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Bengals Mailbag: Wembley’s turf and continuing linebacker questions

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The Bengals play an unprecedented game on their 2016 schedule as they travel to London this week, and while they sit at 3-4, fan questions remain about the future of the club.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Between starting the season with two straight road games, an early Thursday Night Football matchup in Week 4 and heading to England in Week 8, it’s been a very difficult stretch to the 2016 schedule for the Cincinnati Bengals. While it’s very exciting for fans abroad to get a look at two solid NFL teams between Cincinnati and Washington, the Who Dey faithful know a risky matchup awaits.

We received a couple of interesting questions from our readers this week, revolving around the game specifically being played at London’s Wembley Stadium, as well as an overarching query about the state of one of the team’s position groups. In a pivotal week for both the Redskins and Bengals, fans realize the stakes are high this week.

Want you questions answered? Send us your questions via our Facebook page, or on Twitter @CincyJungle, @CJAnthonyCUI and @BengalsOBI to be answered on this weekly mailbag feature. We also answer fan questions on The Orange and Black Insider!

We actually answered this one on a previous episode of the OBI podcast, but after a couple of weeks and with the Bengals entering a stretch of the schedule where they can make 2016 AFC postseason ground, it’s a question that’s looming larger. Vontaze Burfict has four games under his belt after serving his suspension at the beginning of the year, while Karlos Dansby, Vincent Rey and Rey Maualuga have also been taking the lion’s share of snaps in the position group.

The Bengals tried a few athletic players at linebacker of late, but some seemed to be round pegs being forced into square holes. Emmanuel Lamur had range and speed, but ended up being a niche player who needed to be relieved in certain packages. Maualuga has become the same kind of limited player in the now-pass-happy NFL, while the Taylor Mays “hy-backer” experiment hasn’t worked over the course five different Bengals seasons (2011-2014, 2016).

What’s ironic about the Bengals’ poor history of developing linebackers under Marvin Lewis’ watch is the fact that he built his reputation on developing excellent defensive players—mostly in the middle of the Ravens’ defense from 1996-2001. Outside linebackers Peter Boulware, Jamie Sharper and Ed Hartwell, along with future Hall of Fame man in the middle Ray Lewis, were all resume points in Lewis’ history that helped propel him to a 14-year head coaching stint with the Bengals.

However, in his time with Cincinnati, Lewis really only has Burfict as a true feather in his cap, even though with his history of fines/suspensions and the criticisms to be had there. Whether you look at the ranging failures of Odell Thurman, Nate Webster, Ahmad Brooks (who had later success with San Francisco), Caleb Miller, Roddrick Muckelroy, or Sean Porter, the list of failed developments at linebacker in Cincinnati is staggering.

And when you look at what Mike Zimmer has built in Minnesota, it’s borderline masterful. Aside from currently relying on the veteran presence of Chad Greenway, he brought together two athletic linebackers and UCLA college teammates in Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. Ironically, Zimmer has used Lamur in a reserve role, but their current No. 1 ranking in total defense, including 4th against the pass and 3rd against the run, directly correlates to linebacker reliability.

For the most part, I’ve liked how the Bengals’ Draft classes have played out over the past handful of years. However, look at the first round picks since 2012: Dre Kirkpatrick, Kevin Zeitler, Tyler Eifert, Darqueze Dennard, Cedric Ogbuehi and William Jackson III. While Kirkpatrick, Zeitler and Eifert currently have big roles, the latter three have been disappointments—mostly because of injury and/or spotty play when called upon.

I like the decisions to move on cornerbacks early in Lewis’ Drafts, but with limitations at linebacker continuing to rear its ugly head, one can’t help but envision a guy like Barr or Kendricks in stripes to solidify all three levels of the defense. Then again, that might mean draft maneuvering, especially moving up, which just isn’t this team’s M.O.

*****

Those of us on the west coast remember the mid-2000s when Pete Carroll had his heyday with the USC Trojans. For those who remember “The Bush Push” when Matt Leinart was assisted by Reggie Bush on a last-minute touchdown run against Notre Dame during their 2005 National Championship quest, one might also remember some of the tactics then-Irish head coach Charlie Weis used leading up to that game. Because of the Trojans’ team speed, Weis intentionally had the South Bend groundskeepers allow the grass to grow out that week in an attempt to slow down USC’s firepower.

An intentional alteration of the field at Wembley Stadium isn’t taking place this week—but a turf usually reserved for soccer and tennis might not be the same as the artificial surface they are used to at Paul Brown Stadium, or other natural surfaces in the U.S. Cincinnati undoubtedly wants to use the speed and footwork of guys like A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard, so it will be interesting to see the state of the field this week. And, kudos to you, @tiger_hype, for bringing to light a facet that most others aren’t thinking of this week.

I’m going to be honest—because I live on the west coast, I don’t get to watch many of the NFL games hosted by London on live television. I’ve not heard the state of Wembley as an issue blamed by losing fanbases and both teams are likely doing at least walkthroughs on the London surface, but that doesn’t mean complaints don’t exist. As we know, nothing compares to the feeling of a home turf.

Whether or not we are picking at nits in the category of field maintenance, in both my five keys to this week’s victory and game preview this week, I noted the emphasis of the Bengals running the football against the Redskins. Whether it’s because of travel fatigue or building off of last week’s 248-yard, two touchdown rushing effort between Bernard and Jeremy Hill, if Cincinnati can impose its will in this area, a Week 8 victory will surely be theirs. And that’s in spite of the condition of the field a continent away from home.