An NFL team with a 4-2-1 record is bittersweet, especially when you look at what has transpired over the past few weeks with the Cincinnati Bengals. Obviously, the bitter came with the month-long dry spell that smothered the team, but it has also come in the form of injuries.
The optimist might point at that 4-2-1 record and say that it's borderline miraculous that Cincinnati has been able to achieve this. The ardent followers of the Bengals know the long list of injuries that have hit The Queen City in 2014, so I won't bother to reiterate them. However, there are some new issues bubbling to the surface once again. One of our readers' questions asked us about the new trouble and an update on an old one. We'll start with the latter:
The 2013 first round pick might be close to returning. Early reports after the elbow dislocation and his stint on the IR-recall list stated that he could be eligible to return for the Thursday Night game against Cleveland on November 6th. The latest of updates have Eifert doing conditioning work on the side of practice as of a few weeks ago. With A.J. Green missing time, as well as Marvin Jones being out for the season, getting another weapon back would help.
While Jermaine Gresham has stepped up in the receptions area since Eifert left the lineup with 28, yet there are still issues with the yards gained. Not all of that is Gresham's fault, given that the routes designed for him are usually just a couple of yards from the line of scrimmage. That play-calling is a by-product of Hue Jackson's penchant for getting the ball out quickly on passes, as well as some potential offensive line issues (more on that later), where Gresham has been asked to increase his role as a blocker.
Cincinnati is doing as best as they can without arguably three of their top-four pass-catchers on offense (Eifert, Green, Marvin Jones). With Eifert's return, we should see an increase in red zone efficiency (currently ranked 19th at just under 55 percent) and the working of the middle of the field. Dalton has been working the sides of the field a bit more because of receiving limitations and the ability to have a big guy make plays between the hashes would be nice.
It's hard to say when Eifert will return. Part of me thinks that he'll show up against Cleveland in another huge divisional game. He won't be suiting up against Jacksonville, we know that much for sure. The other part of me looks at how cautious they have been with Green and Vontaze Burfict and wonder if it will be closer to December before he's back out there. It all depends on his conditioning, regaining of strength, and being in "game shape". We'll see.
You can add Giovani Bernard to the list of Pro Bowlers and heavy contributors who have suffered injuries in Cincinnati. Bernard hurt his clavicle (collarbone) a couple of weeks ago and that appears to be bugging him a little, but it's now a hip injury that is making his appearance against the Jaguars a doubtful one. With one eye on the quick turnaround for Thursday's divisional game, the Bengals could hold Bernard out on Sunday.
As we hear it, the team is prepping rookie Jeremy Hill to start. And, in this writer's opinion, it's about dang time. Don't get me wrong, I love what Bernard brings to the offense, but I'd like to see him in a less conventional role in the offense. We have talked about this on our Inside The Jungle podcast a lot recently and I think that most of Bengaldom is in agreement that Hill needs more carries.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: the Bengals need to find ways to get both of these guys on the field at the same time. The ability to use either as a decoy in formations, coupled with Bernard's versatility, should make it easy to come up with some very creative plays. It makes even more sense to use Bernard in an Andrew Hawkins-like role because of so many injuries at the receiver position.
Those who know my opinion on the Bengals' running backs should have heard that I've defended Bernard's ability to run between the tackles. He's actually pretty effective doing it for that aspect being considered the weakness in his game. But, as this season wears on with an increased workload from last year and these new injuries of his arise, it's hard to keep defending that notion. It's not that he can't from an ability standpoint, it's that he can't from a body punishment standpoint.
Sunday's game against Jacksonville strikes me as the exact type of game that a team would have drafted a player like Hill for. The Jags are struggling and will be coming to a place where teams haven't won a game in a very long time. Pound the rock with the thumper, own the clock and totally discourage a team that has a low confidence level. It would be nice for Hill to come in and prove himself as worthy of more than the 7.1 carries-per-game and 1.8 catches-per-game averages that he has under his belt through the first seven contests.
A plea for Hill to get more carries isn't a plea to take them away from Bernard, per se. It's more about using them effectively and to their respective strengths, which I think this coaching staff has only begun discovering. On Sunday, expect Bernard to rest up, Hill to get a lot of work and to see a sprinkling of Cedric Peerman and maybe even a little Rex Burkhead.
We discussed this on this week's podcast as well. Andrew Whitworth, while still solid, isn't at his Pro Bowl level from years past and Andre Smith has had an absolutely terrible past three or four games. Smith is usually good for a poor game or two per season, but he has really been struggling--particularly in pass protection.
Some of Cincy Jungle's good friends/writers are quick to point the finger at Russell Bodine for the struggles. I don't fully agree, as I see typical ups and downs from a rookie starter. There are times that he loses leverage and it throws off runs attempts with Bernard, but there are others where he holds the point of attack nicely. He seems mature beyond his NFL years, particularly from a defensive recognition standpoint and with protection calls, which is nice to see. Still, he's an unfinished project and definitely a work in progress.
Not having Kevin Zeitler for a few games hurt the run production as well. It sounds like Zeitler re-aggravated that calf muscle he tore a few weeks back and he hasn't been practicing this week once again. Though Mike Pollak is an adequate replacement, it would still be nice to have all starters up front.
We've now looked at this team for a few years and wondered why they can't run it effectively. The excuses ranged from BenJarvus Green-Ellis' running style to a lack of using Bernard, to center play and the issues are still occurring. So, what's the deal?
I've recently come up with a theory of my own on this, based on my observations, those of my colleagues and some review on draft profiles. Offensive line coach Paul Alexander likes "maulers" over "finesse" or more athletically-gifted linemen. It's why Nate Livings played over Evan Mathis (a Pro Bowler in Philadelphia). It's part of the reason why the Bengals wouldn't pay Eric Steinbach, aside from the money they shoved at their tackles. Heck, it's what their reasoning was for taking Zeitler over David DeCastro when they had an opportunity to snag him.
It's this penchant that I will then blend into some observations. I, along with CJ friends Joe Goodberry, Ryan Patrick and Cody Tewmey, have noted that this unit struggles to get to the second level with blocking. With backs capable of breaking huge gains on screens, they simply don't. Why? Because blockers aren't getting up the field and knocking people out of the way quickly enough. It's also a noticeable issue when Bernard goes between the tackles.
Honestly, there is a bit of humor to it all. You draft backs and concoct an offensive system built for screens and big running plays, but this unit isn't able to provide big-play opportunities with consistency. It's a mixture of game-planning, overall scheme and the skill sets of everyone involved. Are we looking at a square peg/round hole type of situation?
Overall, it's a good unit by NFL standards. But, they finished with 3.6 yards per carry last year and are at 4.0 this season after adding a new center and making vast improvements to the running back group. They are ranked No. 16 overall in rushing offense, which is behind each of the three divisional opponents. Wasn't that supposed to be the entire point of emphasis this offseason? Build a rushing offense to plow through the AFC North and through the playoffs, right?