At eight games into the season, things haven't gone according to plan for the Cincinnati Bengals. This last quarter was a nightmare, blowing two games against rookie quarterbacks and then two more against hall-of-famers. Not only can they not beat the playoff teams, they can't beat anyone. The Giants game marks the beginning of a new quarter, and the Bengals must start well, or that's it.
Epic Bengal collapses are nothing new to this town, and they seem to occur every other year. In 2008, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Carson Palmer teamed up to lose the first eight games right out of the gate. Then in 2010, Batman & Robin suffered through a 10-game string of losses, crushing the mega-hyped expectations of that year. Now the same Grim Reaper lurks around Paul Brown Stadium again, threatening to consume the season and all of its joys. The season is in a nosedive and looks to be out of control, but for silly reasons, I think they get it together this week.
The Super Bowl Champions are a bad-ass team. They can score a lot of points, having already scored 41 twice this year, or they can wrestle away road wins like the thumping they put on the 49ers in Candlestick. They have a renown pass rush and a no-nonsense coaching staff. They are better than the Bengals in nearly every way.
Yet maybe the Bengals are close to getting back on track offensively. The center position continues to be a problem with Jeff Faine and Trevor Robinson frequently subbing in and out due to either bad play or bad hamstrings, or both? Now there's talk about Clint Boling at center if necessary; the whole position is a quagmire right now. Kyle Cook's injury has proven to be somewhat catastrophic to this team, thrusting either too old or too young replacements into the mix. The whole thing reminds me of the Eric Ghiaciuc fiasco in 2006. If the Bengals can clean up the position by having one guy practice at center all week and make it through an entire game, things will improve.
The offensive line wasn't great against Denver, giving up five sacks and allowing Andy Dalton to panic more than he needed to. The quarterback has not felt comfortable in the pocket for the majority of the season. Individually, outside of the center position, the linemen have been graded respectably, but collectively they have rarely felt dominant, particularly when run-blocking. The line is a symbiotic entity that must work as a group and it's just not happening right now. Too many sacks and too many penalties last week drew attention to a group who prefers to work anonymously. I think the line will improve as the center spot solidifies.
At the midway point, even Andy Dalton has come up short. The organization relied on his incredible intangibles, namely pocket presence, leadership and general unflappability, yet the young ginger has faltered in his development in these areas, appearing to have regressed more than improve. While in the pocket, there is a trust issue somewhere in his thought processes. He either doesn't trust himself to make the throws, doesn't trust his receivers and their ability to get open, or doesn't trust his line to protect him. This trust breakdown, whatever it is, has led Dalton to appear, well, flappable. Once the line gets better, Dalton will progress as well. Dalton is better-than-average but it takes the right blend of factors to put him in the best situation.
A major part of that blend is a better running game. The Bengals rank in the bottom five in nearly every important rushing statistic. This offense is not one built for 50 passes a game. It simply doesn't have the firepower to compete that way. When Trevelle Wharton and Cook both went down in the preseason, coupled with letting Bobby Williams go in free agency and drafting Kevin Zeitler as his replacement, the front office went with younger, lighter and more athletic linemen who can pull and get out in space. Yet BenJarvus Green-Ellis has shown himself to be more of a power back, and the two styles have not coincided nicely. Now with Bernard Scott out too, there aren't many other players on the roster who can get out in space and let those sprightly young linemen roam free to find linebackers to block. Instead, they are asked to maul and shove fat defenders backward. It hasn't happened with much success at all. The combinations of injuries have hit the Bengals where it hurts in the run game. In order to find some success there, the coaching staff must try to use Green-Ellis and there other personnel in ways that have yet to be tried. At this point of the season, trends are obvious and real and if the Bengals are too slow to adjust—as has historically been the case under Marvin Lewis-led teams—then it will be too late and they will begin to build early for 2013. This week and beyond, I think we see some new wrinkles in the running game that hopefully include an expanded role to the other largely unused backs in Cedric Peerman and Boom Herron. Got to try something new and the time is now. Bold prediction: Bengals rush for 125 yards as a team this week, which is a big deal for a struggling unit.
Defensively, the rest of the year will be an uphill climb against the pass.
Things have really fallen apart within the linebacking group. I heard Dave Lapham say how important Thomas Howard was to this squad and I think he's dead on. Since he went down, coaches and fans alike have turned up the pressure on Rey Maualuga and Manny Lawson. Both have underperformed in their larger roles, especially Lawson who seems to have been removed from the scheme almost altogether. Only Vontaze Burfict has played on a level that I would describe as starter material, and even Emmanuel Lemur immediately elevated the position once activated from the practice squad. There is a lot of fixing to do with the linebackers and the position should be paramount on the team's priority list this offseason, but for now, they're going to have to rely on the younger guys to continue to make a difference because the veteran starters aren't getting it done.
The secondary continues to be filleted. I still think loading up on aged defensive backs was an organizational mistake this off-season. What was the plan? Perhaps they expected the pass-rush to be so dominant that they wouldn't need a bunch of fast guys back there. They wanted slow, tackling corners and that's what they got. Nothing can be done about it now. They have to wade through it. They aren't a good blitzing team. After all the preseason linebacker blitzes we saw, I thought they would be but that's not been the case. Because of that, they go zone a lot, and they're not so good at that either. The phrase I hear myself say while watching the Bengals play pass defense is “slow to react”. Changing directions, moving vertically, the swiveling of the hips, none of it is done quickly. I don't foresee a huge improvement in the second half of the season in pass coverage so the best we can realistically hope for is limiting other offenses to field goals.
The Giants have a real blazer on their team in Victor Cruz. The guy is ultra-explosive and is the perfect person to kill an old secondary like the Bengals. Even if they do somehow slow down Cruz, his counterpart, Hakim Nicks, can do the same thing. Nicks has Terrell Owens-like talents and could be a perennial monster, but he is always nagged by injury. Nonetheless, he's strapping them up tomorrow and that is threat enough for me. Like almost every week, I say the Bengals drop back into zone, allow passes underneath and come up to make the tackle. If that seems okay in the beginning and NYG are only scoring field goals, they then can ramp up the blitzes in the second half, but Cincinnati has to limit the early big plays. If Eli Manning and his mates storm down the field for a pair of quick touchdowns, it could easily zap all the enthusiasm and optimism that may still exist in Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bengals must make this an ugly, physical game. If it's a shootout, they lose.
The center position is the key. Improve that, and you improve your line. Improve your line and you improve Andy Dalton. Improve Andy Dalton and you improve the running game. Improve the running game and you get sustained drives that eat clock and rests old defenders. Rest old defenders and you limit enormous passing totals. Limit enormous passing totals and you keep the score within reason. Therefore, it's all up to Trevor Robinson this week and this season. Good luck, Trevor.
Bengals 20, Giants 19
Mojokong—for silly reasons.