Is there such a thing as a “must-win game” in Week 1? If so, the divisional clash between the Ravens and Bengals might be an example. As both teams look to rebound from respective disappointing 2016 campaigns, getting off on the right foot, especially in the AFC North, is crucial.
We received a couple of interesting questions this week, courtesy of our live listeners from The Orange and Black Insider. The defensive line and the exciting rookies were the focus this week, as the team looks to find the right formula to get back to the playoffs.
Join us every episode to submit your questions to be answered on air!
One of the hottest topics of debate this year with the Bengals is the status of defensive end Michael Johnson. Even though those who have followed the team have accepted his 4.3 sacks per year average as an NFL defensive end, they want more. With the team coming off a six-win season and Johnson garnering just 3.5 sacks in 2016, fans are questioning Johnson’s short-term worth in the midst of a pretty lucrative deal.
Further muddying the waters of Johnson’s 2017 status is the great performances of edge rushers Chris Smith, Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson this summer. Willis had four sacks, one in each preseason game and good for a tie for the most this entire preseason, while Lawson had a sack and other big pressures and Smith garnering another two sacks.
Johnson did get a sack of his own against the Redskins and it came from his lining up on the interior of the defensive line on a passing down. Because of Johnson’s age, decreasing effectiveness off of the edge, his contract number ($5.125 cap hit in 2017) and the up-and-comers behind him, Bengals fans are asking about how the team will use Johnson this year.
While many are questioning why Johnson is still the team’s starting right defensive end, he does bring value in other areas. He’s a stout run-stopper and his gigantic wingspan has frustrated quarterbacks over the years in the form of batted passes. Still, it’s the paltry numbers in the sack column that frustrates.
As it currently stands, we’re likely to see Johnson out there on the early downs, with the other aforementioned names filling in when needed. But, in an effort to maximize effectiveness, we could very well see Johnson out on the field for three downs—just not in the traditional way.
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther may have tipped his hand a bit in that “dress rehearsal” against the Redskins. In an effort to get as many able pass-rushers on the field as possible at one time, the Bengals may kick Johnson inside to push the pocket.
Really, when you look at the division and the opposing quarterbacks, Johnson’s 6’7” frame in the middle of throwing lanes makes a lot of sense—even if he doesn’t get to the passer from the inside. Whether it’s DeShone Kizer, Ben Roethlisberger or Joe Flacco, none of the three are under 6’4”, so Johnson should not only be able to use his athleticism in the interior, but also could use those pass-batting skills in the most important games of the year.
In truth, I’ve been more in Johnson’s corner than most this year. While I do get frustrated in the lack of “wow” plays from Johnson, I think the Bengals have a pretty solid plan in place up front. Remember in the Mike Zimmer days when this group was at its most effective? It was when they were able to bring in other effective players to rotate in to spell their stars.
I see it happening again this year with Johnson, Willis, Smith and Lawson. Keep an eye out for varied looks up front to confuse even the best of NFL offensive lines.
Related to the inquiry on Johnson’s 2017 role, fans are wondering if Marvin Lewis may be a bit more open to giving some of the young players more snaps. It’s particularly interesting this year, given the high picks and great preseason performances from the new faces on the Bengals’ roster.
When you look at the team’s depth chart, many of the rookies and new faces are not in starting spots. This is both a indictment of Lewis’ lack of trust in rookies, as well as his ability to build a solid roster with few starting spots which may be open for youngsters. It’s a polarizing aspect of his tenure, really.
We’ve already talked about the edge rushers, but there are others on offense who might be biding their time. The two most obvious are the team’s first two 2017 draft picks in John Ross and Joe Mixon.
Even when using a top-10 pick on Ross, the consensus opinion is that Ross will initially be an ancillary weapon, sometimes fourth or fifth in the receiving pecking order, when healthy. Even though he played in just two preseason games and suffered a minor knee injury in the finale, we caught glimpses of his college explosiveness and the team’s willingness to be creative when using him in the offense.
We knew Mixon would be down on the technical running back pecking order, but the prevailing thought, especially amongst fantasy football circles, is that he’ll still get a high volume of touches. The former Sooner has built a reputation on building something special when nothing seems to be open and the preseason proved that again.
With some concerns lingering about the offensive line, Andy Dalton and Co. might often look to use outlets like Mixon often in the passing game. Consensus opinions, be it from LaDainian Tomlinson or a myriad of others, point to Mixon being a future star—as soon as this very year.
The remaining draft picks, wide receiver Josh Malone, defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow and linebacker Jordan Evans, will all be rotational and/or special teams players this year. That’s not to say that they didn’t earn more time this year, it’s just that their position groups are a bit crowded with vested starters at the moment.
Still, Evans and Glasgow were Pro Football Focus favorites this summer, while Malone grabbed a touchdown and some other nice receptions. We don’t want to totally jump the gun here, but the 2017 draft class looks as if it might be one of the best of Lewis’ 15 hauls.
The bottom line is that, as the listener question asked, the rookies earned themselves more snaps and bigger roles in 2017. While it was a little disappointing that the team doesn’t have four of this year’s draft picks on the active roster, this class was very top-heavy, in terms of talent.
Even though the depth chart doesn’t reflect it and we have yet to see a regular season snap from the new guys, it seems as if they will still play some significant roles this year. Those roles may also increase as the season wears on and they continue to gain Lewis’ trust.
The audio clip of the segment can be downloaded here at SoundCloud.
If you’re unable to join us live, all Orange and Black Insider content is here on Cincy Jungle, as well as on our SoundCloud and YouTube channels, and on iTunes! You can tweet us @BengalsOBI or get in touch with us via email at email@example.com. Thanks for listening!