If your Christmas wish was for the Cincinnati Bengals to make the NFL playoffs for the fifth straight season, then you must have been good this year because Santa granted that wish a week early. AJ McCarron stepped in to start at quarterback for the Bengals last week against the 49ers and got a victory. It was an ugly one though, causing more questions from fans as the team heads into a giant showdown this Monday night.
The Broncos are facing some questions of their own after two straight losses and falling a game behind Cincinnati in playoff seeding. As the two prepare to meet almost a year to the day on Monday Night Football once again, Bengals fans sent us a couple of holiday questions for this week's mailbag. Get in touch with us via email or Twitter to have your questions answered next week.
@CincyJungle the run game will be crucial again, is it bad or is it just doing what it has to, how can it improve b4 play offs WhoDey— KangarooColin (@ColinKangaroo) December 23, 2015
This seems to be a weekly concern in 2015 for the Bengals, particularly with Jeremy Hill. Last week. Cincinnati was going up against the 49ers' No. 31-ranked rush defense, seeming to create an ideal scenario for McCarron in his first pro start. While they weren't going to totally disallow McCarron to take his shots through the air, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson had to hope the duo of Hill and Giovani Bernard would greatly take pressure off of the second-year signal-caller. The plan was evident by 33 carries between the two, against just 21 pass attempts by McCarron.
Unfortunately, what ensued with the rushing attack was 64 yards between Hill and Bernard to go along with a 1.9 yards per carry average between the two. Poor blocking and an inability to recognize holes on the rare occasion they were opened led to one of the worst days running the football by the Bengals in recent memory. It also didn't help that San Francisco's defensive game plan was to sell out on the run and dare McCarron to beat them.
The poor running performance affected the entire offense last week. Not being able to get yards on the ground put the Bengals in precarious third down situations and/or didn't convert them when trying to run for a first, directly leading to a 28 percent conversion rate on third downs last Sunday. Though the Bengals had a 21-0 halftime lead, they couldn't continue to grind the clock and wear down the 49ers and the inability to have any consistency running the football led to San Francisco making the game interesting late in the fourth quarter.
Is it me or does this oft-dominant offensive line struggle against the more creative defensive schemes? The 3-4 defenses of Baltimore and Pittsburgh provide issues annually, while the NFC West schemes of Arizona and San Francisco provided fits this year. Is it the superior athleticism of additional linebackers and "'tweener" players off the edge that is a better personnel matchup against the behemoth Bengals offensive line? Is it just that those teams have more talent than others they faced? Are the Bengals unable to make proper adjustments up front against these defensive alignments? Maybe it's some form of all of the above.
The backs aren't immune to criticism though, either. After a near-historic end of 2014, Hill hasn't looked like the same player. He's been a goal line stalwart, but he isn't breaking the big runs as he did last season and looks tentative at times. Jackson had a "come to Jesus" meeting with Hill before the Rams game and the second-year back responded with two of his best games of the year. But, after tough sledding against Pittsburgh, Hill reportedly overslept for a Saturday meeting before the game against the 49ers.
People make mistakes, but it isn't the kind of behavior you hope for from a player who has struggled this year. Did Hill get complacent after an outstanding rookie season? If so, he's getting a harsh reality check with a 3.4 yards per carry average this season.
There are a number of ideas to utilize in an effort to ramp up the running game as the playoffs near. Further use of Ryan Hewitt in a fullback role and an increase of "jumbo" packages are two obvious ideas. When the Bengals used additional tackles late last year, Hill and Bernard saw some big success, and when Hewitt was used against St. Louis and Cleveland a few weeks ago.
Another idea is to make Bernard the feature back, while using Hill on the short-yardage plays. It might bring a blow to the confidence of Hill, but Bernard has been highly-successful this year. His 4.9 yards per carry on the year could provide consistency and he appears to be much more decisive on his runs than Hill this year.
Other than the obvious aforementioned ideas, it might just be down to an increase of effort, attention to detail and committing to the idea of running the football. Depending on how many games McCarron has left under center, getting the run game going will be critical--especially in the creation of the play-action. I'm not sure there is a magic formula to get things going, but it just might be one of things that has to finally "click" at the right time.
On this week's Inside the Jungle Christmas episode, good friend of the show, Kurt Campbell (AKA "Airport Kurt") called in and asked us an interesting question about Monday night. "What's more important to a Bengals win Monday night: is it our defense stopping the Broncos' offense, or our offense scoring on their defense?"
My answer pointed at the Bengals' defense. As we witnessed on Sunday against the 49ers, the offense sputtered until the defense created three first half turnovers. The two right before halftime by Carlos Dunlap and Vontaze Burfict led to 14 Bengals points and began to put the game away early.
Even though McCarron has shown precociousness in the two games he's played in this year, it's obvious the offense doesn't have the same sizzle without Andy Dalton. Since that is to be expected, turnovers and multiple stops from the defense to make life easier on McCarron and Co.
I feel that the defense stepping up is especially huge against a Denver offense that has a number of quality receiving options in Vernon Davis, DeMaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. If the defense can pressure Brock Osweiler consistently and stifle the Broncos offense, it will take the excited home crowd out of the game, furthering the ease on McCarron and the offense.
It's also going to be a very difficult task for the Bengals' offense against the Denver defense, making Cincinnati's defensive performance that much more important. In terms of yards allowed per game, the Broncos hit the trifecta with a No. 1 ranking in rush, pass and total defense. The offense might sputter, making turnovers and big plays from the Cincinnati defense critical.
Really, a solid argument could be made for the offense as well, which is the route my co-host Scott Bantel went in responding to Kurt. Because of the lack of respect team's will have for the passing game under McCarron, getting yards and points from the offense will also be critical.
So, being the fence-rider I tend to be at times with the Bengals, I see both sides of the argument. However, on Monday night, I'll be placing my chips in the corner of the Cincinnati defense.