We learned this week that even Marvin Lewis can surprise us A man once seen as predictable as the sunrise, famously went off script this week and said he wants Andy Dalton to be more of a dick. A lot has been made of it, and I wonder if he now regrets saying it, but it remains a mind-blowing statement only because of its source.
In the past decade, Marvin has firmly demonstrated a rather Buddhist football philosophy that emphasizes balance and trust in ones self and ones teammates. They are never the worst team, never the best team, and have lingered in the middle for the duration of his tenure. He and his team stay the middle path.
Early in the Lewis administration, he was dealt handfuls of problem children who weren't mentally ready to be great despite their tremendous potential. Then his team became complacent and vanilla made up of boring football robots, primarily Carson Palmer. Now he says he wants a mean streak in his new robots. Villainous robots? Who is this man? I feel like I don't know even know him anymore.
Fact is, I never did and neither did you.
I haven't talked with Marvin Lewis outside of some standard questions at the 2009 Scouting Combine. Like everybody else on the outside, I just go by what I hear him say and closely follow his experiment. From that, we form a sketch of his personality and assume his team will reflect the same traits and characteristics, and for the most part, it has. Whether it's a fair assessment of Marvin's personality or not is immaterial. It's what we got to work with, so we go with it.
Now, though, he sees his team as too nice—has said so a few times already this season—yet is there anyone else to blame other than himself? He can say that Andy Dalton is a softy on his teammates, and it may just be Red's personality, but like anyone, Dalton can be toughened up. While Marvin's program is professional and on-par with most NFL standards, it is rarely if ever characterized as grueling or hard-nosed or intense. Instead you hear words like quiet, loose and relaxed when the culture of the current Bengals is described. The Marvin Lewis we've seen clapping on the sideline, smiling at everyone, whispering on the podium, is not a tough guy. Now he asks for more than just toughness from his troops, he asks for meanness. Especially from his quarterback and middle linebacker, he says.
I don't think this is a mean team, just like I don't think Marvin is the hard disciplinarian type of coach that can cultivate one. I don't think Dalton will ever get the "aw, shucks" out of him and become a raging maniac like Phillip Rivers, but I do like Marvin's new attempt.
Why not? We've seen the Bengals fall into horrific relapses and binge on losses like this before. The negatives compound on top of one another and the losing becomes all-consuming, crushing seasons and careers under its weight. While not quite circling the drain, the Bengals have positioned themselves at least on the rim of the sink itself. Marvin needed a new approach to salvage the season and he chose meanness this time. He even cussed in a press conference. It feels kind of desperate and forced, but I like it. Funny thing is that it's true.
The Bengals do need to be meaner. They have been a go-through-the-motions team forever it seems. Sometimes the motions they go through work and translate into a quality defensive showing for the season like last year, but over time, a team needs more than just motions. They need some kind of presence to them. They shrink in the spotlight. They panic easily. They get punked by tougher teams. They have a few guys who wanna lay the wood on somebody every play, but by and large, there is simply not enough pushing around going on along Cincinnati's side of the ball. I thought the Andy Dalton comments were interesting, but I thought the mention of Rey Maualuga by position only was more of an indictment.
Rey has been under the microscope this year and has flat out looked bad. The man lining up next to him, Vontaze Burfict, looks far more capable to run this defense than does Maualuga. He loafs, takes awful angles, guesses wrong, is easily blocked and still doesn't wrap up enough. More than anything else, he doesn't want to stick his nose in the action. He's tentative. Perhaps he's worried about getting hurt, but he should ask himself what is more important: keeping a starting job in the NFL and racking up more injury, or fading out as a limited backup and remain healthier later in life. Either answer is a respectable one, but if it's the latter, the Bengals coaching staff needs to make the switch soon rather than watch the production from arguably the defense's most important position continue to decline. The next few weeks will be pivotal for Rey's future with the team. This is one of those defining moments for him.
As for Dalton, Marvin did mention another concern other than his meanness. He said that he wanted Andy, and the rest of his team, to make more unscripted plays. When asked to define an unscripted play, he explained that they were plays where improvisation is needed to make it better than they had planned. Like the meanness, this is a rather vague request, but again he's right.
Dalton's pocket presence has dulled since his rookie season. I still think the reason is because he has more responsibilities that include more reads and all this extra thought has led him to panic more often and has resulted in a host of breakdowns. While the offensive creativity that was so abundant earlier in the season has seemingly lulled of late, there is something programmed in the players to only get what the play calls for. That sort of programming can only come from coaching, but now the coaches are saying the players need to do more on their own. Go further than what we've taught you to do, they tell them. Override the shackles we've placed on you. Sprout wings and fly.
The fact that Marvin is talking to reporters about these ethereal elements of his football team tells me that he and the organization are convinced that their game planning is good enough and that he's out of ideas on how to get his team to execute it better. It's like a math equation that isn't producing the right answers or a pot-roast recipe that is still missing something once you've tasted it. The entire team knows that it should be at least one game better than the record states, and if they don't know why they are only 3-4, they are in trouble.
