Bengals get first win, but offense remains a work in progress

Bengals get first win, but offense remains a work in progress
  • Ben Baby


    Ben Baby

    ESPN Staff Writer

      Ben Baby covers the Cincinnati Bengals for ESPN. He joined the company in July 2019. Prior to ESPN, he worked for various newspapers in Texas, most recently at The Dallas Morning News where he covered college sports. He provides daily coverage of the Bengals for, while making appearances on SportsCenter, ESPN’s NFL shows and ESPN Radio programs. A native of Grapevine, Texas, he graduated from the University of North Texas with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He is an adjunct journalism professor at Southern Methodist University and a member of the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA).
  • Sarah Barshop


    Sarah Barshop

    ESPN Staff Writer

      Sarah Barshop covers the Los Angeles Rams for ESPN. She joined ESPN in 2016 to cover the Green Bay Packers for ESPN Milwaukee. She then moved to Houston to cover the Texans. She came to ESPN after working as a writer and editor for Sports Illustrated. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahbarshop.

Sep 25, 2023, 11:25 PM ET

CINCINNATI — The Cincinnati Bengals didn’t turn in a masterpiece against the Los Angeles Rams before a “Monday Night Football” audience, but did enough to score a 19-16 victory for their first win of the 2023 NFL season.

The Bengals kept the Rams out of the end zone for the first 58-plus minutes, with quarterback Joe Burrow and the offense doing just enough to complement the effort on the other side. Here’s what to know about each team’s performance:

Cincinnati Bengals

Monday night was about whether the Cincinnati Bengals had the resiliency required to be a championship contender.

If they wanted to avoid starting the season in a massive hole, they needed to beat the Los Angeles Rams with quarterback Joe Burrow playing on an injured right calf. That’s exactly what the Bengals did against the Rams, showing the same type of resolve that has been on display in the team’s deep postseason runs the last two seasons.

Despite a rocky start that featured some boos from the home crowd, the Bengals offense got rolling late and Burrow did enough to sustain drives and score points. The defense, which was gashed at times, pressured Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford in key spots, forced two big turnovers and kept Los Angeles out of the end zone until the final moments.

Winning the AFC North for a third straight year will be a challenge after the Bengals dropped two divisional games to start. But the prime-time win at Paycor Stadium — and Burrow’s improved health — gives the Bengals hope that their lofty goals are attainable.

Describe the game in two words: Ugly victory. It wasn’t pretty, but any team that starts 0-2 will not apologize for getting its first victory of a season.

Buy a breakout performance: After a week that featured him voicing his displeasure about the lack of action, specifically about the lack of deep balls, Ja’Marr Chase had his biggest game of the season, crossing 100 receiving yards in the third quarter after he hauled in a 43-yard pass from Burrow. Earlier in the week, Chase and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan had a one-on-one conversation to talk about his role in the offense. The Bengals leaned on Chase to jump-start their season and he delivered.

Pivotal play: A losing team can always benefit from a bit of luck. And that’s exactly what the Bengals received early in the game when Rams wide receiver Tutu Atwell had a touchdown nullified when replay showed he stepped out of bounds. It kept the Bengals from facing a big hole early and allowed the offense the time it needed to find a rhythm and score a touchdown of their own, which happened in the third quarter when Joe Mixon scored on a 14-yard run.

QB breakdown: Early in the game, it appeared as if Burrow playing on the injured calf wasn’t worth the risk. He got the ball out quickly and didn’t push the ball downfield. But just like in Week 2, he seemed to settle in during the second half. Burrow looked more comfortable moving around, whether it was on the designed rollout that set up Chase’s big reception or trying to evade pressure. It was the gutty performance the Bengals needed to avoid a dreaded 0-3 start. — Ben Baby

Next game: at Titans (1 p.m. ET, Sunday)

Los Angeles Rams

Through two weeks without Cooper Kupp, the Rams’ offense looked like they’d survive his stint on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. But in Cincinnati, the unit showed how much they were missing their star receiver, failing to score a touchdown until Tutu Atwell caught a 1-yard touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford in the game’s 58th minute.

The Rams were 1 for 11 on third down — the conversion coming on their final drive — and struggled to get into a rhythm on offense all game. The defense impressed, especially limiting Burrow early, but the offense failed to take advantage. Rookie wide receiver Puka Nacua, who had 25 catches in his first two NFL games, had five catches for 72 yards against the Bengals.

The Rams don’t have very long to correct as they play on the road against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday afternoon.

QB breakdown: Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford completed 18 of 33 passes for 269 yards and a touchdown and was intercepted twice by Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson. Stafford’s longest pass of the game — a 46-yard completion to wide receiver Van Jefferson in the third quarter — was followed by his second interception of the game.

Troubling trend: Before their touchdown drive in the waning moments, the Rams ran eight plays in the red zone for minus-10 yards. Stafford was 1-of-7 passing in the red zone (0-of-4 targeting running back Kyren Williams) and was sacked twice. Through Week 2, the Rams were 5-for-6 in the red zone, the best mark in the NFL.

Promising trend: In Week 2, Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald didn’t record a single stat against the San Francisco 49ers, but he and the defense put pressure on Joe Burrow on Monday night. In the first half alone Donald had three quarterback pressures on Burrow, which is as many as he had in the Rams’ first two games this season. On those plays, Burrow was 0-of-1 and sacked twice.

Eye-popping Next Gen stat: Stafford was targeting rookie receiver Puka Nacua on his second interception. It was the 41st target of the season for Nacua and the first time Stafford threw an interception. — Sarah Barshop

Next game: at Colts (1 p.m. ET, Sunday)

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