The Bengals are far better and far more talented than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but after two big road wins and four huge games over the next four weeks, this game is the definition of "trap game." Throw in the fact that the Bengals haven't won in Tampa since 1983 and have never won three consecutive road games in franchise history, and this game is far from a "gimme."
Here is what to look for this Sunday when the Bengals attempt to break a six game losing streak against the Buccaneers...
When the Buccaneers Run the Ball:
Buccaneers Run Offense: 84.0 YPG (29th); 3.9 YPA (t-24th)
Bengals Run Defense: 129.6 YPG (27th); 4.3 YPA (t-18th)
In 2012, the 5'9" 215 pound Doug Martin took the NFL (and fantasy football) by storm with nearly 2,000 all-purpose yards and 12 touchdowns. In the year and a half since, Martin has played in just 12 games and accounted for just 773 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. After averaging 90.9 YPG his rookie year, Martin has reached 90 yards in a game just once since (week 2 of 2013).
Some of Martin's struggles have been injury related, but the other backs sharing the backfield with Martin are struggling as well (Charles Sims and Bobby Rainey). Martin, Sims and Rainey have been trying to find room behind a line that has struggled all season and will continue to struggle against the Bengals. Since the return of Rey Maualuga and Brandon Thompson, the Bengals have not given up more than 74 yards on the ground and opposing running backs (Mark Ingram and Alfred Blue) have averaged just 2.9 YPA. Regardless of Vontaze Burfict's status, the Buccaneers run offense will not find their footing against the Bengals.
When the Buccaneers Throw the Ball:
Buccaneers Pass Offense: 234.2 YPG (18th); 7.2 YPA (t-16th); 14 INTs (30th); 32 Sacks (24th); 80.5 Rating (28th)
Bengals Pass Defense: 243.5 YPG (18th); 6.3 YPA (t-3rd); 11 INTs (t-11th); 14 Sacks (t-30th); 76.2 Rating (3rd)
Possibly the biggest off-season move by the Buccaneers in a busy off-season was the signing of journeyman quarterback Josh McCown. After successfully filling in for Jay Cutler during the 2013 season, McCown was offered the Buccaneers starting job and a two year $10 million contract. While he hasn't been terrible, he hasn't been great either. Some of that is a result of his porous offensive line (32 sacks) and some of that is just bad play. With two number one receivers that each stand 6'5" and weigh 230+ pounds, McCown should have better numbers, regardless of his line.
The key for the Bengals will be their ability to get to McCown - something they have not been able to do thus far in 2014 (14 sacks - tied for 30th). If they can't get to McCown, Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson could cause a lot of problems. Though I like the Bengals secondary and the way they play, Evans and Jackson have a huge size advantage over the Bengals corners and are a nightmare for any secondary. I give the Bengals an advantage up front, but I give Evans and Jackson the advantage down the field.
When the Bengals Run the Ball:
Bengals Run Offense: 125.6 YPG (7th); 4.2 YPA (t-12th)
Buccaneers Run Defense: 115.8 (t-19th); 3.9 YPA (t-9th)
Don't look now, but the Bengals run offense has suddenly become a top 10 unit, climbing all the way up to seventh in the NFL thanks in large part to the emergence of rookie Jeremy Hill. Hill has proven himself to be a true "bell cow" running back and the return of Giovani Bernard in Week 12, though statistically irrelevant, resulted in the Bengals offense - run game and passing game - becoming exponentially more dangerous. With Hill and Bernard, the Bengals feature the most dynamic (and youngest) split backfields in the NFL and provide a one-two punch that a mediocre run defense like the Buccaneers will not be able to stop.
When the Bengals Throw the Ball:
Bengals Pass Offense: 223.0 YPG (22nd); 7.2 YPA (t-16th); 10 INTs (t-15th); 13 Sacks (2nd); 84.4 Rating (22nd)
Buccaneers Pass Defense: 252.1 YPG (22nd); 7.6 YPA (t-20th); 8 INTs (t-20th); 23 Sacks (18th); 100.0 Rating (t-29th)
In the two weeks since setting the quarterback position back 20 years, Andy Dalton has played very well and looked like a completely different quarterback. Sure, New Orleans and Houston did not possess great pass defenses (24th and 31st respectively) but neither does Tampa (22nd). Dalton and the Bengals receivers should find plenty of opportunities against the Buccaneers secondary and the attention Bernard will garner coming out of the backfield will open up the middle of the field for Mohamed Sanu and Jermaine Gresham. The one guy the Bengals must neutralize is Gerald McCoy. McCoy is an absolute beast up the middle and may be rookie Russell Bodine's toughest test of the year. McCoy is very similar to a healthy Geno Atkins and can put pressure on the quarterback right up the middle. With 7.5 sacks through 11 games, the Bengals will need to help Bodine with either a guard or running back so Dalton will have time to find the opportunities the secondary will present.
Kickoff Returns: Buccaneers - 22.5 Avg (21st); Bengals - 27.4 Avg (5th)
Punt Returns: Buccaneers - 12.1 Avg (4th); Bengals - 11.0 Avg (6th)
Kickers: Patrick Murray: 13/17 (76.5% - 27th) - Long 55 yds
Mike Nugent: 19/25 (76.0% - 28th) - Long 49 (1 blocked)
Punters: Buccaneers -Michael Koenen: NET 35.7 (32nd); Inside 20 - 11 (22.4%); TB - 1 (2.0%)
Bengals - Kevin Huber: NET 45.6 (t-1st); Inside 20 - 23 (46.0%); TB - 3 (6.0%)
Kick Coverage: Buccaneers - 23.8 Avg (16th); Bengals - 25.9 Avg (26th)
Punt Coverage: Buccaneers - 7.5 Avg (12th); Bengals - 4.9 Avg (3rd)
For the first time since Adam Jones took over the punt return role, the Bengals opponent actually has the advantage at the punt return position. However, it is close and the Bengals hold an advantage at nearly every other special teams position, including a huge advantage at the punter position. Kevin Huber is having a Pro Bowl season and Michael Koenen is arguably the worst punter in the NFL. Huber and the Bengals should be able to use Huber's left boot to control field position on Sunday.
Lovie Smith and Marvin Lewis have pretty similar winning percentages, but Lovie has much more success when it comes to big games and playoffs.
Lovie Smith has 155 career games as an NFL Head Coach, a .535 career winning percentage (83-72), 3 division titles in 10 years, a 3-3 career playoff record (.500), 2 NFC Championship appearances, 1 NFC Championship and 1 Super Bowl appearance.
Marvin Lewis has 186 career games as an NFL Head Coach, a .524 career winning percentage (97-88-2), 3 division titles in 11 years, and an impressive 0-5 playoff record. For those of you counting at home, that is a playoff winning percentage of .000.
Key to the Game:
Jumping out to a fast start. The Bengals have a tendency to allow teams to hang around (see games against Carolina and Houston). Despite their 2-9 record, this Buccaneers team is talented and has the ability to upset a team like the Bengals if the Bengals allow them to hang around and build some confidence. But, hop out quick on a 2-9 team and you can get the "here we go again" attitude permeating through the sidelines and the stands. Keep in mind, seven of the Buccaneers nine losses have come by eight points or less and five of their losses have been by six points or less.
This game means too much for the Bengals. I think the Bengals win, but I think it will be much closer than the records might suggest for a few reasons: 1) the Bengals have a tendency to let teams hang around; 2) the Bengals are 3-7 all-time versus the Buccaneers including 0-6 in their last six meetings and haven't won in Tampa since 1983; and 3) the Buccaneers' two big receivers should be able to keep this game somewhat close.
Bengals 33, Buccaneers 23