(Editor's Note: Tweet your questions in for this feature to @CincyJungle or @CJAnthonyCUI. The best questions will be featured on these posts!)
It's a big week for the AFC North, as all four teams are alive in the playoff picture with just three games to play. The Cincinnati Bengals are atop the division by a half of a game, but spirits are low after falling to 2-2 in the division, thanks to another 21-point loss to the Steelers. They face the AFC North team that gave them their first divisional beat down on Sunday, in the latest chapter of "The Battle of Ohio".
All eyes will be on Johnny Manziel as he makes his first NFL start, but Bengals fans are talking about mental toughness and the effect of one of their best players officially being done for the year. Let's take a look at a couple of the questions that we received this week:
@CJAnthonyCUI agree w u on steelers having huge mental edge over bengals. Is the loss of burfict the loss of bengals edge?
— jv (@JarTiff820) December 12, 2014
Sometimes only the intangible things are the reasons needed to explain situations. The Bengals seem to cower (see what I did, there?) in the presence of the Pittsburgh Steelers. With only two home victories in the Marvin Lewis era against the bullies from Three Rivers, it's mind-boggling that some form of an answer to overcome their onslaught hasn't been found.
There simply have been too many years of being out-physicaled. Pittsburgh sits back waiting and laughing at the many building snowballs of mistakes that the Bengals seem to unleash on themselves with every match-up. call it coaching, organizational culture, or whatever you'd like, but the Steelers simply have the Bengals' number.
In terms of this past Sunday, there is no doubt that a healthy and active Vontaze Burfict would have made a difference. With almost 200 rushing yards given up and Le'Veon Bell doing a ton of damage in the passing game, having the surest tackler on the field would likely have limited that damage. Ironically, this game was one that a lot of people circled for Burfict's return from a knee scope a few weeks back. Unfortunately, it led the team to put Burfict on season-ending Injured Reserve a couple of days later.
Not a great week, thus far.
Now, the Bengals face the enigmatic and spry Manziel this week where Burfict potentially being a spy would have been the preferred method of defense on read-options and other broken-down passing plays. It will be interesting to see what Paul Guenther does to combat this, as the Bengals haven't been great against these types of quarterbacks in recent years.
To answer your question, yes, the Bengals have and will continue to miss Burfict. He is a Pro Bowl linebacker and also brings the swagger to the defense. With their No. 28 ranking overall and 27th against the run, it's easy to point at Burfict's absence as the reason for the landslide from last year's No.3 ranking.
Still, it's just a part of the equation--Geno Atkins not seeming fully recovered from his knee injury and a lack of an overall pass rush seems to be another huge issue. What's interesting though is that the Bengals held their ground on defense last year even after Atkins was completely out of the lineup with an injury, so another obvious finger has to be pointed at the job of Guenther.
Again, it's easy to look right at Burfict and say "that's the guy who is missed the most". Really, the only argument against that is the fact that he has barely played this year, so the defense has likely made adjustments to a Burfict-less defense for a long time. Without Burfict though, the swagger, big hits and game-changing plays are gone.
If you're looking for a more creative answer, the Bengals likely miss the old Geno Atkins more than anything. They wrongly assumed that he'd be back to the All-Pro form of 2012, and unfortunately for the team and for No. 97, that simply isn't the case. There have been brief flashes of the combination of strength, leverage use and explosiveness that made him the linchpin of the defense since 2011, but it is nowhere near as consistent as it was before. Mike Zimmer was able to get pressure from his front four without blitzing and relied heavily on Atkins to apply pressure up the middle to free others up. It isn't happening this year and that's why you're seeing a team with the least amount of sacks in the NFL.
To get even more cute, the loss of Michael Johnson in free agency is a loss too. It's obvious that the coaches don't trust Margus Hunt, as he's had minimal playing time this year. Maybe they are right about him, maybe they are wrong, as they have been about other young players in the past. Sure, his 6.5 sacks from 2013-2014 don't leap off the page, but Johnson was also valuable as a guy to tip passes and as a run-stopper. Teams still did game plan for him, given his 11.5 sacks in 2012, too.
These three "losses", in certain terms, have helped to create the poor defensive performance we have seen out of the Bengals this year. Throw in lack of additions via free agency this season, the stunted growth of other younger players up front and questionable coaching and you have your formula to the 28th-ranked defense.