It was an AFC North Game all the way ruled by the Bengals' relentless defense in Sunday's 23-10 win over the Browns at Paycor Stadium. But it was also a game won with help from the Trents as well as won in the Trenches.
With starting wide receiver Tee Higgins (hamstring) and slot receiver Tyler Boyd (dislocated finger), playing a combined three snaps, backup wide receiver Trenton Irwin and backup slot receiver Trent Taylor grabbed quarterback Joe Burrow's two longest throws of the game for the longest catches of their careers.
And the only starter left, Ja'Marr Chase, had ten catches for 119 yards to lead all offensive players while playing all three receiver spots in just his second game back from his own injury.
This had been the fans' fear, right, in the spring and training camp? Maybe not enough depth behind the best trio of receivers in the game?
Burrow had the answer.
"I've got so much faith in the guys that come in for those guys," Burrow said. "Trent and Trenton are guys that work really hard and know their stuff and are going to be right where I expect them to. That's really what it comes down to."
Chase also drew a huge 33-yard pass interference penalty on cornerback Denzel Ward on a go ball that set up first touchdown and extended the Bengals record to 7-0 when they score first
"Once I knew (Higgins) was out, I knew there was going to be a couple of switches in the game plan," Chase said. "But, not really, because I knew pretty much everything.
"Tee goes down, then I want to take his reps. He has good routes. I'm not being shiesty, but I want some of his plays and he wants some of mine. I just had to take some of his reps."
Taylor's 34-yard catch-and-run off a missed tackle converted a third-and-10 and set up the touchdown that gave them a 13-3 half-time lead with 24 seconds left in the half. Irwin's 45-yard touchdown catch off a flea flicker from running back Joe Mixon, back to Burrow, gave them a 20-3 lead midway through the third quarter.
"Offensive staff meeting at 12 o'clock on the dot because we went into the game with (only) two tight ends, and that affects us and things you're going to do with multiple receivers," said head coach Zac Taylor of the scrambling that had to take place even before Boyd went down. "To lose two receivers right out of the gate, third down became a challenge."
Zac Taylor convened the meeting after pre pregame warmups, when Higgins appeared to tweak a hamstring issue that limited him last week in practice, which was before Taylor put in his inactive list. Higgins wanted to play so badly that he still made it to the field for the first snap before the coaches pulled him and told him they didn't want to risk anything long term.
In their hastily called meeting, offensive coordinator Brian Callahan and quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher tweaked third down and wide receivers coach Troy Walters handled the red-zone response as tight ends coach James Casey and running backs coach Justin Hill helped with both.
Basically, some calls were moved up and some were moved down, but Trent Taylor pretty much stepped into Boyd's spot in the slot while Irwin took a lot of Higgins' snaps while Chase got a little bit of everything. Burrow indicated there was no adjustment because they simply plugged players into those spots.
"We didn't have to make an adjustment. That's what's great about those guys that come in for them," Burrow said. "We have all the faith in the world that they're going to do the job. There can't be any drop off and there wasn't today."
As Trent Taylor said about any adjustments, "You can do whatever you want when you've got Nine back there."
AFC NORTH JOE: We've seen Seamless Joe and Running Joe and Heisman Joe and Tom Brady Joe and 500-yard Joe and on Sunday we were treated to Burrow's rendition of winning an absolutely necessary December division game without three of his top four receivers. The offense that had been so good in the four-game winning streak didn't get into the red zone until the second quarter as Burrow, second in NFL completion percentage, missed two of his first seven passes and 12 of 21 in the first half.
But Burrow got into sync with Irwin and Taylor long enough to hit nine of his 12 passes in the second half. It marked his lowest passer rating (85.3) in a win during his career, even lower than the 86.5 in last year's AFC title game win in Kansas City.
This was Improv Joe, too. He scrambled for two first downs on third down and then with the Bengals in the red zone in the last two minutes of the first half and leading, 7-3, he killed the Browns when he converted a third-and-10 scrambling out of the pocket again. When it looked like he was going to keep it and go, cornerback Greg Newsome III broke off Irwin to get him and Irwin was open for a 13-yard gain that made a touchdown possible.
