It wasn't really that close. Even when we had the 14-3 lead in the first half, it was a mirage. Yes, initially we ran the ball well and stopped Roethlisberger. Didn't we? Or did Pittsburgh stop themselves? I recall that they dropped a sure TD on a gadget pass to the backup RB, threw an INT into our endzone, fumbled to us in the redzone setting up the 2nd TD and had 3-4 STs penalties negating over 100 yards in returns. So to be accurate, they whooped our butts in the first half yet had to rely on a gift from Dalton and a 2-point conversion to go into halftime tied. And then it got really ugly. No need to go over those details because we'll cover it in our notes below. My theme herein, however, will be that this season -- although technically not close to over -- appears from a talent and performance standpoint to be done already.
PRIOR 5 OVERRIDING THEMES
1. LB play -- asymmetric --> What we are getting is great, inspired, emotional play from Burfict and confused, dull and lackadaisical play from Maualuga and Lawson. And we saw more of that last night. Folks, this is getting old, but it is the cancer of our team. When you give up 160 yards rushing and allow a team's #3 RB to go over 100 yards behind a backup Center, there's a problem. Watching pretty closely last night, the root of the problem is clearly #58. Maualuga has a whole host of bad habits and weaknesses that are backing up why everyone took a pass on him before we selected him in the second round of the 2009 draft. On clear running downs Maualuga either reacts slowly and gets caught up in the mass of interior OL; overruns the play and allows the opponent to cut back and get into the secondary unopposed; goes the wrong way on misdirection plays due to false steps; or meets the runner usually about 4 - 6 yards past the line of scrimmage. Ladies and gents, none of these things are good. And we don't see Rey making a big play on running downs from his MIKE position. On passing downs he is unreliable in coverage sometimes guessing and missing, sometimes getting beat in the deeper middle and sometimes just unable to stay up with the RBs and TEs who waltz by him. SBN fans, what we have at MIKE is basically the modern version of John Blutarsky. I haven't watched Manny Lawson as closely because frankly I have been watching to see when Maualuga will ever get it right -- and so far the answer is rarely to never. But Manny's output speaks for itself. He's a real liability in pass coverage as we should expect. He does not make stops on running plays near the LOS. He rarely gets a sack on a blitz. There is a reason why no other teams made an offer on him as a UFA in 2011 or 2012 -- he's just not that good. So what are the solutions? My premise is that this season is done and that we need to figure out where we're going for 2013. With that in mind I definitely get Burfict into the MIKE spot toute de suite. Let him make mistakes now so that he's ready for a great start in 2013. What to do at WILL then? I think you let Vince Rey, a young guy, see what he can do while using Muckelroy and Skuta as backups and situational guys. I might even be tempted to play Moch at WILL some to see what he can do there. At SAM I use everyone and figure out who can play. Who knows? Maybe Maualuga can be productive at SAM. However, Lawson and Skuta are not setting the tone at that spot in the current alignments. One other thing here before we move on -- is the DL doing their part on running downs? Traditional Bengals D schemes ask the DL to keep OL from getting to the second level so that the LBs can make the tackles. Are the DL too concerned now with pass rushing? Has Peko lost something as it seems he is getting handled a lot by a single OC or OG? These are some potential root causes that need to be considered.
2. Offense -- Stale? --> After last night I think you can say that the other team has this offense pretty well figured out. A.J. Green going 1 catch for 8 yards won't get it done. Now the excuse is going to be that Marvin Jones hurt his knee etc. Heck, Jones hadn't hardly played all season, so how can he be the excuse? Dalton has spent so much time denying that his arm strength is an issue that he forgot to throw a deep pass. The other thing along these lines in the pass game involves our lack of YAC. The #2 guys, whoever they are on any given play, generally catch the ball and go down. Green is blanketed so closely that when he does catch it there is no place to go. Gresham is 6' 6", 260 but runs like a damn cheerleader when he gets the ball. As I noted earlier, he clearly did not inherit the Gronk gene. RBs continue to do nothing in the pass game (except get called for holding once a game). The running game did look good for a while, but this is a passing league now. Running it helps as long as you are tied or ahead. It doesn't help when you're losing. Jay Gruden ought to take note that running the ball with 5 minutes to play inside your own 20 isn't likely to get you to the promised land. In the end I think that we're going to have a lot of excuses. But reality is that we went into this season without consistent starting quality or depth at the skill positions, and it is showing.
