If the Cincinnati Bengals beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in their upcoming clash in Pittsburgh, they will be right back in the thick of the AFC North race.
Wait, can that be right?
Amazingly, yes. Four weeks after going 0-3, the Bengals could still ultimately win the AFC North. The NFL is a crazy place.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The Bengals will have to beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh, which Marvin Lewis has had trouble doing. With playoff elimination looming if Cincinnati falls to 2-4, this could be one of the most important games of the season.
The Bengals need to make good use out their bye week to heal up and prepare for a Steel City showdown. There are three players in particular that need to step up if the Bengals are going to keep their win streak going.
When the Bengals re-signed former first round draft pick in the offseason, it was generally regarded as a good move. However, the Bengals have not seemed to get their money’s worth out of the deal.
According to ProFootballFocus.com, Kirkpatrick is the lowest-rated cornerback on the team. With a score of 47.6, he is rated even lower than KeiVarae Russell. As the 80th ranked cornerback in the NFL, he needs to step up this week.
The Steelers are an interesting opponent because of all the weapons they have. Adam Jones has been able to minimize Antonio Brown at times, but the Bengals might consider stacking the box to stop Le’Veon Bell and the run game, leaving Kirkpatrick on an island with Martavis Bryant or JuJu Smith-Schuster. A failing Kirkpatrick would mean giving up a lot of passing yards.
First and foremost, he needs to get healthy. Kirkpatrick was one of the many casualties of the battle against Buffalo. Hopefully, no news is good news, and he will be back to normal after a week off. After recovering, he needs to get back to work and shape up. While the young corners are showing their value, the Bengals will want the veteran to help win one of the most important games of the season. We all know that Kirkpatrick is capable of performing at a high level, but he needs to remind us of that on Sunday.
Andy Dalton and the offense have leaned on third-year tight end Tyler Kroft to help revitalize the offense over the last couple weeks. As Tyler Eifert’s replacement, Kroft has certainly accepted the challenge. Tyler Number Two has only started three games, but is second on the team in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns. So when I say Kroft needs to step up, it has nothing to do with a lack of production. It has more to do with the paradigm-shifting news that he received this week.
With Eifert placed on IR, Kroft is going to be the guy up for rest of the year. It’s one thing to make a couple of spot starts, but Kroft is going to have to prepare to be an integral part of the offense every week. Now without John Ross and Tyler Boyd, Dalton is going to need some more receiving options (because he can’t throw to A.J. Green on every play, as much as we would love to see that happen).
But Kroft’s value to the Bengals’ offense is more than just an extra receiver. The Bengals may let Eifert go after his contract expires at the end of the season. If that is the case, Kroft may have just inherited his domain for the next season, which will be a contract year for Kroft. If the rest of the year goes well, he could be looking at a huge pay raise and a long-term deal.
Even though he has been doing well with the opportunities he has been given, the way he prepares to be the next Bengals’ featured tight end, it could have ramifications for both parties that last years.
Anyone on the offensive line
At this point, I don’t care who it is. Anyone will do.
Last week, PFF ranked all 32 NFL offensive lines, and it was not pretty. The Bengals were ranked 30th overall, but last in run blocking. Clint Boling was the lone linemen with a ranking above 50.0. Everyone else needs to do something to improve their pitiful performance.
While new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has helped Dalton deal with poor pass protection, there’s only so much he can do to help the running game. Featured running back Joe Mixon averages 2.8 yards a rush while gaining most of his yards after contact.
85% of Joe Mixon's rushing yards have come after contact in 2017.— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) October 12, 2017
The highest % among HBs this year. pic.twitter.com/5hzx5Hnuef
Bengals running backs are only averaging 0.42 yards before contact; if you’re unfamiliar with basic mathematics, that is not a very high number. Mixon is one of the most talented running backs the Bengals have had in years, but he has no room to run. Between Mixon, Giovani Bernard, and Jeremy Hill, there is too much talent in the backfield for the team to only average 3.1 yards a rush. They just get swallowed up in their own backfield. Imagine if Mixon gets 85 percent of his yards after contact if first contact is at the line of scrimmage instead of three yards behind it.
Lazor can rotate Andre Smith through to help the overwhelmed tackles, he can add tight ends to protection schemes, and he can call certain plays that help the blockers, but the players themselves need to step up. Someone other than Boling has to. The Steelers’ front seven is too good for a porous line to defend.
Improvement is possible. Arizona Cardinals running back Adrian Peterson ran for over 100 yards on Sunday behind the worst-ranked line in the NFL. If they can do it, why can’t the Bengals?
Whether it’s Russell Bodine (the battle-worn center), Trey Hopkins (the undrafted free agent guard trying to make his mark), or Cedric Ogbuehi (the Bengals’ first round pick in 2015), or Jake Fisher (the Bengals’ second-round pick in 2015), someone has to step up. They are all terrible. The Bengals need someone not to be.