INGLEWOOD, Calif. — The Cincinnati Bengals knew they needed drastic changes if they wanted to be a perennial playoff contender.
They rebuilt the roster in free agency and drafted playmakers the past two offseasons to expedite the process. Through smart signings and good draft picks, Cincinnati morphed into the best team in the AFC North.
But Sunday’s 23-20 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI reminded the Bengals winning at the highest level requires more. For a team to be the best in the NFL, it will take a thorough examination and fixing the weak spots.
As if it wasn’t obvious enough before the Super Bowl, the Rams pointed out exactly what needs to improve immediately.
The Rams’ pass rush feasted on Cincinnati’s offensive line in the second half. Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow was sacked often, especially in the second half. Los Angeles tallied five of those in the third quarter, the most in a quarter in Super Bowl history, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Burrow played the majority of the fourth quarter with a right knee injury that left him writing on the turf at one point.
And that glaring weakness cost Cincinnati a shot at the NFL’s highest prize.
There’s no question this was one of the best seasons in franchise history. The Bengals ended a 31-year drought without a playoff win, the longest in the NFL, and won the conference championship for the first time since 1989.
Cincinnati far exceeded everyone’s expectations — perhaps even its own — in the third year under coach Zac Taylor, who had won six total games in his first two seasons.
The Bengals know what despair looks like. Two years ago, they were the worst team in the NFL. Then they drafted Burrow. And after this run to the Super Bowl, they know what the top of the mountain could look like.
Most importantly, they know they have a young core that can not only be competitive but perhaps be among the favorites to win the AFC for at least the next couple of years.
“We are going to work really hard to get back to this moment and finish on top like we wanted to this year,” Burrow said after the game. “We came up just short.”
When the Bengals drafted Burrow, they secured a franchise quarterback who is not content with anything but being the best. If Cincinnati fully embraces that mindset, the Bengals could be playing for another Super Bowl in the near future.
“This is going to pave the way because now we know how to get here,” Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd said. “We just have to continue to build and stick together and stay connected as a team. As long as we do that then we will continue to prosper bigger achievements.”
But Los Angeles showed that to have big dreams, one must make big moves.
The Rams know what it’s like to fall short in a Super Bowl. They lost in Super Bowl LIII, Taylor’s final game as an assistant coach on Sean McVay’s staff before the Bengals hired him in 2019.
In the following seasons, Los Angeles realized quarterback Jared Goff wasn’t the long-term solution and traded the 2016 No. 1 overall pick to the Detroit Lions in exchange for veteran Matthew Stafford a year ago.
The Rams made other big upgrades too, with a midseason trade in 2021 for Von Miller, the former Denver Broncos edge rusher who was Super Bowl 50 MVP. Los Angeles also picked up wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. on waivers after falling out with the Cleveland Browns.
Those were aggressive moves from a front office that knew what it wanted to accomplish and was all in.
Of the many great things Cincinnati did in the offseason preceding the 2021 season — signing defensive end Trey Hendrickson, outside cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and slot cornerback Mike Hilton — the Bengals paid the price for not fixing their biggest problem in the offensive line.
The Bengals were one of the worst pass-blocking units in 2020, according to NFL Next Gen and ESPN’s metrics, and they made only modest improvements to the offensive line in the offseason. The addition of veteran tackle Riley Reiff was nullified when he was placed on injured reserve on Dec. 16. Jackson Carman, the team’s second-round pick who played tackle in college, was unable to successfully secure the starting right guard position, which created uncertainty at that spot throughout the postseason. Cincinnati’s run to the Super Bowl included a nine-sack outing by the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round.
That’s what makes this loss to the Rams so frustrating. Cincinnati got the overlooked moves right but whiffed on the obvious.
The Bengals should take solace in knowing that with a quality draft class and some aggressive moves in free agency, the line is something that can be addressed and fixed in the offseason.
Cincinnati will have $44.8 million in salary cap space in 2022, according to OverTheCap.com. While it will have to use a chunk of that to fill out the roster, there is space to improve its weak spots.