I used to think that good scheme and inventive playcalling could overcome a lack of talent. I remember banging the drum in 2009, saying the Bengals could win without Chris Henry―that the other guys would step it up. That didn't happen. True, it wasn't the most impressive coaching displays late that season by the offensive coordinator, but ultimately, it came down to simply not having the guns to move forward in the playoffs.
Last week against Pittsburgh, after AJ Green left the field, it felt that same way. Caldwell, Baby Hawk, and Jerome Simpson did not strike any kind of fear in the hearts of the Steeler defense. The timing went away, the routes became more round, and miscommunication set in like the ghost of Carson Palmer. It's amazing to think that by removing just one receiver from the game plan, the whole equation of success breaks down. Yet that is what happened in 2009 when Henry broke his arm and later died, and again in a much smaller dose last week in the second half when Green tweaked his knee.
The good news is that Green is going to be okay. Nothing tore in that precious knee of his and although the team will treat him delicately, his return is imminent if not for this week then for next. However, it seems logical on the part of the Bengals coaching staff to prepare the secondary-role players for more of a spotlight part should the team be in the same precarious situation again. Can anyone within their current receiving corps step up and at least act like a number one wideout, or must the group as a whole equally elevate their game to allow for further success? And even with Green on the field, can the others get better throughout the second half of the season?
The defense is a different animal altogether. It too lost a figurehead on their side of the ball in Leon Hall, but still kept it together enough to give the team multiple chances to tie things up late in the game. Steeler wide out Antonio Brown appeared impossible to guard in the short term―and I was worried―but the remaining corners got their act together and made winning possible in the end.
There were a lot of good things that came out of this game for the Bengals. The offensive line pass protected very well, Dalton displayed his tremendous pocket presence and many times threw the ball out of bounds rather than take a sack or force a pass into coverage. The defense put good pressure on Big Ben and kept the Steelers ground game to a minimal. Penalties were low and there was really just one bad turnover in the game (the deflected pass for the first interception gets chalked up to the "stuff happens" category). The national perception of this game is that it was an impressive loss for the Stripes and that they proved they could at least compete with the other divisional big dogs, and they did so after losing a couple of key pieces in the process. Nonetheless, the passing game looked weak without Green and future opponents are likely to take note of that and gameplan accordingly. If I were a defense, I would rather Jerome Simpson beat me then the high-caliber rookie.
The running game has proven to still be necessary in this pass-happy world, but throwing effectively will always be the quickest way out of trouble. Dalton and crew were modestly effective in the first half of the season but the unit will have to improve, not just remain average. I feel we all know what Caldwell brings to the table―he's consistently alright―but Simpson continues to be a frustrating wild card. He looks like a receiver, he runs well, but he drops way too many passes and he just can't put it altogether. I would rather have a less talented but more reliable player than an all-or-nothing guy catching the ball. Hawkins is a nice, jukey little player but doesn't seem to have the tools of an every-down number-two receiver. Gresham, of course, is the next best pass-catcher behind Green, but his role on this team isn't of the ariel-threat variety. Yes, he is an intriguing red-zone target, and is a tough runner with the ball in his hands, but he isn't much of a focal point to this offense the way Jason Witten is to his scheme, for example. Gresham has blocked a lot and hasn't been able to stretch the field much, yet both Donald Lee and Colin Cochart have had explosive plays the last few weeks―it's odd.
I'm not advocating panic in regards to the passing game; I'm only pointing out how the talent that does exist there, needs to get significantly better for the Bengals to win against the best teams. I think this is a well-coached team who will make the necessary developments to succeed and very possibly make the playoffs. Marvin spoke this week about the need to stay creative offensively and to not become predictable, so we at least know he is aware of the concern as well. The next few weeks are against familiar foes who seem much more beatable than perhaps many others would suggest. The Ravens and Steerlers II are games the Bengals should win if they're a team on the rise but they cannot settle for average performances if that is to happen; they have to learn to elevate their games in the face of difficulty and uncertainty no matter who is playing and who is injured.
Rise to the top. Surpass the limitations.
Mojokong―where is my coat?