Coming off his fourth low-output game of the season and first playing with a fractured rib, Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins insisted that his contract situation is not affecting his play.
Higgins was eligible for an extension this offseason but could not agree to terms with the Bengals, so he is playing this season on the final year of his rookie deal, knowing that everything he does will have an impact on what he makes in free agency next spring.
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How Can the Cincinnati Bengals Get Tee Higgins Going?
Former safety Jessie Bates was candid about how his failed extension talks spilled into his psyche in the regular season the last couple of years. However, Higgins said nothing of that sort is affecting him.
“It’s not playing a role at all, man,” Higgins said the day after catching just two passes for 20 yards in a 17-13 win against Seattle.
“I won’t let things like that affect my game,” Higgins said. “I’m just gonna go out there and be me.”
On the latest episode of the PFN #Bengals Podcast, @DallasDRobinson and I assess the team’s offensive struggles and weigh some possible fixes, plus we hand out bye week awards for Team MVP, Most Improved, Top Newcomer, Biggest Disappointment and more:
— Jay Morrison (@ByJayMorrison) October 17, 2023
With the contract situation removed from the equation, let’s look at some of the other factors contributing to such an uncharacteristically poor start for Higgins, who has caught two or fewer passes for 21 or fewer yards in four of his five games this season.
The rib obviously is a factor. He suffered the injury in the first half at Tennessee in Week 4 and sat out the second half and the Week 5 game at Arizona.
Higgins returned this week, but he took a couple of shots in the vicinity of the injury and spent more time than usual on the sideline, logging only 54% of the snaps, well below his average of 85%.
“Obviously, I banged a few times. I was in and out,” Higgins said. “I’m a little sore. Nothing treatment can’t fix. I went in there and chopped it up with the training staff and got some treatment.
“It’s probably something I’ll deal with for a few weeks, but after that, it should be all right,” Higgins said.
Another issue at play, at least in the early going, was Joe Burrow’s calf injury, because it’s not as though Higgins is the only player on offense struggling to match expectations. But Higgins isn’t leaning on that as an excuse.
“Personally, I definitely could be better,” he said. “And I look forward to doing that, coming down with the 50/50 balls and things like that. I could definitely be better.”
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The 50/50 balls are the glaring absence in Higgins’ game through the first six weeks. Yes, there have been fewer opportunities with Burrow getting rid of the ball so quickly while the calf injury was still an issue.
But Sunday, Higgins had an opportunity at one that he not only didn’t come down with but also got flagged for offensive pass interference.
“Don’t get me in trouble,” head coach Zac Taylor said when asked about the play.
“A BS call,” Higgins called it.
But the major takeaway is that Higgins didn’t come down with the pass, marking another 50/50 ball he failed to secure.
Per Pro Football Focus, Higgins caught 16 of 26 contested catches in 2022 and 16 of 36 in 2021. Those 36 targets in 2021 were the fourth most in the league that season. That’s 32 of 62 (51.6%) over the last two seasons.
This year, Higgins is 2 of 11 (18.2%), and despite missing a game and a half, those 11 targets are tied for 10th most in the league.
“Those are the balls I’m supposed to come down with,” Higgins said. “Joe has enough trust in me to give me that type of ball, and he expects me to come down with, so I’ve got to come down with it.”
— Jay Morrison (@ByJayMorrison) October 16, 2023
One of the things offensive coordinator Brian Callahan talked about during his venting session Monday was a return of more under-center plays with Burrow’s calf healthy enough to do it. It’s not going to be a flip where they go under center a lot, but rather a deviation from being 100% in shotgun.
Callahan pointed out that will have an effect on the run game.
“There’s an element of the offense that does run through the under-center part of it,” he said. “Some of the run-game schemes are better. You can marry some of the play-actions a little better.”
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And that’s where it could really help Higgins, with play-action drawing in the defense and creating 1-on-1 opportunities where he has thrived in the past.
“We’ve got to get this thing going,” Higgins said. “We see the potential. It’s little things setting us back. We have to correct those little things and come back stronger than ever next game.
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