented him from playing against the Steelers. He gets his shot Sunday.
"I do feel like there's an added level of intensity and excitement," Williams said. "When you're going into a hostile territory, but also a rival and conference territory. I know it would mean a lot for this team and city to get a win against Pittsburgh, so that's what we're going to go work to do this week."
Right guard Xavier Su'a-Filo injured his leg Sunday and the Bengals are going to monitor him this week. Taylor says he's confident second-rounder Jackson Carman came make his first NFL start in Pittsburgh if needed.
"He has made improvements every single week since training camp started," Taylor said of his work with O-line coach Frank Pollack. "And Frank knows and has preached to those guys that they're all one play away and you never know when it's coming ... I think Jackson's taking the right approach there. Frank's done a good job getting a lot of extra work with those guys, being hard on them on the scout team because those are a lot of their reps a lot of the time. Those (young) guys have continued to make improvements."