The Bengals are still in first place - but their playoff chances rest on very shaky ground
The good news? The Bengals are still in first place by a half game and still "control their destiny." The bad news? The Bengals have the toughest remaining schedule. Their remaining games come against teams with a combined record of 25-14 (.641) and consist of two division opponents on the road - both of whom have already blown out the Bengals at PBS (Cleveland and Pittsburgh); and a home game, in primetime, against arguably the best team in the AFC (Denver). I am not saying the Bengals can't/won't win any of their remaining games, but I wouldn't feel confident enough to put money on any of those three games.
I don't understand Hue Jackson's play calling/game planning
The Bengals now have four losses and all four - Patriots, Colts, Browns and Steelers - were blowouts. The common thread in every game has been an awful game plan put together by Hue Jackson which aborted the run game and ignored Jeremy Hill.
In Week 5 in New England, the Bengals faced a Patriots team ranked 23rd against the run (129.8 YPG) and coming off a game where they had just surrendered 207 yards on the ground (5.4 YPA), yet the Bengals ran the ball just 15 times with their running backs, despite averaging 4.2 YPA. Result? A 43-17 loss.
Two weeks later in Indianapolis, going up against a Colts team ranked 11th in the run and with the Bengals missing A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones, Hue ran the ball just 11 times - in a game where Dalton was struggling. Result? 27-0 loss.
In Week 10, in a primetime game being played on a cold, windy and rainy evening against a Browns defense that came in tied for 30th against the run (139.6) and had surrendered 113 yards (4.3 YPA) against the lowly Buccaneers, Hue's game plan was to come out throwing and give the ball just 12 times to his workhorse back (Hill), despite Hill's 4.6 YPA average during the game. Result? 24-3 loss.
And this week, going up against a Steelers defense that was tied for 23rd in YPA (4.4) and were starting a rookie defensive end, Hue dialed up another head scratcher: 14 runs between Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard - and only eight runs for Hill despite his 5.8 YPA average. Result? 42-21 loss.
My issue with his game plan this past Sunday didn't end with the lack of the run game. As much as I enjoy a good trick play, trick plays are only good if they work and quite frankly, trick plays, in my opinion, are used because you don't believe you can beat the other team straight up. Hue pulled out three trick plays Sunday and all three blew up in his face.
The fake punt attempt I can understand, but fakes are only run when you are sure of what the other team is doing. Peerman didn't even get back to the line of scrimmage, which tells me the Bengals weren't "sure" what the Steelers were doing. That is poor scouting.
The direct snap to Sanu didn't work, but I ask the question ‘why'? Why did Hue feel the need to run a gadget play when his offense was rolling, up 14-10 and having success? It was Hue getting too cute.
The worst, however, had to be the third and two run with Hill behind just three linemen which ended up a yard short. The last I checked, the Steelers, on the year, were allowing 4.4 YPA and Hue has a 238 back that is averaging 4.8 YPA. Just line up and run it at them...with five damned lineman! Which leads me to my next point...
Hue Jackson is the only person unaware of what Jeremy Hill can do/has done for this offense
Jeremy Hill is 6'1" 238 pounds, has 729 yards and is averaging 4.8 YPA. The Bengals are 6-1 when Hill gets 10 carries or more. The Bengals are 2-3-1 when Hill gets less than 10 carries. On Sunday? Hill received just eight carries despite averaging 5.8 YPA against a poor run defense and in a game that was a one possession game up until the middle of the fourth quarter. In fact, Hill and Bernard combined for just 14 carries all day. As far as I am concerned, that is inexcusable.