"Whenever we play those guys, they're so good on the defensive front," Burrow said. "I always go in expecting to have to make some plays with my legs and get out of the pocket. Trenton did a great job of just finding some space. I talk about it all the time with him, he just makes opportunities for himself. I got it in his hands and he went and got the first down for us."
NO FLEAS ON JOES: Irwin confirmed it. The TD pass off the flea flicker was the widest open he's ever been for any pass. The play was an example of how the coaches didn't let the injuries blow up their basic plan. The Browns get nosy in the running game with their safeties and it was a play they put in during the week. It was such a priority they were going to run it even if Higgins wasn't out there.
"They just came down screaming. That's usually how their safeties do it," Mixon said.
The guy was Irwin and he hadn't repped the play all week.
"Everyone has seen a flea flicker. You know what to do," Irwin said. "It was a freebie. That was a gift. Sometimes you overthink it, but you just make a play. I've been catching balls my whole life."
On first-and-10 from the Browns 45, Burrow handed to Mixon and sure enough the safety got nosy. During a blitz no less.
"It was Tee throughout the week. That just goes to show that Trenton Irwin studies his stuff and knows every position," Burrow said. "He's going to get thrown in there if somebody goes down, so credit to him. We were running the ball well at that point, that's why it ended up working."
Mixon, on his way to 96 yards on seven yards a pop, wanted to make sure he gave Burrow a good tight spiral back after he took the handoff.
"You have to sell the run. I just pressed a little bit (toward the line)," Mixon said. "Usually I spin the ball. If it's wobbly, Joe might drop it, so I try to spin it as perfectly as I can. It was well executed all the way around."
It was Burrow's 17th career TD pass of at least 40 yards, which leads all quarterbacks in the 2020s.
SEED MONEY: Burrow's best throw of the day was the first touchdown, a 15-yarder gunned to Chase's hip between Ward and safety John Johnson III. Chase admitted it caught him by surprise.
"I wasn't ready for it. I saw the safety. I thought it was two-high," Chase said. "That means Joe has to work the middle of the field instead of the outsides. But one those safeties came down the opposite side and that was the hole shot."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: The offense couldn't stop talking about the defense, and why not? They stymied the NFL's third best run offense on 71 yards, less than half of its average per game. For the second time in three games they held a 1,000-yard rusher in the 30s. It was Derrick Henry's 38 in Tennessee two weeks ago, Nick Chubb's 34 Sunday.
Take your pick. Middle linebacker Logan Wilson was in on 17 tackles, largely because tackles D.J. Reader and B.J. Hill were immense inside and got game balls to prove it. There was also free safety Jessie Bates III's fourth-quarter interception and defensive end Sam Hubbard's sack and five tackles.
"We've got guys like DJ Reader, B.J. (Hill), Trey Hendrickson, and Sam also," Mixon said. "When those guys are playing the run like that, it's hard for us to be beat. I think he's been averaging like five yards a carry, and that just shows what type of defense we have. Those guys come in and they're ready for downhill, physical games like that. They show up each and every week. Every opposing back, they've pretty much been imposing their will on the offense. I'm very glad for the defense. They showed up today." …
Maybe the guy they were talking about the most was rookie cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, who won on two fourth-down passes, one in the end zone.
"This man has picked it up a lot since Chido went out," said Chase of the torn ACL No. 1 cornerback Chidobe Awuzie suffered against these Browns on Halloween. "You couldn't ask more from a rookie corner. He's been going against tough matchups. Amari Cooper is one of the best receivers in the league, just setting up people and running routes, he's one of the best at it. For Cam to play like that today, stopping fade balls, coming in on breaking-in routes, he was dealing on basically everything. As soon as he gets smarter at his position, I think he'll have a chance to be one of the best corners in the league." …
Footnote: Cooper had five catches for 131 yards when Awuzie got hurt and Taylor-Britt was pressed into service. On Sunday he had two catches for 42 yards …
Pro Football Talk reported Hendrickson broke his wrist, but he did finish the game …