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Bengals Offense Seeks Consistency That Marked Super Bowl Run

Joe Burrow: Still seeking win over Cleveland.
Joe Burrow: Still seeking win over Cleveland.

CLEVELAND _ Joe Burrow, who took the Bengals to the Super Bowl last season in his second year, has conquered everything but the Browns and Halloween.

Last year, he lost on Halloween and the next week got rocked by Cleveland with an opening-drive interception before steadying the ship for one of the most riveting playoff runs of recent NFL vintage.

On Monday night at First Energy Stadium, it all happened on the same day when Halloween came and went without the Bengals scary offense and Browns edge rusher Myles Garrett stepping out of central casting as the ultimate AFC North werewolf roaming on both edges. He terrorized  them with 1.5 of their five sacks, hit Burrow three other times and deflected the biggest pass of the night thrown by Burrow or Browns quarterback Jacoby Brissett.

"He is one of those elite of the elites in the league, so he is always going to go out there and make plays," Burrow offered graciously. "You have to try to limit his impact on the game, but it is always hard with that guy."

But it is now officially a heated rivalry. Garrett made sure of that in his postgame bonfire.

 "I don't know if it's (Burrow) saying the sacks are underrated or the (Bengals) wide receivers talking about our defensive backs," Garrett said. "But I guess they just light a fire in us and we are able to get after them a little differently. Burrow and I are cool off the field, but in between the goal line and me, he is going to have to take that L."

 A week after going into the history books with 481 yards passing, Burrow couldn't get half that in a 32-13 loss to the Browns that stunned them into 0-3 in the AFC North. They are 4-4 and the game matched a season the Bengals haven't been able to find that rhythm and groove of the postseason.

"To be honest, we needed a spark and we didn't get one," said running back Joe Mixon. "The defense the last seven, eight games, they've been playing their ass off and as an offense we have to be better to help these guys. We came out and beat ourselves."

They didn't have one of those sparks in wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase (hip), who caught 130 of Burrow's yards last week, but the same slow starts of September that bit the Bengals with Chase in the lineup re-surfaced. Head coach Zac Taylor said the game got away from them in a ghoulish 12-minute stretch bridging the second and third quarters, but if the game turned it was on its first possession when for a second straight year Burrow had them on the doorstep and for a second straight year threw an interception.

The play before showed how the Bengals planned to use their dizzying versatility to counter Chase's absence. On third-and-seven, Burrow sent tight end Hayden Hurst wide and kept Tyler Boyd in the slot and that's where Boyd found a seam in the zone for 14 yards at the Cleveland 27.

The Bengals were rolling like they had rolled the last two weeks. Burrow out of shotgun eschewing the run, but relying on Mixon check-down passes as runs. On the next play, just like the last two weeks, they went run-pass option instead of play-action and wide receiver Tee Higgins was open for another first down. Until Garrett, working on the left side, put up his hand when Burrow pulled, tipped it and the veering ball ticked off Higgins' hands into the hands of the other A.J. Green at the Cleveland 16.

"Myles made a great play on the RPO getting his hands up. Not much you can do about that one," Burrow said.

The Bengals kept going back to that first drive. They've won their games this season scoring first and lost them getting behind early.

"I just feel if they hadn't tipped that ball to get that interception, it would have gone exactly the way we planned to start the game," Boyd said. "To get points and be in a rhythm early. The game would have been different."

Burrow also pointed to a play a few snaps before that where Browns cornerback Greedy Williams appeared to hold Higgins running a go route. Burrow lobbied for a flag waving and pointing with both arms.

"I thought we had a touchdown to the left side. I thought Tee got held, did not get that call," Burrow said.

Higgins: "First quarter, got grabbed but they did not call it, can not argue that. We just have to keep playing, like we did and just have to capitalize on the opportunities that we get."

Burrow, so good the last four weeks with a 117 passer rating and more than 300 yards passing per game and just one turnover in the last six games, made his second turnover of the night on a play he bounced up in the pocket when he saw Higgins breaking open. But as he wound up, a blitzing backer got him.

"Tee wins on the route," Burrow said. "(Sione) Takitaki makes a great play on a pass rush, applied pressure and was able to knock it out of my hand."

That's the way the night went. All you had to see was the first drive. Earlier in the drive, Garrett, working on the right side this time, got a pressure and forced Burrow to overthrow Boyd.

"We just didn't make a play when we needed to. It was a little bit of everything," Boyd said. "We didn't respond collectively. We couldn't make that one catch to get the offense going."

Last week, they came within a tick of three receivers each getting 100 yards in a game. On Monday night, none of Burrow's receivers had 50. The O-line that allowed just ten sacks in the last month gave up half that Monday to the Browns. In large measure because Cleveland had the lead.

And Garrett.

"You have to give credit to them. They always play well against us," Burrow said. "It is tough to answer that one. They have really good players on defense. They are good on the outside. They are really well-coached. They are sound in their leverages and their coverages. Obviously, they have Myles Garrett and (DE Jadeveon) Clowney that can get after the passer."

The Browns played coverages the Bengals had seen with Chase. Those deep drops. But they also mixed it up. Even if Chase wasn't there, there was Boyd and Higgins and the Browns weren't getting beat deep.

"A lot of Quarters and they were playing Cover 1 and real high," Burrow said. "Any time that guy (Chase) goes down, it is going to have an effect, but we are a better offense than what we put out there tonight, even without him. There are no excuses for that."

But if that first drive …

"If we start early, start fast our first drive and things go our way and don't get get that tipped ball," Boyd said, "And we keep driving and driving like we normally do. Take what they give us. It would have been a whole different game."

But what's not different is Burrow is still looking to beat the Browns.

"They have had our number the past couple of years," said Burrow who has already filed it away.

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