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Addressing the state of the 3-5-1 Bengals defense

A one-point loss doesn’t tell the whole story. The Bengals showed again they simply can’t beat winning teams.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

After dropping their fifth game of the season in New Jersey on Monday night, the Bengals are not out of playoff contention yet, if only because the AFC North is so bad and still wide open. What’s clear, though, is that this squad is mediocre and has yet to beat any good team.

What’s surprising is that after the defense’s best outing of the season since their Thursday Night Football win over the Dolphins, I want to talk about what’s still going wrong on defense. It was the offense that shut down in the fourth quarter in a one-point loss. And, Marvin Lewis was again playing Marvinball before halftime, which didn’t help.

But the Giants were trying to give the win away and the Bengals didn’t take it. New York was playing with a depleted offensive line, without Víctor Cruz and with a quarterback prone to throwing interceptions. On top of that, the Giants sported one of the worst running games in the entire league before Monday. Yet they ran over the Bengals defense when it mattered in the closing minutes and ended up getting 123 yards on the ground. Cincy also benefited from countless drops by the Giants’ receivers, including a couple in key third down situations.

There are three main issues with Paul Guenther’s unit: they only have two relevant pass rushers in Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, their linebackers are slow and unathletic and their secondary has regressed badly from last season.

Cincinnati lost Reggie Nelson, Leon Hall and three position coaches on the defense in the offseason. They also lost two rookies to injuries in cornerback William Jackson III and nose tackle Andrew Billings. Noted.

There’s also not much hope for a quick fix because of a concerning lack of depth and unwillingness by the coaching staff to make changes like giving young players a chance. They value familiarity above all else, which is why they thought veteran defensive end Wallace Gilberry could help. I don’t get it.

With the season on the line and established players underperforming and showing clear signs of slowing down, the Bengals should try to see what they have in players like rookie linebacker Nick Vigil, or safety Derron Smith, or defensive lineman DeShawn Williams. How bad it is that they waited to bring in Gilberry to deactivate Margus Hunt when Williams was playing very good in Preseason? It’s not that he was going to be the answer to every single that the unit has, but he’s young and has upside.

As of today, the Bengals might be hoping that "executing better" will get them to play football in January, but the reality is they lack the talent and they are comfortable playing mediocre veterans.

Lack of pass rushers

I wrote before the season started that the Bengals should blame themselves for their pass rushing situation. Atkins was pretty good against the Giants, but New York relies heavily on short passes and draw plays and they neutralized Atkins after a while. Dunlap has been pretty good all season long, and is one of the elite defensive ends in the NFL. After them, who’s left?

Veteran Michael Johnson has lost all of his athleticism and has no speed to contribute.

Two old nose tackles are just two bodies out there most of the time in Pat Sims and Domata Peko. When they share the field, the results are pretty bad. The first play is a running play, where the Giants nearly picked up a first down on first-and-10. The second play is a passing play where one of the NFL’s oldest linebackers, Karlos Dansby, essentially gave up on his tackle.

Will Clarke, drafted to be Johnson’s long-term replacement has improved this season, but after a nice start to the year, he has faded away and back into the shadows. I don’t want to talk about Hunt again.

The Bengals must add speed on the edge in the coming offseason. They really need it.

Slow and unathletic linebackers

If you can’t get to the quarterback with your front four you figure to call more blitzes. That is what the Bengals did against the Broncos in Week 3 and got burned by Trevor Siemian, and they blitzed some on Monday as well.

Problem is, you need to win your one-on-one matchups for at least a tiny beat to allow the blitz to work.

That is how tight ends have huge games against the Bengals defense. Dansby was brought in because of his pedigree as a cover guy, but maybe, just maybe, he was already on the wrong side of 35. Vincent Rey has been their best linebacker this season, which tells you what you need to know. Ideally he would be your fourth linebacker - or third, in this nickel days.

Vontaze Burfict had a strong game against the Giants, but, again, New York can’t run the football and throws a huge number of five and six-yard passes. His football instincts are great, and Burfict makes this team better when healthy, but he can’t do it all, and he isn’t.

The Bengals’ margin for error is slim, and that gave New York plenty of room underneath on third down.

That was on third-and-three. The Bengals’ second level guys can’t play so far off the line of scrimmage because they don’t have the speed to make up for it if the receivers get the ball just around the first down marker.

The Bengals have prioritized big and tall linebackers and linemen over speed and athleticism for the last few years, and they are paying the price. Former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, now head coach of the Vikings, has gone the other way with his team in deploying great coverage linebackers in his defense.

The secondary has regressed

I was OK with giving Shawn Williams the safety job after last season and letting Reggie Nelson walk if he still wanted to be a starter. I wasn’t anticipating George Iloka would be so unimpressive without his former buddy on the field.

Williams has been above-average despite his shortcomings in coverage, and Iloka is young and a candidate to bounce back next season. But, the cornerback situation is a mess.

The Bengals have added first rounders at the position without a clear path, and are now stuck with a lot of enigmas and no clear solution. That is for the future, though. Right now we can tell that Adam Jones, who was elite just last year, looks like a sliver of his 2015 self.

Odell Beckham Jr.’s touchdown play wasn’t the only time he made a mistake, but this one was the most costly. He had another play in which he didn’t give Beckham any depth and allowed Beckham to get between him and the safety at ease for a big gain. On the touchdown catch, the worse part is not that he bit on the double-move, but that Darqueze Dennard was already underneath.

On the other side, Dre Kirkpatrick has been playing some of the best football of his career, which is not much, and is still pretty inconsistent.

What’s going to happen with Dennard and Josh Shaw? The Bengals seem to see both as nickel cornerbacks and both need to play now so the Bengals can find out what they have in these young players. So, what gives?

I don’t want to sound overly negative, but unfortunately, this is not something that the Bengals can fix in one day, or one week. The Bengals need to upgrade their defense in the offseason and they need to rethink their priorities. Bringing back guys they’re familiar with, like Taylor Mays, or washed down veterans on the cheap, cannot be the solution.