During and after the 2015 season, a vast majority of NFL teams would have loved to employ the offensive line the Bengals’ have trotted out over the past handful of seasons. Anchored by the grizzled veteran Andrew Whitworth, the line also has a handful of maulers entering the peak of their NFL careers.
Yet, somehow in 2016, the collective group has fallen off of the productive cliff. Whitworth, who had some of his best seasons while in his 30s, has not played at his normal Pro Bowl level, while inconsistency at the other four positions have made life miserable for Andy Dalton.
After being ranked as one of the worst units in the league in sacks given up going into Week 10, the Bengals gave up another three to the Giants defensive line, along with numerous other pressures on Monday night. Whether it’s in obvious passing situations or when Ken Zampese dials up formations that seem to confuse the entire offense, the Bengals’ quarterback has been under the most duress he’s seen in his six-year Bengals career.
Much of the blame has fallen on the two youngest players on the line in center Russell Bodine and first-year starter Cedric Ogbuehi. The criticisms are justified, but issues are occurring along the entire line outside of those two. It still hasn’t stopped Dalton from making plays in the face of immense pressure, though.
Monday night against the Giants was no different. While New York’s two recent Super Bowl runs were built on timely offensive plays and the ability to get creative pressure up front, they displayed a similar defensive tenacity on Monday night.
Ironically, it was A.J. Green, who is on pace for the best season in his six-year career, who noted the importance of protecting Dalton.
“We have to protect Andy. We can’t let him get beat up like that,” Green said, via Bengals.com after the loss. “You can’t have your franchise guy take those hits. You just can’t have it. It didn’t happen last year. It’s a problem this year. I don’t know why.”
Let’s set a couple of things straight with Green and his post-game statements. First, he had a decent game against the Giants with seven catches for 68 yards and a touchdown on Monday night. Second, for those who are unaware of the type of guy Green is, being a finger-pointing diva just isn’t in his DNA.
But, as it is with any team struggling to find answers in an underachieving season, legitimate internal queries will be aired out publicly. And, when you’re a team that has known nothing but a winning culture over the past half decade (five straight postseason berths and four double-digit win seasons), everything and everyone needs to be put on notice.
For the first part of the statement, it rings true for any signal-caller. However, unlike his predecessor, Carson Palmer, Dalton is much more agile and has shown the ability to make plays on the run.
One such play on Monday night came on a third-and-10 at the beginning of the fourth quarter. After receivers weren’t getting open and the pocket collapsed, Dalton rolled to his left and floated a great pass to Tyler Eifert for a 20-yard gain.
Later in the fourth quarter, with just under five minutes to play, the Bengals faced another critical third-and-four to potentially take the lead. Pressure once again flustered Dalton, but he scrambled out of the pocket for 15 yards and a first down, giving hope for a Bengals comeback. What ensued was an incomplete pass and two straight sacks given up by the line.
As we look at the second part of Green’s statement, and one where he seemingly gives a rhetorical question. He asks a question that is a microcosm of the entire 2016 Bengals season and one that has the coaches, players and fans searching for introspection: “why?”.
How does a veteran unit with just one new piece—one who’s a first round talent—allow such a major drop-off in performance? Is it the coaching changes, one small personnel change, or a hangover from what occurred this past January against the Steelers?
Even when you look at Dalton’s lone interception, which was only his fourth of the year, you could sense that the pressure was getting to him. Poor decision aside, his wanting to get rid of the ball quickly likely caused him to not employ proper mechanics, as the pass sailed over Tyler Kroft’s head and into the loving arms of Landon Collins. Luckily, George Iloka intercepted a pass from Eli Manning one play later to limit the damage.
Whitworth came to the defense of now-maligned coach Marvin Lewis and the rest of the team when talking about the preparation from his teammates.
“Guys are definitely frustrated,” Whitworth said after the game, via The Cincinnati Enquirer. “You got no choice. Guys are working their tails off. It’s not a Monday-to-Sunday problem. Guys are working their butts off. They are in the facility all day and trying to find a way to win but for whatever reason we just can’t seem to get it to bounce our way.”
When you look at the mixture of ingredients that make for a championship team, the Bengals just don’t seem to have it in 2016. Whether it’s untimely injuries, underachievement, a tough schedule, aging veterans at critical positions, or reliance on a “promote-from-within” philosophy, the Bengals’ championship window is closing.