While it’s still early in the 2016 season, Thursday night might be a pivotal point in the route the Bengals take the rest of the year. The Dolphins come into Paul Brown Stadium on a short week with the same 1-2 record as Cincinnati. It’s hard to call the Bengals underachievers so far, as the three teams they faced were all tough tests, but one has to believe a 2-1 start could have been attained.
The team has the chance to right the ship, but they will need to play far more sound football even though they are going up against a perceived lesser opponent. Here are some of the biggest keys to victory for the Bengals as they face the Dolphins on Thursday Night Football.
1) Block out the big lights:
Some believe in the Marvin Lewis primetime curse, while others believe it to be rubbish. Whatever your belief system is on the topic, the fact remains that Lewis is 8-26 as Cincinnati’s head coach on the biggest stage, including the playoffs. We don’t need to re-hash history, but the Cliff Notes version is that the team often looks unprepared and makes mistakes they normally don’t make in games on Sunday at 1 p.m.
The mistakes have been occurring the past three Sunday afternoons as well, though. Miami has struggled this year, but they have talent at a lot of positions. Cincinnati needs to block out the peripheral noise of their demise, relax and play well on a stage in which they traditionally haven’t done well with.
2) It’s the little things:
What’s the cliche with failed relationships, again? “It was the little things that added up”, right? The Bengals walked the razor’s edge with a few mistakes in the opener, but were able to escape with a one-point win. Dropped passes on offense and possible interception opportunities caught up with them over the past couple of weeks, and it’s not coincidental they have gone 0-2 in those contests.
Conversations began after the win in New York centering around A.J. Green’s status as one of the top receivers in the NFL, but he’s had critical missed opportunities against the Steelers and Broncos since. Brandon LaFell has had trouble getting open since Week 1 too, which is not helping matters. The receivers as well as defensive backs need to start making not only the plays they should make but other key plays, too.
3) Flip the script on the front lines:
Miami’s defense is tied for 7th in league in sacks with 9.0, with 2.5 of those have come from Ndamukong Suh. The All-Pro defensive tackle will be going up against the embattled Bengals’ center Russell Bodine at times, so that’s a matchup to keep an eye on for sure. The Dolphins’ offensive line is off to a better start than in past years, giving up just 6.0 sacks in three games, good for a tie as 11th-best in the league.
Meanwhile, the two position groups this generation’s Bengals teams could always rely on—the offensive and defensive lines—have not played well through three weeks. The Bengals are in a tie for the league lead in sacks given up with 12.0, but are in a tie for 21st on defense with 4.0 sacks through three games. If the Bengals are going to turn around their season for a playoff push, this storyline needs to change starting on Thursday night.
4) Discover an identity:
One of the criticisms from the media when it came to their predictions of the Bengals missing the playoffs this season resided in the many personnel losses they experienced this offseason. Ken Zampese has yet to find his groove as an offensive coordinator, while the defense has had its ups and downs this year.
Take a look at the team stats above. What is the team really doing well at this point? Sure, Andy Dalton is No. 5 in passing yards so far, but he only has two touchdowns against two interceptions. And yes, the run game perked up last week, but the team is still ranked 27th in the category as an offense. The confusion and tentative play needs to stop, as do the mistakes, but the coaches need to come together and formulate a game plan suited to the players’ strengths.
5) Vontaze Burfict, the catalyst:
Given the inconsistency of the defense through the first three games, the chaotic stability of No. 55’s playmaking ability will be a welcomed addition this week. For those wondering what his impact could be this Thursday night, take a look back at his return from microfracture surgery last year. He was a maniac in Week 8 against the Steelers, playing many more snaps than anyone anticipated and directly contributed to that win.
The Bengals need a spark to shake them out of their 1-2 doldrums. While at PBS last weekend, I noticed a lull from the team in general, which trickled into an apathetic fan base once they gave up the lead. If Burfict can corral the dumb penalties and play as he has through most of his Bengals career, Cincinnati should get their second notch in the win column.