3. DB Problems --> Let's put it this way -- the only way we stop the opponent from throwing over us is by leaving both safeties 15 yards deep at which time they run at will on us with 3rd team players. We are electing the slow death instead of the quick death. I guess the hope is that the O will fumble, throw and INT or make a blunder that will limit a drive. Let's get specific and name names here. Leon Hall does look better lately, but it is clear that he's not the same guy. Why I say that, you ask? He is only taking about 40% of the game snaps because he cannot handle the physical stress of playing them all as he used to do. So now Pacman is taking the majority of RCB snaps, and he isn't as good as Hall. At LCB Newman continues to get regularly torched because he struggles in close man coverage and doesn't have adequate closing speed to stop the short stuff. We all know that Reggie Nelson's major weakness is pass coverage. And Nate Clements is a CB who is trying to transition to Safety. I'm not sure how this helps us in the long run, however, since Nate Clements likely won't be in stripes next year. Even if he were, there aren't many 35 year old DBs in this league. I guess Kirkpatrick is slated to make his debut after the bye week, and that will take 3-4 games to work him into regular playing time -- that is, if his early play goes okay. So stacking this secondary behind our LB crew is like putting horseradish on top of sardines.
4. Can We Still Make the Playoffs? --> Can we? Yes. Will we? No. Sorry to all you eternal optimists, but this team is going nowhere except to the front of the draft line for 2013. What we can expect in the coming weeks is this: things worsen as the Manning boys both embarrass us at home followed by a trip to the always tough (that's what you say when you always lose somewhere) Arrowhead Stadium. Then we come home to watch Carson return to PBS (as he vowed never to do again) and attempt to throw salt in the wounds. At the beginning of the season we were all saying that this stretch would go 2-2 at worst and maybe 3-1. Now we're hoping for at least one win in those games which would put us at 4-7. Then the hard stuff starts with a trip to SD, a return to PBS to host Dallas, trips to Philly & Pittsburgh and close out at home with the Ravens. Could it be that we've only got one win left in us for 2012? Would Mike Brown extend Marv Lewis with a 4-12 season when many of the experts had us in the playoffs as a Wild Card team? Slice it as you may, this doesn't look good to me. What we can hope for is that some of the teams drop their levels of play at the end of the season. Mike Brown counts on this to raise the win totals a game or two and reduce the contract value that must be given to the 1st Round pick. If we do get a top 10, we can spend them on guys like Keith Rivers or Andre Smith. The A.J. Green pick at this point appears to be an aberration.
5. Then What to Look Forward to for the Rest of 2012? --> This has been the Bengals fan struggle for the past 21+ seasons under Mikey. There was the playoff dead zone until 2005. Then there were the teases of '05, '09 and most recently '11 in which we were one and done with double-digit losses to, respectively, the Steelers, Jets and Texans. I hate to state the obvious, but we have suddenly fallen to perhaps the worst team in the league at present. Some might say Cleveland and their 15 rookies occupy that role, but they just handed our butts to us a few weeks after we struggled to beat them at home. We already lost to Miami, another candidate, and have upcoming games to test the truth against Oak and KC. Maybe Carolina is worse. Maybe Buffalo. Maybe Indy. We're clearly in the bottom 8 and perhaps the bottom 4 teams in the league right now, however. So for me the right thing to do is to start playing the rookies and young guys to get them the experience they need. Let's make a list:
* RB -- get Peerman some more touches; call up Boom Herron and decide whether he's good enough to keep
* WR -- release either Binns or Tate and start playing Sanu, Whalen and Jones (when his knee recovers)
* TE -- get Charles more playing time; consider some steroid shots for Gresham because he lacks manhood when running after the catch
* OL -- release Faine now; go with Robinson and backup OC with Boling and Zeitler; start getting Collins some playing time at both OT spots (since it's conceivable that we lose Andre Smith after this season to UFA.... would you stay in this mess if you had a better offer with a better team? If you're not sure on this one, look up Jonathan Joseph).
