CINCINNATI — When the Cincinnati Bengals needed a big play to take a commanding lead over a pesky rival, they called something for a receiver who had never practiced it.
But Trenton Irwin was ready. At halftime of Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns, he had a hunch the offense might call a flea flicker in his direction.
“I was excited,” Irwin told ESPN. “I was like, ‘All right, here it is.’ Everything from there really is a blur.”
The Bengals pulled out the trick play in the third quarter, an unguarded Irwin caught it for a touchdown and Cincinnati proceeded to cruise in a 23-10 win over the Browns. The win also answered one of the biggest questions surrounding the team before the season began.
Behind the stalwart trio of Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, Cincinnati didn’t have many proven options at wide receiver. With Higgins and Boyd injured Sunday, the Bengals were able to lean on Irwin and Trent Taylor to have a productive passing attack, a good sign for a team with championship aspirations.
“As guys have been out, they take a lot of those reps and so they're always ready at a moment's notice to go in there and make a play,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said Monday. “And I thought both those guys did that for us yesterday.”
At various points throughout this season, Cincinnati (9-4) has been without at least one of its top three receivers. Chase missed four games while he recovered from a hairline hip fracture. Thoughts of all three top receivers playing against the Browns were dashed an hour before kickoff when Higgins’ hamstring injury continued to be an issue. Then on the second play from scrimmage, Boyd suffered a dislocated finger and was eventually ruled out.
That left Irwin and Taylor as the primary targets alongside Chase. Both of their roles elevated slightly when Chase missed Weeks 8 through 11 with his hip issue. But their snap usage skyrocketed with Boyd and Higgins absent.
Each reserve maximized their chances. Late in the second quarter, Taylor had a key 34-yard completion on third down that put the ball deep in Cleveland territory. A few plays later, Irwin had a 13-yard gain on third-and-10 to keep the drive moving. Cincinnati eventually scored on running back Samaje Perine’s 6-yard scamper.
Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow said that with Irwin and Taylor in the fold, Cincinnati didn’t need to make significant offensive adjustments.
“That’s what’s great about those guys that come in for [Higgins and Boyd]," Burrow said after the game. “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.”
It also speaks to how well Burrow is playing. Since Week 6, Burrow has thrown 18 touchdowns and only four interceptions. All four picks were either deflected or intercepted by defensive lineman. During that span, Burrow ranks sixth in the league in Total QBR, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Zac Taylor said the faith about the players Cincinnati had on the roster entering the season and the chemistry they have with each other played a role in the team’s decision not to bolster the roster with free agents. Taylor also cited the connection between the current group and Burrow.
“He’s got a lot of trust in those guys,” Taylor said, adding that assistant coaches Troy Walters and Brad Kragthorpe have done a good job of having the receivers ready to play any position if necessary.
Irwin echoed that sentiment. He said Higgins’ status waffled leading up to kickoff until it became clear he was going to be extremely limited. The third-year player snuck onto the field for one play on the team’s first drive, though, his only snap of the game.
Irwin, who signed with the Bengals in 2019, took an extra look at Higgins’ routes before the game. He finished with two catches for 58 yards and a score.
Boyd and Higgins’ status remains up in the air for Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay. Zac Taylor said both will be day-to-day, leaving Irwin and Taylor tentatively slotted in those respective spots.
Cincinnati could opt to do what it did against the Browns and continue to lean heavily on Chase. He caught 10 of his team-high 15 targets for 119 yards and a touchdown. Irwin and Taylor had six targets combined.
No matter how it shakes out, Cincinnati has proven that it can be without some of its top offensive threats and still be productive.
“[Against Cleveland], I'm looking around and there's no Tee and TB in the huddle and we still got a good huddle and still trust everyone in the huddle,” Bengals guard Alex Cappa said. “That's huge on both sides. We have confidence in everybody.”