The Bengals’ season is rapidly slipping away. The team is in an uncomfortably awkward position where they aren’t mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, so they have to play with that goal still in mind, but common sense indicates the season is essentially over. In my mind, we’re on the course of preparing for 2017, so as many young players as possible should get their shots in upcoming weeks. If the Bengals want to begin building momentum for next year, these five Bengals will need to have great performances against the Philadelphia Eagles.
1) Kevin Zeitler
Nobody in the NFL enjoys blocking Fletcher Cox. Kevin Zeitler will be tasked with handling him for most of the day, and it’ll be a battle worth watching, even if you don’t typically observe offensive line play. In fact, with the way this season is going, I would encourage spending time specifically watching the line during drives. You’ll become a more complete fan, and you’ll also see just how disastrous that group can be at times. Cox is a complete 3-technique defensive tackle, much in the mold of Geno Atkins and Los Angeles’ Aaron Donald. While mostly heralded for his pass rushing skills, Cox is also stout against the run. He’s going to be need to be held in check, or, we’ll see Andy Dalton continue to run for his life.
2) Darqueze Dennard
This one isn’t primarily matchup based, but rather just a simple observation as to how poor Dennard has been while lining up in the slot at times. While Dre Kirkpatrick has panned out as a first round corner, Dennard has yet to show any sign of life, plagued by both injuries and can’t-cover-itis (a new disease that’s just being discovered). The player once heralded as the “best rookie corner” Marvin Lewis has ever seen, seems to find the NFL game too fast for him. The injuries the Bengals are dealing with have given Dennard more playing time, so this very well might be his last chance to prove just what he’s capable of. I see Kirkpatrick and William Jackson III as the boundary corners of our future, with Shaw as the nickel. That leaves no place for Dennard. Should he continue to suffer, not only will the Bengals pay the price over the middle on Sunday, but Dennard will continue to dirty his resume and potentially lose a job beyond his rookie contract.
3) Geno Atkins
Geno, where have you been? It seems like the performance of this team as a whole is directly proportional to how Atkins plays. When Atkins is lights out and puts up double digit sack totals in a season, this team typically looks unstoppable. In off years, either due to a down year or to an unfortunate injury, the team has suffered - though never to this extent. The Bengals are going to need Atkins to turn his game up a notch this week, as while he’s played well it’s been pedestrian for what we’ve come to expect from the guy. Carson Wentz has shown that with time he can carve up defenses, specifically in his early season dismantling of the Pittsburgh Steelers. When under duress, however, he looks like you’d expect a rookie to look. Atkins needs to get to the quarterback early and often if the Bengals have any hope of winning.
4) Cody Core
Without A.J. Green, the Bengals have no certified deep threat in their passing game. While Tyler Body, James Wright, and Brandon LaFell are serviceable complements to Green, none of them have the ability to blow the top off of coverages. Core has the straight line speed to give the offense that much needed dynamic, if only for the threat of the deep ball. We saw Core in as the lone receiver in jumbo extra-tackle packages multiple times, suggesting that there may be play action plays that will utilize the rookie in that role. Hopefully, he can work himself into some of the more common packages as well, since that threat can go a long way in opening up the teams more reliable receiving options.
5) Rex Burkhead
Burkhead had a few nice carries against the Ravens, and even looked pretty good in pass protection in place of Giovani Bernard. In fact, I gave him a better game grade than Jeremy Hill. I’d like to see the Bengals utilize Burkhead more in the coming weeks. He has most of the versatility that Bernard has shown, while perhaps being a better downhill runner. For whatever reason, he had a more productive day than his LSU teammate and I think the team would be wise to give more touches to the hot hand.