* DL -- activate Sims and release Geathers (sorry, some of you won't like this, but he was really done about two years ago); start playing Brandon Thompson more for Peko; start getting Still more snaps at LDE and at DT for Atkins on running downs; get Michael Johnson more plays on the sidelines (I'm sick of listening why he can't produce because he's so tired.... you know, there's a cure for that).
* LB -- shuffle the crew; get Burfict into the MIKE spot; find out who can play WILL; see if Maualuga can be salvaged at SAM or whether he should be allowed to move on via UFA next spring (I'm assuming that Lawson already is moving on at that time)
* DB -- after a week or two of getting settled, I'd throw Kirkpatrick to the wolves at LCB; continue to alternate Pacman and Hall at RCB (since it is apparent that Hall can't physically withstand all the snaps there -- will he ever be able to do that again?); next to Reggie Nelson start getting Miles more snaps (look, after 2+ seasons and lots of negative scouting reports, it's obvious that Mays is nothing more than a STs and situational player.... i.e., not a regular -- so it's time to figure out who could possibly serve that role going into 2013 at which time Clements should be moving on); let Clements back up, however, at Safety and LCB; cut Newman to create roster space (last week I would have said to cut Crocker, but he made me look bad with that excellent INT -- that said, after this year he's done for good)
NEW THEMES TO CONSIDER
* We're worse than we thought we were --> Yes we are. What happened after the Jax game? The front office will blame it on injuries, rookies getting their feet on the ground, the forces of nature, the Mayan calendar and more, I'm sure.
* Andy Dalton can be steady, but can he get much better? --> I think what Dalton is missing right now is the experience to make quick, correct decisions, the support of a better #2 WR, a TE who is more reliable and the better use of RBs as receivers. Heck, it might also help if the running game could take the pressure off the passing game. Dalton has good mechanics but does lack the elite arm strength you'd want from a guy who is being asked to carry the team. Throwing 5 and 10-yarders every down won't work forever, and we're finding that out now. The ironic thing here is that we traded Palmer and his weakened arm to draft a replacement who has what -- a weak arm? Go figure.
* What is it with Gresham? --> He is prone to mental mistakes and lacks vitality when running after the catch. It really is embarrassing to see him cover up when running towards a smallish DB or even a LB. He ought to be putting a real lick on these guys.
* Poor Zimmer --> Guess he's being paid well, but they have stuck him in the round room and told him to pee in the corner this season. Again, there will be no chicken salad on our plates this season.
* Gruden won't be getting many interviews this off-season --> When the short-handed Steelers shut you down to 100 yards passing at home, you don't have much to advertise. But look on the bright side: at least he didn't go to a one-and-done job in Jacksonville.
* Marv Lewis: New lows in game day management --> Finally saw the note on Pro Football Talk last night citing Lewis as erratic on the sideline on game day. That's an understatement. He lost it in that bid to call the one pass incomplete and totally forgot that he was only challenging to change a 3rd-and-6 to a 3rd-and-8. They got about 20 yards on the next play anyway. The next challenge was totally stupid because it left us unable to get the ball back due to the lack of adequate time outs. The guy just doesn't do well making split second decisions and then can't admit to mistakes later. But Mikey will probably re-sign him after the season and cite that the team is showing improvements in areas that many of us would have missed (e.g., Practice Squad has 100% attendance rate at community gatherings). You know -- It is what it is.
So there you have it. It's again not safe to come out on Sundays in the fall in Cincy. The lovable losers have recycled themselves and demonstrated that they remain the Bungles. Many of us will continue to watch and root because that's what we do. Some of the newer folk who had high expectations will jump ship for a while. But really, what else is there to do when the Reds are blowing the playoffs, the Bearcats can't beat Toledo and the Bengals cheerleaders are sleeping with the high school kids?