As for this week...
The offensive line has a big task taking on the Broncos. They have not one but two quarterback-sack extraordinaire in Von Miller and Elvis Dumerville. The offensive tackles, Andre Smith and Andrew Whitworth, have to keep these guys at bay if Dalton is going to be at all successful at executing unscripted plays. Also along the Denver defensive front are two burly lumberjack-like defensive tackles. Derrick Wolfe and Justin Bannan don't get a lot of credit but are disruptive, especially the rookie Wolfe. Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler have been graded well so far this year, but the center spot has had some rough patches. Pass-protection up the middle is almost as important as it is on the outside. Everyone has to hold up well for the Bengals offense to find any comfort and rhythm. The needless panicking from Dalton must end now.
Also, more of a ground presence would be nice. A 100-yard rushing day seems more remote than it should, but we say this every week and the results seem sadly the same. Fans and media have turned some attention to Cedric Peerman for an expanded role and increased amount of carries, but the coaching staff appears cautions when mixing him into the game plan. BenJarvus Green-Ellis desperately needs somebody on the Bengals roster to take some of the pressure off of his underwhelming production by showing the defense a change of pace with another back. The Law Firm has never before been used as heavily, and I think at this point we see why. The rushing attack must be more of a committee effort no matter who is on the roster. If we have to see some Boom Herron to get some variety, then that is what needs to happen. Handing the ball of to Sanu is interesting—reminds me of how Minnesota uses Percy Harvin—but I feel the team has to be serious about using their other backs to find any true success in the ground game. Until I see some sustained success when rushing the ball, I'm just going to assume they can't do it and focus on the pass.
Problem is, so do other defenses. Then they focus on A.J. Green. Defenses are going to double and eventually triple-cover Green until other offensive players can prove they're dangerous. The way to defend the Bengals is to drop the secondary back, dare them to run, let them make short catches and come up to tackle them. Shade a safety toward Green all game, leave the other wide out in single coverage, only rush four and watch Cincinnati limit their dimensions until they have only the desperation deep-passing game left. If Mohammed Sanu can come on and become a new viable weapon, great! If not, Armon Binns peaked and flamed out early, Brandon Tate has shown good hands but isn't a true receiver, and Marvin Jones blew a tire before getting to show his stuff against Pittsburgh. There is no one else left. The Bengals were relying on the collection of "other guys" to step up enough to allow the offense to get loose, but they haven't met the professional expectations of an NFL starter. Andrew Hawkins has flashed, but also faded as he deals with the grind of his first full season. Cincy Jungle's Joe Goodberry predicted Sanu taking over for Hawkins at the slot as the season progresses, citing his observation that Hawkins is wearing down. The angle makes sense, and I agree that his role will likely be lessened, but I don't think that Baby Hawk will vanish altogether. Regardless of who it is, one of these guys needs to do more with both scripted and unscripted plays.
On defense, the Bengals face Peyton Manning. The hype is immense right now surrounding Manning and the Broncos. They smashed New Orleans in Mile High, running the ball very well against the league's worst defense. Willis McGahee does well against Cincinnati, so does Peyton. The Bengals defense was gashed by Johnathan Dwyer two weeks ago as he simply ran straight ahead through running lanes (the same way Montario Hardesty did the week before). Denver runs more stretch plays that call for cutback and off-tackle runs, and Cincinnati is usually better at rallying to ball carriers to the outside rather than stop them up the middle, so I expect a lesser rushing total against them this week.
Problem is, defending the play-action off of the stretch play is a long-time Bengals weak spot . The Houston Texans do it masterfully and now the Broncos have the master of all masters running it the same way in Denver. Bengal linebackers are extra vulnerable to this kind of misdirection and if they aren't keen to who has the ball, they will be lit up in a hurry.
I expect Manning to add to the struggle Cincinnati has dealt with on third downs this season. Obviously a strong pass rush annoys any QB, but this is truly a bend-but-don't-break defense Mike Zimmer has to work with. The playmakers, the ones who change games single-handedly, are rare within the Bengals defensive ranks. Only Carlos Dunlap has that kind of prowess and lately it's been subdued to say the least. If Cincinnati can allow field goals rather than touchdowns, they can stay in the game, but big passing totals are coming like it or not. Limit the bleeding, and they might survive.
All in all, I don't love the Bengals chances. Both teams are moving in opposite directions and the best kind of motivation Cincinnati can muster for this weekend is desperation. The road is long and hard from here on out. Letdowns have occurred, mistakes were made. There is much ground to make up and according to the man in charge, the best ways to turn it around is to be meaner and more improvisational. Good luck with that, nice guy.
Broncos 31, Bengals 20
Mojokong—make or break.