Not many folks would have thought that a Week 5 matchup between the Dolphins and the Bengals would have major divisional and early playoff implications. However, with both teams sitting at 3-1, that’s the case as the 2018 calendar flips to October.
There is a lot of news and emotion surrounding Cincinnati and the Who Dey faithful, ranging from injuries to a last-second win over the Falcons last Sunday. Even so, Cincy Jungle readers and listeners of our podcast have a lot of concerns this week.
Whether it’s been on Twitter, the Cincy Jungle comment threads and/or listeners from The Orange and Black Insider, the topic du jour is Vontaze Burfict’s return to the Bengals’ lineup. Most Bengals fans want to believe that he’ll be a catalyst to propel them through the meat of their schedule.
The next six games for Cincinnati go like this: the 3-1 Dolphins, the struggling, but always-tough Steelers, the currently undefeated Chiefs, followed by the high-flying Buccaneers and Saints, and then the Ravens. With a Bengals defense allowing 28 points per game this season, Burfict’s return and the Week 9 bye provide nice respites.
Burfict will assist defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s unit, to be sure. Aside from the deplorable points-per-game number, Cincinnati’s defense is 28th in overall defense, 28th against the pass and 22nd versus the run.
The enigmatic Burfict is the only linebacker on the roster who resembles a three-down player in the group. Being so, he should help in all phases.
But, still, is he a cure-all to the problems? Hardly.
Part of the problem with Austin’s defense at the moment is that they have lost the identity they had built in the first two weeks. Sure, they let up points and yards like Chuck Bresnahan’s 2005 group, but they also nabbed turnovers with frequency.
That has hit the skids in Weeks 4 and 5, resulting in a 1-1 record. And, without a near-miracle by the Bengals’ offense in Atlanta, this team could have a very different feel with a 2-2 record and the blame being squarely on Austin’s shoulders.
Perhaps the most damning statistic comes with their trio of former first round corners. William Jackson, Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard have combined for zero interceptions through the first month of the season.
However, whether it’s in tangible statistics or just a general air of increased energy, Burfict will surely make a difference. For all of the chatter of his on-field transgressions, No. 55 has an incredibly high football I.Q. It’s why he’s able to mask some overall limitations with his speed with proper angles and early dissections of plays.
With Burfict’s return, there are a few wild cards.
On the unfortunate side, over-sensitive officiating has been a theme of September and that could affect Burfict in a number of ways. Burfict hasn’t hit anyone from another team since Christmas Eve of last year.
He’ll be chomping at the bit when he returns, and he’ll have to rein it in a bit. This is especially true when he’s blitzing and hitting a quarterback. “Body weight rule”, anyone?
Second, even when Burfict is “healthy”, we’ve seen him leave games often—usually temporarily. Whether it’s cramps, being winded or injuring himself with his Tasmanian Devil-style of play, No. 55 always skates on thin ice.
Regardless, Burfict should help in a big way. If his presence can lift the defense to a middle-of-the-pack ranking in major areas, that will pave a path to the playoffs.
That is especially true now that more valuable players are injured on offense.
Aside from Burfict being a topic of discussion this week, wondering on the viability of the 2018 Bengals has been another. By this, we mean two last-minute miracle wins and the defense being a bend-and-still-bend unit.
We’ve already talked about how Burfict should impact the defense and the team in a positive way. However, what if he doesn’t, or his impact is minimal? Can the Bengals continue on a path to the playoffs with a 28-point allowance and a 31 points-per-game on offense?
I mean, obviously, the law of averages tells us yes. However, averages don’t necessarily account for huge pendulum swings—particularly those within the division.
As mentioned above, Cincinnati faces some very potent offenses over the next month and a half. Things could be relatively fine if the pass rush gains a little consistency and certain defensive backs actually corral interception opportunities (cough, Dre Kirkpatrick, cough).
However, “ifs and buts”...
What if things remain relatively status quo on defense the rest of the season? Are you confident in this team to still get double-digit wins and ease into the January bracket?
While most of the blame on the team’s issues (funny to say with a 3-1 start) is on the defense, the offensive line isn’t immune to criticism, either. After starting the season well, Cordy Glenn has not been himself the past two weeks, while the right side of the line has struggled and first round center Billy Price won’t be back until midseason after never missing a start in college.
(Side note: Is it me, or do the Bengals seem to suffer more injuries than most other teams? Questionable medical staff aside, Cincinnati has/will have seen missed time from Michael Johnson, Joe Mixon, Giovani Bernard, Tyler Boyd, John Ross, Billy Price, A.J. Green, Preston Brown, Vontaze Burfict and others through just four games this year.)
Look, Andy Dalton is playing out of his mind, as are his pass-catchers. But, with the inevitable attrition that has and will continue to occur on this roster, is a 31-28 split realistic down the stretch? If so, is that even sustainable for big-time success?
In this writer’s opinion, it’s not.
This isn’t an indictment on anybody, but the 2005 trend we spoke of earlier is an outlier and not necessarily one to be relied upon for a Super Bowl run. Crazier things have happened, but more balance is definitely needed.
I guess I’ll put it this way: if you’re asking if the style of play from Weeks 3 and 4 are sustainable for a legitimate run this year, I’d say no. But, if the Bengals’ style of play transitions to some more akin to Weeks 1 and 2, then I’d say yes, this team can cause problems for a lot of teams in the league.
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