The worst-case scenario struck the Cincinnati Bengals in Sunday's 20-9 loss to the Washington Football Team. Franchise quarterback Joe Burrow was carted off with a season-ending knee injury in the third quarter.
The Bengals were outscored 13-0 the rest of the way and fell to 2-6-1 on the season.
Here's a three-down look from another loss on the road.
First Down: Burrow Takes a Scary Hit
Bengals fans everywhere had their worst fears realized on the team's second possession of the third quarter. The offense started near their goal line and had a manageable third-and-two. Insert immediate interior pressure from Jonathan Allen and an overload rush from the left side. Burrow took the brunt of both at the same time, triggering a nasty high-low hit.
It was a troubling microcosm of the 2020 Bengals offense: Relying on a rookie to carry the unit while leaving him defenseless. Coming into the game, Burrow had taken 32 sacks and 72 hits on the season. The 72 hits are tied with Daniel Jones for the most taken through a quarterback's first nine games since 2000.
Burrow had clean pockets for most of the afternoon, yet it only took one messy play to bring the whole house of cards down.
The Bengals held a 9-7 lead, but were outscored 13-0 the rest of the way. The Zac Taylor offense has been one of the pass-heaviest attacks in the NFL this season. That philosophy, paired with suspect protection, cost them on Sunday.
Second Down: Offensive Line Shows It's True Colors
Once Burrow left the game, it became clear he'd been putting makeup on a hog all season long. Ryan Finley came in without the rookie's pocket savvy or quick decision making, which led to a poor offensive performance. The backup finished with 30 yards passing and four sacks for a loss of 31 yards.
Finley was no match for a Washington defensive front that smelled blood in the water once they retook the lead. The offense looked a lot like the fateful stretch in 2019 with Finley at the helm, a string of games that indirectly netted Cincinnati the opportunity to draft Burrow.
There is no quick-trigger veteran like Andy Dalton to keep the offense on schedule this time around. The Bengals protection unit ranks 28th on the year in ESPN's pass block win rate, yet Burrow evaded those free rushers more often than not. That magic is irreplaceable for a team that showed no ability to operate effectively with the same personnel a year ago.
The final six games should be a rude wake-up call for a front office that ignored the most important position group in football. Signing one backup guard in free agency doesn't fix an entire offensive line. The Bengals learned that the hard way in the nation's capital.
Third Down: Run Defense Shows Little Resistance
The opposition has utilized a pick your poison mentality against Cincinnati all season. Lately, it's been the quick passing game, but the Bengals decided to throw it back to September on Sunday by letting their opponent run wild. Washington finished with 34 carries for 164 yards and one touchdown.
Cincinnati came into the game in the bottom third of rushing yards allowed, but that's a bit deceiving. They have arguably the worst run defense in the NFL on a snap-to-snap basis, giving up 5 yards per carry tied for the second-most in the league. Rookie running back Antonio Gibson paired with J.D. McKissic for a punishing one-two punch.
The damage could've been a lot worse as the inexperienced backs missed a few wide-open cutbacks for big yardage. Their tunnel vision didn't matter, as they found space all day.
Gibson enjoyed plenty of success on the outside, running for 53 yards on six carries off of the right tackle.
Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt continues to struggle defending the run and Washington targeted him with that in mind. Pratt's average tackle depth this season is 5.7 yards past the line of scrimmage, the sixth-worst of all qualified linebackers (min. 45 tackles). Mix that with a 45.4 overall grade from Pro Football Focus and you see the makings of another bust at linebacker.
The rest of 2020 is about finding the pieces worth keeping on this defense. Spotting a consistent presence that can put up a fight in the run game is a good start.
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