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NFL Week 4 Dolphins at Bengals Game Preview: Identity Crisis

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The Bengals head into Week 4 with a losing record for the first time since 2013. If the Bengals want to get the ship righted, they will need to dig deep and figure out who they are.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

The things we all hoped would not catch up to the 2016 Bengals apparently have. New coaches are struggling to come up with sound strategies, newbie players are still trying to get their bearings and, worst of all, rumors of internal dissension are beginning to surface.

But, as we know, winning cures all in the NFL.

Not since Marvin Lewis’ 2011 reincarnation of the Bengals has the team started 1-2, and there are some eerie similarities to that young team that snuck into the playoffs five seasons ago. A green offensive coordinator named Jay Gruden was spearheading the offense, while brand new receiving weapons were getting broken into his system. Cincinnati also had to scramble with veteran pickups at positions where they lost starters. Sound familiar?

The difference between then and now is perception. The 2011 club that was a 9-7 Wild Card draw was seen as a group of massive overachievers, while this one is underwhelming to some who had Super Bowl expectations this year.

It seems the Bengals have a very winnable game ahead with the fellow 1-2 Miami Dolphins coming to Paul Brown Stadium on a short week, but history might be telling us something different. Cincinnati is just 5-15 lifetime against Miami in all matchups, including just a 2-3 mark under Lewis’ watch. If you’re of the negative mindset because of recent happenings, you’ll also probably relish in the fact that Lewis has lost three straight against the Dolphins.

Part of the reason for the Bengals’ early-season struggles is the loss of many bets they placed on personnel this offseason. In previous years, the Bengals could lose players and coaches and be able to almost seamlessly replace them. Hue Jackson took over for Gruden and Paul Guenther took over for Mike Zimmer with few hiccups. Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu stepped in for Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell and Jordan Shipley to give the Bengals four productive seasons as supplements to A.J. Green.

It’s just not happening with the same level of success through three games this year though. Brandon LaFell flashed in Week 1, as did Tyler Boyd against the Steelers in Week 2, but their inconsistency in being able to get open has led to multiple coverage sacks this year on Andy Dalton. Not having Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert hasn’t helped the situation either.

For instance, when you look at Jones’ league-leading 408 yards and Sanu’s contributions to the high-flying Atlanta offense, one could get a little frustrated at Cincinnati’s offseason decisions. And actually, in a twist of irony only the Bengals could write, their reliance on embattled defensive linemen Will Clarke and Margus Hunt have seemed to be one of the bets that have netted dividends.

And, speaking of pressure allowed by the offensive line, Cedric Ogbuehi is struggling in his first year as an NFL starting right tackle, as is Russell Bodine while Paul Alexander prefers to rely on him at center. Cincinnati’s once-proud offensive line is last in the league by allowing 12 sacks through three games, and they aren’t faring much better as run-blockers, given their No. 27 ranking in that category.

Things aren’t that much better on defense, either. The Pro Bowl duo of Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins just have one quarterback sack apiece and their run defense is a pedestrian-like No. 18 in the league.

Mike Nugent is having an outstanding start to the season, but the players taking over for Brandon Tate on special teams have disappointed. Preseason All-Star Alex Erickson hasn’t done anything, nor has Rex Burkhead or even Adam Jones. More lost bets.

So, who is this team?

In 2015, Cincinnati rode a ferocious pass rush and a bombs-away passing offense to a 12-4 finish. Because of so many moving parts this year, we’re not quite sure who the 2016 version of the Bengals is and what they do well. With three games under their belt and a winnable one on the horizon, Thursday seems like a good time to really start jelling as a club.

As we wrap up analysis on this game, one could look at Lewis’ 8-26 primetime record (including the playoffs) as reason for more concern regarding a possible 1-3 start. Some believe in the record as pointing to a curse, while others easily dismiss it, but one fact remains: if the Bengals want to turn around their 2016 season and have different results in the postseason this year, it’s these types of games on this kind of stage that need to be won.

In these game previews, I’ve chosen the Bengals three straight weeks to disappointing results. I knew this opening stretch would be difficult for them, but with more tough games against Dallas, New England and the surprising Eagles coming up in the middle of their schedule, Miami provides the Bengals the opportunity to start gaining ground in the conference. Reluctantly, I say they tame the Dolphins on Thursday night.

Bengals 23, Dolphins 17

AC — Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me thrice, and...oh boy.