Not many things are going the Bengals’ way in 2016. Whether it’s unfortunate bounces of the football, an increasing amount of injuries to star players, or a current 3-6-1 record, this season is one to forget.
A big part of the reason for the Bengals’ subpar season is the play of the defense. Obviously, the offense and special teams aren’t immune to criticism, but a unit that has been the rock of dependability since 2009 just hasn’t looked the same at every level this season.
One of the areas in which the defense has failed has been in getting stops early in contests. Of the Bengals’ 10 games played this year, Cincinnati’s defense has given up a touchdown on the first drive in six of the contests. One such example was on Sunday, when the Bengals immediately fell behind 7-0 to Buffalo at home in a must-win game.
The Bengals punted the ball away to the Bills after their initial drive stalled out and Buffalo started out at their own 25-yard line. Tyrod Taylor engineered the best drive from his team on the afternoon, going 75 yards on eight plays for a touchdown.
After the loss that erased most of the hope for a postseason push, veteran defensive linemen Geno Atkins and Domata Peko addressed the subject of falling behind early. And, as it is with most of the issues plaguing the team this year, answers were sparse among two of the longest-tenured veterans on the defense.
“He (Atkins) said he felt the same way, that we can’t just dip our toe in the water and see if it’s cold or not,” Peko said, via The Cincinnati Enquirer. “We’ve got to dive in there and get in there from the first snap.”
It’s a stark contrast to the 2015 squad that started the season 8-0 where in six games they were the ones to strike first. Confidence-building aside, the team falling behind points to new personnel in the coaching and player ranks. Even so, players on Paul Guenther’s unit are feeling good about how they have been playing over the past two weeks.
“As a defense, that’s what you want to do, try to eliminate the big plays and create turnovers and the last two weeks we’ve been able to do that – but obviously it hasn’t been good enough,” said Derron Smith, who was pressed into action because of an injury to Shawn Williams. “We haven’t won the last two games. There’s still steps to be made. But I do think we’re starting to play a lot better.”
There are a couple of things at play here. First of all, the lack of a “killer instinct” from a defensive squad that has been accustomed to finishing within the top-10 in defensive statistical categories is startling. This is a group comprised of veterans who have made life miserable for some of the best quarterbacks in the league over the past half-decade. The fact that they don’t have answers to their early-game struggles is massively disappointing.
The second is that none of the units seem to be playing well at the same time, thus translating to wins. Since the bye week, the Bengals’ defense has played well enough to get wins. Sure, they allowed a whopping 183 rushing yards on Sunday, but they also only gave up 16 points and 166 passing yards from Taylor. Those are two stats that should lead to a win on one’s home turf.
Whichever camp you’re in regarding Marvin Lewis’ job security, one of the veterans he has leaned on since 2010 echoed some of the coach’s sound bytes. It could be a vote of confidence for the embattled head coach, but it also could be a player attempting to tow the company line.
“We’ve just got to keep playing, man. We’re so used to winning,” cornerback Adam Jones added. “I still feel like everyone is giving 110 percent; we’re just coming up short. You’ve got to keep playing. There’s nothing else we can say or do about it. Keep your head down and keep working.”
Lewis could have said that exact comment and we wouldn’t have been surprised.
As the Bengals are currently in third place in the AFC North, the team’s only choice is to embrace the “hard work” mantra Jones is preaching as a pass-down from Lewis. If the Bengals want to keep their slim hopes alive for a 2016 postseason berth, or at least be a respectable team, they can’t keep falling behind in games.
Jones is clearly frustrated and he let that out in discussing what’s different and why the Bengals can’t seem to string together wins.
“We’ve got a whole new team — what do you mean what’s missing,” Jones questioned. “No Marvin (Jones) here, no Mohamed Sanu here, different line — we’ve got different pieces in different places.”
There are certainly changes from last year, but the Bengals don’t have a “whole new team”. No matter what the situation is, the players should be stepping up, battling adversity and figuring out how to win games that they have no business losing. And allowing touchdowns on six of their 10 opponents’ opening drives is not the way to do that.