The Bengals have had an extremely rough patch of luck in this early part of the season, in regards to injuries. A staggering amount starters and key role players have been stung by the bug so far, including their top pick in this year's draft, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. After a totally dominant performance against the Jets in their opener, some of Cincinnati's weak areas have begun to surface in the last two weeks against the Falcons and Packers.
One begins to wonder if some of these problems we're seeing are a product of these accrued injuries, or if they are simply just because some of these position groups are so depleted with injuries. Let's review.
One of the big areas of concern so far has been that of the Bengals' pass defense. After stifling the Jets in week one, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers carved up the unit and had their way most of the time. Ryan seemed to be a bit more impressive in the air than Rodgers, as the Packers MVP didn't have a touchdown pass and threw an interception. But, opposing tight ends still roam free and the intermediate routes are becoming a major issue. But, with five cornerbacks who were expected to contribute in some fashion being sidelined with injuries, that's going to hurt the group.
Still, Leon Hall has been victimized often in the first few games, as has Nate Clements, with Terence Newman looking the best of the three so far this preseason. There are age and speed concerns with Clements and Newman, and there's always the fear of Hall not being 100% back from last year's Achilles injury. It sounds as if Kirkpatrick, Jason Allen, and Adam Jones could all be back next week, so that added depth should help tremendously. Still, their returns to the lineup probably won't make this a dominant group. Unfortunately, the secondary took another hit when the team predictably put cornerbacks Shaun Prater and Brandon Ghee on Injured Reserve early on Friday, as well as safety Robert Sands.
The team has also had a number of offensive woes as well. There have been inconsistencies in both the passing game and the running game and it all starts up front. With starting guard, Travelle Wharton officially out for the year, and a rookie starting at the other guard position, it's been a bit of a tough go. In consecutive weeks, Bengals quarterbacks have out-rushed the running backs and that's rarely a good sign. There have been very few big plays from the running game--in fact, the longest run by a back this preseason (by Brian Leonard) led to a lost fumble. It hasn't helped that the top two backs on the depth chart haven't played in the preseason, save for a few series by BenJarvus Green-Ellis in the first game.
Andy Dalton has had his ups and downs this preseason, but the one consistent thing we have seen him do is run around and avoid constant pressure. There have been a few drops by receivers and tight ends so far as well, and that hasn't helped. Nobody has clearly asserted themselves as a starting receiver opposite A.J. Green. The receiver who has opened the most eyes as a potential No.2 receiver this preseason, Marvin Jones, hasn't played with Dalton and the first group. Then there's the injury to Jermaine Gresham that made him unavailable for Thursday night's game against the Packers. It also prevented Gresham to have much of an impact against the Falcons which affected the offense for a short period of time in that game too.
So, are the team's struggles in these areas attributed more to injuries, or are they merely an excuse for poor play? There truth is, they're probably both. While injuries have led to inconsistencies in the running game, they aren't really an excuse for Dalton's poor accuracy on deep passes. Sure, pressure can have an impact on those types of passes, but some of the only times that Dalton has had a clean pocket this preseason is on the deep throws. He has missed Green on a number of occasions and overthrew Armon Binns on one Thursday night.
For the running game, the Wharton injury could be contributing to the problems there, but still it's largely the same group from last year, as well as what was perceived to be somewhat of an improvement in rookie Kevin Zeitler being added. And, even though the top two rushers have been out, Bernard Scott (who is one of those top two) had a 3.1 yards per carry average last season. Based on that, I'm not sure that he would be faring that much better so far.
As for the pass defense, this is where the injuries seem to be playing the biggest impact. The best overall athletes at the corner position are missing, in Jones and Kirkpatrick. Having them back will likely help the situation, but it we still expect there to be struggles. Unfortunately, we still don't think it's going to be a vast improvement.
So, we'll toss the question to you: are some of the struggles we've been witnessing with the Bengals more of an issue of accrued injuries? Is it a lack of talent and/or depth at certain areas? Or is it a little bit of both?