Marvin Lewis has a lot of favorite catch phrases, but the only applicable one for the remainder of this season happens to be his favorite: moving forward.
For every team entering the season, the goal is to make the postseason and that normally translates into winning 10 games. Yes, nine and sometimes even eight can make that happen too, but almost always 10 gets you in. For that to happen to the Bengals, they must win eight of their next 11 games, and when you add a grueling schedule within that stretch, you're left with what Vegas would label as long-shot odds of it coming to fruition.
However, football coaches would point out that games are not played out on paper, and that the road may seem improbable but not impossible, and all the other locker-room rhetoric that keeps their men from feeling defeated and giving up early. The whole-wheat analyst side in me dismisses such hopes as all but futile, but the frosted side of the fan in me refuses to write off the season after just three losses. So to protect my interests, here goes another attempt to locate a silver lining to an increasingly graying storm cloud of a season.
First off, in a somewhat abstract sense, football seasons move in wavelengths. Only one team, the '73 Dolphins, prevented any valleys from appearing on their season's graph. The key for successful teams is to find a wave and ride that into January. Last season, the Bengals caught a big kahuna early on, watching it fizzle out down the stretch. The team they lost to in the Wild-Card game, the Jets, tread water in a very calm sea to begin the year, but crested late and wound up in the AFC title game. The bye week in a team's season can act as a reset button where everything that has taken place before it is reevaluated and new strategies are born fresh. How the Bengals as an organization handle this year's bye week, could have major repercussions to the team's future for years to come.
The good news is that all of the frustrating inconsistencies are in the past; there have been a lot of positives, but never have any coincided with one another. The result to such a Jekyll & Hyde showing has been two major letdowns along the schedule's "easy street" segment, and now the apex of the mountain top seems higher than ever. But again, that's all behind us and now, you've guessed it, we're moving forward.
In order for the Bengals to turn this thing around and pick up some momentum, a few things need to change.
One of those, is that someone on the defense needs to emerge as a bonafide play-maker. Last year, that role was handled by both corners. While the secondary has been solid this year, they haven't seemed their sterling selves.
The lack of pressure applied by the defensive line has been well documented, but fortunately the Bengals get their top pass-rusher back—Jonathan Fanene. One might consider that fact a sad commentary to the lack of decent players along Cincinnati's front four, but Fanene's effort is always apparent when he's on the field and that's more you can say about most of the other guys. As for Antwan Odom's four-game suspension, the NFL could have just watched tape of him this season to see that no performance-enhancement has taken place. Since returning from his achilles injury, along with a virus that dropped his weight 20 pounds, Odom has looked slow and hurt, joining the ranks of failed defensive end projects on this team. Had it not been for one good game against a bad backup offensive tackle, Odom would be considered a huge bust for the big free-agent contract he signed three seasons ago. If he can't contribute any more than what he's shown this season, that label will be concreted to his legacy regardless of that memorable five-sack performance of last year.
Robert Geathers is now officially nothing special, Michael Johnson looked great in the preseason but can't turn it on under the bright lights, and Carlos Dunlap is a mystery who every inactive week inches closer to a second-round letdown like that of Jerome Simpson. As undervalued as Frostee Rucker has been during his tenure in Cincinnati, he provides better snaps than his much higher-paid brethren, and has managed one of the team's four sacks in limited action. If Fanene and Rucker are your team's best pass rushers, you do have problems.
So, if the quintessential play-maker isn't going to rise from the ranks of the defensive line, perhaps one might from the linebacker corps. The most likely candidate from that spot is fan-favorite Rey Maualuga, but Rey has not blossomed the way his USC mates, Clay Mathews and Brian Cushing, have. While Maualuga hasn't been bad, he hasn't demonstrated a trade-mark skill yet. I had huge hopes for the young Samoan, and would have used my first-round pick on the guy, but he hasn't manifested the pro-bowl caliber type of play I projected him capable of. Keith Rivers is Brian Simmons reincarnated, and Dhani Jones is supremely limited thanks to age and slow feet. I still think that Brandon Johnson has the best play-making instincts among the linebackers, but his snaps remain less than those of the starters for reasons the coaching staff must feel are justifiable.
Therefore, with all that said, I remain convinced that the best play-maker on this defense is Chinedum Ndukwe—even though he too isn't a starter. I absolutely agree that he is a liability in coverage on play-actions and misdirections, but he has, as scouts say, a nose for the ball. He's a rangy gambler who is an impressive tackler. He gets low on run support, makes receivers think twice about running across the middle and is an effective pass-rusher on the blitz. He isn't all that fast, but runs better than Roy Williams or Chris Crocker, and still has value on special teams. He may occasionally give up a score, but he is also the most likely to create a turnover. Having him out there is a risk, but I feel that's one thing this defense doesn't do enough of: take risks.
Still, with Ndukwe as the team's best creator of havoc, it shows how the Bengals have only developed good but not great players. I don't know where else it can come from, but Marvin and Mike Zimmer need to find more guys to step up and make game-changing plays. We once had the best young talent I've ever seen in stripes do just that, but now he plays in the UFL and is all but banned from rejoining his old team. It's sad but true; the Bengals have yet to find another Odell.
On offense, all the talk is of the Bengals needing to establish their identity. Last season they were a running team who failed to pass well when they needed to late in the year. The obsession was of providing a more balanced approach. The team acquired more weapons, is now throwing more, and looks even worse offensively. Everyone, including myself, is all up-in-arms over Carson Palmer's inconsistent play, but the solution seems simple: run more, but also run smarter.
Last week, the offensive line pushed around the Tampa Bay defense and looked like their smash-mouth selves of last year for the first time in 2010. Cedric Benson broke loose for the big game he's sought all season, but, sadly, the team went away from him down the stretch when it mattered the most. Regardless, until the line proves they can open up running lanes week in and week out, it's imperative to run Bernard Scott more. In fact, I can't come up with any logical answer on why he hasn't been more involved this year.
Benson has some moves, but is still more of a power runner. Every Bengal fan appreciates the effort that Brian Leonard provides, but he is not what most would call "explosive". Scott, on the other hand, is a special talent that incorporates shifty moves, good straight-line speed, excellent field vision, and adequate hands. From scrimmage, Scott has touched the ball 20 times and that's not enough. Why make active a running back in the mold of Jamaal Charles, Felix Jones, or, dare I say, Chris Johnson, only to give him two or three chances a game? Look at how Kansas City utilizes both Charles and Thomas Jones and you can see a better model for the rushing attack. Not only does Scott bring an explosiveness to the table, he also provides a different style of running for the games where the line isn't getting the push that Benson needs.
Kansas City ranks first overall in rushing and isn't composed of the highest profile linemen in the league. While Cincinnati isn't going to run out of the shotgun as much as KC does, they can emulate their style with surprising similarities. Running Scott more beefs up the run game, which every lineman loves, and also takes the pressure of the beleaguered Carson Palmer. With a better receiving corps than last year, only throwing when you need to should provide better results, because throwing when you don't need to just doesn't seem to fit the mold of this team.
No matter what kind of organizational adjustments the Bengals make during this bye week, they must get tougher—physically and mentally. The coaching staff must somehow infuse discipline into the players and keep themselves from overthinking their own strategies. They need both lines to play stronger and get better surges after the snap. The receivers and the secondary must be sharper at the end of games than they are in the beginning. As a group, the whole team must compose their talents into becoming and elite team. Anything less misses the playoffs.
Mojokong—the last major climb.