Usually when the bye week hits on the schedule, fans are somber because of the boredom that consumes them. That might not be the case with those in the Cincinnati Bengals fan base for a few reasons--regaining roster health probably topping that list. It also doesn't hurt that the team is riding high on a dominant 3-0 start to the season.
That's not to say that they are a perfect team, by any means, but the good news is they seem to be about as complete of a team that there is at this point. Still, there are some concerns going forward, as the uber-football-educated fans of the Who-Dey contingency noted when submitting questions for this week's mailbag.
The first question is about the Bengals' run defense, which has been the key to the team's success over the past half-decade.
In case you've missed it, the Bengals' rush defense is ranked a pedestrian-like 18th in the NFL at the moment. They've been giving up 113.3 yards per game and have allowed two touchdowns on the ground through the first three contests. While the Bengals have held big backs in check, smaller backs and quarterbacks have gashed them on the ground.
Bishop Sankey of the Titans had 61 yards and a 6.1 yards per carry against the team, while Justin Forsett of the Ravens had 70 yards and a 6.4 yards per carry average. To boot, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and Titans signal-caller Jake Locker combined for 78 yards on the ground. The pass defense is also rated No.18, giving the defense an overall No.16 ranking (I know, weird formula, right?).
In short, it's been an interesting start for the group.
The good? Most of the yardage that the defense has allowed has been in "garbage time" and hasn't had much of an effect on the outcomes of the games. When holding a multiple touchdown lead as this defense has in every game at some point thus far, it's easy to coast and call more prevent-type formations. It's also easy for an opposing offense to gash a defense with the running games because of the unexpected nature of a play call of that sort, when down by so many points. As a whole though, I don't feel that the running game is a big issue because the team has done well against it early on in games, forcing teams to become a bit one-dimensional.
I'm concerned about the defensive front a bit. Aside from Carlos Dunlap, not many defensive linemen are getting consistent pressure. Most of the sacks that the team has accrued have been the result of pressure from additional back-end defenders or have been "coverage sacks". The key of it all will be with the hopefully-oncoming resurgence of Geno Atkins. The Pro Bowler excels in the pass rush as well as against the run and hopefully he'll begin to get his legs under him.
So far, Atkins has had limited pressures, zero sacks and only three tackles on the year. In addition, Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict hasn't played in a true full game yet because of concussion issues. Once both Atkins and Burfict are back at full strength, watch for major upticks in defensive statistics.
With all of the successes the Bengals have had the past three seasons, there is one thing that still haunts this club: performances in the huge games. A tweet that I received this week asked this question:
Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of chatter surrounding the "statement game" against the Patriots. One of our "Inside The Jungle" podcast call-in regulars, "John from Kentucky", has been opining on this topic over the past couple of weeks as well. It's a viable preference to have, given the history of this franchise.
The 2-7 record after the bye that JP mentioned is definitely an inauspicious sign for the Bengals as they go up against the master, Bill Belichick. I've often said that a sign of high-quality coaching can be seen in after-bye records, as well as a team's ability to make adjustments at the half and come back to win. Though Marvin Lewis has done many good things for this franchise, these two areas haven't really been his forte.
Another issue plaguing Lewis that ties into the bye issues and this upcoming game in New England is Lewis' record in primetime. Including the playoffs, the Bengals are 6-17 in primetime games under Lewis--that equates to roughly a twenty-six percent winning rate when the lights shine the brightest. Yikes.
If Lewis and the Bengals have truly turned the page, this game will show it. The wins have been impressive, and two of them appear to be against teams that should be pretty good this year (Baltimore and Atlanta), but going into Foxboro on Sunday Night Football is a different animal. The Patriots haven't looked the same, but any time you go against Belichick and Tom Brady in their backyard, it's an adventure.
If you're asking me about the Bengals making a statement by beating the Patriots by a significant amount of points, I don't think that is necessary. A welcomed sight? Sure, but not the most important thing. If the Bengals can crawl out of Foxboro with a win and sustain minimal injuries, that's a fantastic result and will be a telltale sign that this team has changed their stripes to a degree.
Finally, we come to a big question about the Bengals--namely that of expectations after the great start to 2014.
The last time the Bengals started 3-0 was in 2006 and that season ended with them going 8-8 and missing the playoffs. It was particularly frustrating because that club sat at 8-5 and in control of their own destiny, only to see them trip over themselves to three straight losses. Like the 2014 Bengals, that team from eight years ago suffered some key injuries in that 3-0 start. Oddly enough that team's fourth game of the season was also against New England at Paul Brown Stadium--a game that they lost 38-13.
There are major differences between the two clubs, though as well. In the weeks preceding that showdown with the Patriots, the Bengals were dealing with major disciplinary issues on both sides of the ball with wide receiver Chris Henry and linebacker Odell Thurman. Both were heavy contributors to the success of the 2005 division-winning team and just added to the heartache of losing starting center Rich Braham and budding start outside linebacker David Pollack.
This year's club has suffered some big injuries as well, but those occurred during the winni streak. What does that mean? From where this writer sits, it signifies depth and leadership--two things missing from those other talented Bengals teams in the mid-to-late-2000s. That bodes well for the outlook of this year's club and they have been showing it with their league-leading 53-point differential thus far.
As it currently stands and how this year's team is performing, I don't see them finishing the season the way that their counterparts did from almost a decade ago, barring major injuries. They are confident, they play hard for each other and aren't concerned with individual statistics. Yes, there are some daunting stretches coming up on the schedule, particularly in December, but Cincinnati has become one of those teams that no one wants to play.
It's no secret that this roster has Super Bowl-like talent. Lewis and Co. have done a wonderful job creating a team that is young, deep and team-first-oriented. Unfortunately, it's their ghosts of the past that continue to fuel the cynics' disbelief in the Bengals. Until they prove them otherwise, the eyerolls when mentioning Cincinnati and the Super Bowl in the same sentence will continue.
Yes, they might be most overall talented team in the league. Their quarterback (a poster child for bad play in big games) seems to be relishing in Hue Jackson's new offensive system, and the running game looks lethal. However, the aforementioned 6-17 primetime game record, complete with Lewis' 0-5 playoff record is concerning. Last season seemed to be the one where the Bengals would have the best chance at winning a playoff game for the first time since 1991. It didn't happen.
Most people that cover the club feel like this is their best chance at making a run to the Super Bowl since the Esiason-Munoz-Woods-Brooks days. Lord knows that there are guys on this team who have put in their time and deserve it: Andrew Whitworth, Domata Peko, Terence Newman, Robert Geathers, Leon Hall and Devon Still immediately leap to mind. It's just a matter of doing it--the hope and expectation is that this team will be special.
I'll leave with this: Whitworth and Peko are looked at as team captains and were present at the time of that epic collapse of 2006. They spoke out on their message to this 3-0 team recently, calling for them to "ignore the noise".
"Even though that’s the best start we’ve had," Whitworth said, "we needed the same kind of finish and we ended the year with three chances to make the playoffs and didn’t get it. That’s why myself and Domata and Rob (Geathers) are here. Make sure guys don’t forget that."
Will the message be received by this seemingly-more mature club? We'll see in January.