Bengals-49ers on Sunday (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) is set for the last weekend in October. Oct. 29, to be exact, the 34th anniversary of Bengals Ring of Honor member Boomer Esiason's five touchdown passes in a 56-23 win over Tampa Bay.
But head coach Zac Taylor considers this upcoming day in Bengals history to be in November. He says this team is treating it like a November game and why not?
The Bengals are 5-1 in the last two Novembers, 3-0 on the road. Two of those came out of the bye and the road is again site of the first post-bye game. They've won five straight in November and since 2021 they are 18-5 from November on, including postseason. That doesn't include the '21 regular-season finale in Cleveland, where the starters sat.
The last two Halloween weeks have seen haunting road losses (the Jets and Browns) before they went on the November skeins with Pro Bowl quarterback Joe Burrow racking up a Mahomesian record of 13-4 in December and January.
November it is.
In fact, their last December loss came against these 49ers in 2021. Burrow is just as interested to see if his 3-3 Bengals can catch fire again like a pile of burning late autumn leaves.
"We'll find out, won't we?' Burrow asked this week. "We historically have been really good after the bye. When your backs are against the wall and you've got to come out fighting, that's when we're at our best. We'll find out if we're the same team this year."
Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase suggests it's about this time of year that a loss becomes unbearable.
"We hate that feeling of coming in after a loss into the locker room. We hate that feeling," Chase said after Thursday's practice. "It doesn't feel real when we lose.
"We play with much more energy just because we know it's the second half of the year. We have to go even harder because of the record we have."
Nose tackle DJ Reader believes it's simply the nature of a team.
"You hope you're getting better as a team. You try to get though the season getting better and pick up steam as the season goes," Reader said. "We're trying to play our best ball when it's time. Its playoff cutting time."
BYE WEEK ADJUSTMENTS: It also may be no coincidence that the second-half runs have come after the coaches had a bye week to tinker with the Xs and Os. Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan vowed last week there would be changes to a unit that has been at the bottom of the NFL rankings and before Thursday's practice he talked about that lofty perch of a bye week.
"It does help us to take a step back and take more of a 30,000-foot view of what's gone on. Sometimes when you're in the middle of the week-to-week, you can't always see all those things," Callahan said. "I think we've been really good at that over the last handful of years. It's been one of our strengths, I think, as a coaching staff.
"Our players respond to the bye really well, too. They come back fresh and energized and Zac does a great job managing that part of it for them. You just feel a different energy in the building when you get a couple days off."
Chase appears to be one of those players responding. Even with a week off, he's sixth in the NFL in catches (50) and ninth in yards (556.) The thing is, the Bengals' other two elite receivers (Tee Higgins with 14 catches for 149 yards and Tyler Boyd with 30 catches for 204 yards) have combined for less than Chase.
Chase has accounted for 33.8% of the Bengals' scrimmage yards this season. That's most in the league. 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey is second at 31.5. They're trying to jump-start an offense where
Burrow has a league-low 35.1 completion percentage on downfield passes netting 6.6 yards per attempt.
Chase thinks the Bengals are beginning to adjust to the major offseason change in the scheme, which he says is moving every receiver around into different spots and just not him. The key, he says, is communication with Burrow and the receivers.
"It makes the offense more useful. Everyone is in different spots now. Everyone has to know different spots. So they can't just say, 'He's here, we know what the route is,''' Chase said. "There's more in the offense. It's not as simple. It's about positions and receivers and where we're supposed to be.
"We just weren't dialed in on communicating yet. Missed assignments and stuff like that happens. It's all about communicating. It's not about there or not there. It's how we handle it. It's always adjustments you have to be ready for."
Chase says this season is the most he's been involved in any offense and he seems to be getting a kick out of it.
"I was already trying to learn more with it in my second year (last year)," Chase said. "I had my intentions on wanting to know every spot because I wanted to move around. Me staying stationary is not going to be much good for the offense. When you move receivers around, the defense has to move their core defense to a certain side now."
