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Bengals Week 12 Mailbag: Injury replacements, running game, primetime issues

We respond to some of our reader questions submitted to us over the past week, reflecting on some of the hot topics of the 8-2 Cincinnati Bengals. Submit your questions to us to be featured in this weekly feature!

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

My Cincy Jungle colleague and Inside the Jungle co-host, Scott Bantel, is taking a bit of a hiatus from our weekly mailbag feature, so he passed the baton to me. I'm just trying to keep up my leg of the relay and not drop it, after he's done such a stellar job with this feature throughout the first 11 weeks of the 2015 season.

As it often goes with the Bengals, the 2015 season has been topsy-turvy with a wide range of emotion. Cincinnati shot off to a franchise record-setting start, but two losses while the entire nation watched has Bengaldom on that familiar edge. Some stars are struggling, while other often-criticized players are playing beyond expectations. A reason for their success has been their collective health, but a couple of recent injuries is putting questions on the forefront.

Mario Alford is a good thought because of his speed, but his slight nature and not playing defense, likely since high school or even earlier, could make him a liability when trying to tackle a ball-carrier. Cedric Peerman is an option, and he's done it before in the past, but he'll be more counted on in the role he's been playing on special teams, where he's lined up between the punter and snapper.

The obvious choice to replace Darqueze Dennard, who just landed on I.R. with a shoulder injury, is rookie Josh Shaw. We're not just talking about on special teams, either. Shaw came in against the Cardinals in relief of Dennard and had two tackles. We're not expecting him to light the world on fire while being thrown into it, but the coaches love his blend of size, versatility and physical skill set.

What makes Shaw a potently solid gunner is his 4.4. 40-yard dash speed and his willingness to tackle. At USC, Shaw played roles that both resembled safety and corner, likely a role defensive backs coach Vance Joseph envisions for him in the future. For now, he's another athlete in a secondary full of them, regardless of where they were selected in the draft. Expect to start seeing more of No. 26 in limited defensive snaps and at the gunner spot on special teams. All of a sudden that Shaw pick doesn't look so odd, does it?

You'll also be seeing a lot of Chris Lewis-Harris, a scrappy undrafted player who the coaches love because of his desire to help the team out in any way possible. He stepped into Dennard's role on special teams, while Paul Guenther relied on Shaw more for the defense. They'll likely see what both are showing in practice and go from there, but expect to see both Lewis-Harris and Shaw going forward.

I'm not totally sure where to go with this one, but I'm assuming it has to do with the Bengals on primetime television and/or the playoffs. There is a major dividing line on the topic, with some fans believe it's a bunch of hocus-pocus, while others can see the team play completely different on the biggest stages.

Though I'm on record as being in the latter camp, it's hard to disagree with the notions of those who support the former. When you're on the NFL's prime time stage, you're likely to play a bit more tight--it's just human nature, professional or not. Teams also go up against the stiffest of competition on these platforms, making wins much harder to come by than many other matchups at 1 P.M. EST on Sundays.

Still, if you can't win these games in November, how can you expect to win them in January when engaging in a one-game season? Under Andy Dalton, the Bengals are 4-13 in games that they are in the only game available to watch by the viewing public. The wins? Against a current 2-8 Browns team, an Eagles team who finished 4-12 in 2012, a Pittsburgh Steelers team that finished 8-8 in 2013 and a win against a Denver Broncos team who had a hobbled Peyton Manning out there in 2014. Otherwise, it's been a bunch of instances of losing to teams they likely had business doing so, or other good teams that made them look silly.

The comeback performance against the Cardinals last Sunday night softened my stance on the issue a bit. After falling behind two touchdowns on the road to one of the NFC's best teams, they made a furious fourth quarter comeback to nearly pull out another signature win for Marvin Lewis in a 2015 season chock full of them.

Still, dumb penalties, questionable play calling, missed opportunities and a 21-0 drubbing in the third quarter of the game keeps my inner-Agent Mulder conspiracy theorist alive. They have another prime time game against those playoff-bound Broncos in less than a month, and likely another prime time playoff contest against another good team, so maybe two wins in each will erase the cynicism. We'll see.

In yards per game, yes, they are ranked No. 13 and sixth in yards per carry at 4.6. However, the Bengals are 20th in the league in overall rushing yards, and consistency remains the issue with the running game. Whether it's poor blocking, the erratic use of Ryan Hewitt at fullback or Jeremy Hill looking like a completely different player in 2015, it still reeks of disappointment.

Giovani Bernard is going off as both a runner and receiver, but even his 5.4 yards per carry average doesn't tell the whole story. He too has been a bit of feast-or-famine with huge runs or no-gains, but he still has been far more effective than Hill--which is a complete 180 from last season.

There have been a lot of defenses for the many criticisms of quarterback Andy Dalton, one of which is the lack of a running game. It stepped up late last year with the incredible amount of injuries to receiving weapons in 2014 (another defense), but he's also been a contributor to the statistic himself. He has 127 yards on the ground and two rushing scores, while either evading pressure or using an option-type of play.

A game like the upcoming one against the Rams and the subsequent five after it present a pivotal time for the Bengals to start relying on the run a little bit more. While Dalton has had an MVP-like 2015 season, the more he is asked to throw in an unbalanced attack, the higher propensity of turnovers. It was Hill's surge in the final two months of last season that helped propel the Bengals into the postseason, and though they are the second seed in the AFC, it would be nice to see something similar occur as the weather continues to get worse.

The Bengals' running game isn't as bad as it was during the BenJarvus Green-Ellis era, but they have work to do if they truly want to be an all-around scary offense when the postseason arrives.