Andy Dalton made one mistake...which is all that fans will focus on
21/29 (72.4%), 302 yards, 10.4 YPA, two passing touchdowns, one rushing touchdown, zero interceptions 93.8 QBR and 128.8 passer rating. That is a great day at the office. Dalton was phenomenal on Sunday. However, he had one huge mistake that started the Bengals' spiral. Much like the reputation Tony Romo has built up, Dalton has been labeled as a quarterback who has back breaking turnovers at crucial parts of games, and Sunday's fumble gave Dalton haters exactly what they wanted. I will be the first to admit that Dalton's fumble was indefensible and certainly started the unraveling. With that being said, let's not forget that Dalton was also the reason the Bengals were ahead despite the terrible defense and terrible play-calling.
I am no longer a fan of Paul Guenther
After the first three games I was praising Guenther. I was a little premature. Since that time, the defense has struggled and been downright embarrassing at times. Sunday was the latter. In 2012 the Bengals ranked third with 51 sacks. In 2013, they ranked 10th with 43. In their first year under Guenther, the defense has 15 sacks - tied for last. Yes, he is without Michael Johnson (Tampa Bay) and Vontaze Burfict (injury), but those two accounted for 6.5 sacks in 2013 and cannot be blamed for the seismic drop. What made this defense so dominant the past few years was their ability to get after the quarterback. Pressure makes every quarterback less effective and makes all linebackers and secondary players better.
This defense does not show up in big games
Dalton gets labeled as a quarterback who does not show up in big games. Some of that is fair. However, what about his defense? In every one of Dalton's three playoff losses, his defense was torched. The same can be said for the primetime games. On Sunday night against the Patriots in Week 5, the defense gave up 43 points and 505 yards. On Thursday night against the Browns, the defense allowed the Browns to rush for 170 yards. On Sunday, Dalton's fumble may have sparked the unravelling of the Bengals, but it's tough for any quarterback to win when his defense is busy surrendering 543 yards, 193 yards on the ground, plus in 39 pass attempts, managed to sack the quarterback zero times. This defense is frustrating and impossible to figure out. After playing the run so well on the road, they returned home and transformed into the same sieve they were against the Browns. In their last two home games - both divisional games - the Bengals defense has allowed an average of 181.5 YPG. Let that sink in before blaming Andy Dalton.
Jermaine Gresham is the most frustrating Bengal I can ever remember
Yes, he had a touchdown catch - a pass he nearly dropped - but he also had another game littered with brain cramps. In the Bengals first drive, on the verge of field goal range, a third and three pass went right between his hands when he looked like he wasn't ready for the pass. He also had an unnecessary roughness penalty which negated a Pittsburgh penalty (and a first down) and another false start, this time on a third and eight just shy of mid-field. Not surprising, the Bengals didn't convert the third and 13.
Mohamed Sanu continues to be plagued by drops - very untimely drops
Mohamed Sanu is a big reason the Bengals are 8-4-1, despite the injuries they have had. With that being said, Sanu came into the game leading the NFL with 12 drops and managed to drop another perfectly placed pass from Dalton - this time on a third down to kill a drive. That is now 13 drops in 13 games, at least one of which was a touchdown.
A.J. Green is a beast
Few have been as critical of Green as I have, especially in terms of his big game disappearances. Well, Sunday was a big game and Green delivered the best game of his career. He was unstoppable on Sunday and that type of performance shows just how good he can be and why it is so frustrating when he doesn't dominate. The Steelers had no answer for him.
Leon Hall is slow
Leon Hall is a good dude and is making one hell of a comeback from a second Achilles tear, but he has had moments this year where he hasn't looked like the same player and Sunday he was downright burned by Martavis Bryant in what amounted to simply a foot race. The Bengals have two first round corners on the bench and I think it is about time they start using them.
Terrence Newman looked very old
Speaking of good dudes who look old/slow, Terrence Newman looked old on Sunday. After a few good games, Newman looked overmatched by a Steelers receiving corps, which beyond Brown, is less than impressive. This is likely Newman's last season - at least with the Bengals - but like Hall, it may be time to start sitting Newman and seeing what the kids (Darqueze Dennard and Dre Kirkpatrick) can offer at corner.