D-VIEW: Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has crafted his scheme just for teams like the 49ers who have built an offense full of positionless players that can do any number of things. At times head coach Kyle Shanahan splits out McCaffrey like a wide receiver, uses wide receivers like running backs (although Deebo Samuel isn't expected to play), and gives tight end George Kittle a turn as a pulling guard.
Anarumo can use safeties like linebackers and cornerbacks and swap edge rushers with linebackers, but how do you match a positionless scheme? Does he use his nickel package? A base defense? A five-man line to stop McCaffrey, the NFL's leading rusher?
"They move pieces all the way all around and all those pieces can do a number of different things," Anarumo said before Thursday's practice. "Kyle does a tremendous job of game planning. What he wants to do is try to formation you into the looks that he wants to get you in. It just forces you to maybe try to throw some things at them. That's a little bit unusual. But by the same token, we can't get away from what we know is going to work to stop the run game. And then those play-action passes are just deadly, so they catch those little in breakers and you miss a tackle, they're gone."
DAX DAY: One of Anarumo's versatile guys is second-year safety Dax Hill looking at his seventh NFL start and a daunting matchup with Kittle. It will be recalled Kittle wrecked the Bengals 10.5 months ago with 151 yards on 13 catches, one shy of the record against Cincy held by Jimmy Smith and Najee Harris
Hill got out of last month's matchup with Ravens Pro Bowler Mark Andrews unscathed (Pro Football Focus had him allowing just one catch for three yards), but he says this is a tougher matchup.
"He a blocker, physical, runs routes, aggressive runner, best tight end I'll face," Hill said after Thursday's practice. "He can do everything and you have to be ready for anything. Two different styles. I feel like Andrews is a bigger body, uses his body a little bit more. I feel like Kittle can run a little bit more, uses his hands a little bit more."
Hill says he's been searching tape of the Dec. 12, 2021 game for clues for the last two weeks.
"I feel like they'll come back to some of the plays they hit two years ago," Hill said. "They're pretty much doing the same thing. He lines up in the backfield, on the ball, split out wide. All over."
Anarumo thinks Hill is making steady progress and it's hard to argue with his production. According to Pro Football Reference, he's one of two NFL players with at least four tackles for loss, two interceptions, five passes defensed and 1.5 sacks. He'll see the other one on Sunday. 49ers All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner.
"Confidence. I think just understanding his job and feeling good about letting it fly a little bit," said Anarumo of Hill's biggest improvement. "Going to make some plays and that just comes with feeling more confident in what his, what his jobs are. So he's done well. It's been steady, which is good."
"I think he's held his own. It's a tough job for any of those cover guys. They're going to win some and lose some and as long as we're winning more than we lose. He's competitive. He's fast, he's got some length to him. He's held his own, but (Kittle is) tough. This guy's a tough match for anybody. "
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Left tackle Orlando Brown (groin) went limited again Thursday …
Backup linebacker and special-teamer Akeem Davis-Gaither (knee) didn't work again and is looking at missing his fourth straight game …
One guy not on the injury report is cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and that's a lift. It seems like the bye was huge for him. After hurting his back in practice and missing a game, he went only 14 snaps 11 days ago against Seattle. Anarumo also reminds you it's still not year since he tore his ACL on Halloween night.
"You could clearly see he was not up to his standard, so we tried to just pull back. Alright, we've got the bye," Anarumo said of the Seattle game. "I just kept saying to myself, let's win this game and get him better. I'll emphasize he's still not a year removed from his knee, but he is definitely doing better. That's the good news." …
At safety against Seattle Anarumo put rookie Jordan Battle (seven snaps) in a mini rotation with vet Nick Scott (68) and could again.
"It'd be the flow of the game. It's like a little bit of a pitcher who's got the hot hand, you know, They'll both play," Anarumo said. "That's the plan going in and then see how it's going." ….