One would think that at 5-3 in 2018 after two straight losing seasons, fans would be a bit more optimistic as the Bengals head into the back end season stretch. However, even as they have their eyes on the postseason, there seem to be more questions than answers about this squad.
Our listeners and readers have proven this sentiment to be true and have given us a lot to ponder this week—particularly with the long-term prospects of this team.
A continuing question we continue to receive (and rightfully so) is about the Bengals’ struggling defense. Teryl Austin preached the creation of turnovers this year, and while that’s happened in spurts, the unit’s dead-last ranking against the pass and in overall defense has been a major disappointment.
In our last mailbag, we talked about some of the issues, including those with William Jackson in the scheme. So, we won’t re-hash some of the same assessment, but we did want to address the communication issue, which was brought up in our podcast.
To the layman, it would appear that at least some of the big passing plays this defense has allowed has come from blown coverages—not so much an indictment of talent on the back end of the defense.
After some of these plays, you have players in the secondary looking at each other with a “where were you on that one?” type of glance. It’s a little bit understandable with a rookie starting at safety and all players getting accustomed to a new system.
Sure, Jessie Bates III has had a good rookie season, but we’ve seen he and others in the secondary be out of position. These big plays didn’t happen nearly as frequently when veteran Reggie Nelson was captaining the back end of the Bengals’ defense up until the conclusion of the 2015 season.
On the other hand, the communication issues can be pointed to Austin and the potential complexities of what he’s asking of his players. There’s the age-old question of if the players are simply thinking too much instead of using their natural instincts and reacting to what’s transpiring in front of them.
Still, it’s hard to excuse the performances of Jackson, Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard. The first round trio has combined for zero interceptions on the season and the former two starters have dropped what seems to be at least a combined four or five interception opportunities this season.
These are the things that can change the tide of a game and it isn’t Austin’s pair of hands getting on the football and failing to corral it.
Only those within the walls of Paul Brown Stadium truly know what the biggest issue is with the defense at the moment. However, there appears to be more than one, as communication issues, tackling and getting off of the field on third down continue to weigh this team down.
And, they’ll make things difficult on themselves, in terms of making and getting through the playoffs, if they don’t fix it quickly.
With A.J. Green set to miss an unspecified time, the team activated preseason darling, Auden Tate to the roster. He was on the final roster at the beginning of the year, but was cut and put onto the practice squad when the Bengals signed Adolphus Washington.
Cincinnati is looking to see what they have in the young guys while Green rests his foot and toe. The big microscope lens is on John Ross, but Marvin Lewis and Co. has to be interested to see the progressions of Cody Core, Josh Malone and Tate.
Unfortunately for Malone, he looks like he’ll be out against New Orleans with a tweaked hamstring. And, with the team opting not to add any outside veteran help, the onus is on Tate, Core, Ross and Tyler Boyd—at least for this week.
Even though the conservative Lewis probably didn’t want Tate jumping into a big role right away, it appears as if that will be the case, as he looks to be activated in the wake of injuries:
So with 6 players ruled out -- Vigil, Burfict, Kroft, Dennard, Green, Malone and Redmond doubtful, there are your 7 inactives.— Jay Morrison (@JayMorrisonATH) November 9, 2018
Don't have actual data, but can't remember last time a doubtful guy actually played.
That means Auden Tate will active for the first time. #Bengals
On this week’s episode of The Orange and Black Insider, we were asked about not only about Tate’s activation, but the possibility of red zone packages being drawn up for him. After all, in practices and the preseason, jump balls and other usages of his great frame were part and parcel of the summer hype.
Of course, if they are going to (or, have to) trust Tate this Sunday, these are the types of scenarios in which he should thrive. Short-yardage, contested-ball situations where he can use that vaunted catch radius of his to out-muscle defenders to make the play.
We all want to see Tate explode on the scene and be a valuable guy in the passing offense along with Boyd, Ross and Green (when he returns). Some have thought the Tate should get looks as a tight end-type of player, given his lack of true NFL receiver speed and overall size.
We’ve seen tight ends act as receivers with some examples of success in the league, but not many instances of receivers becoming tight ends, so to speak. For Tate and the Bengals maybe it isn’t about true positional names, but rather putting him in a position to make plays in certain formations and scenarios.
With Tate active, it would be crazy for #Bengals not to wheel out a package with him in the red zone. He'll have almost half a foot advantage on both starting Saints corners. https://t.co/O4pbDnEtO0— Paul Dehner Jr. (@pauldehnerjr) November 9, 2018
Still, expectations should be tempered. I’m hard-pressed to think of a Bengals player who was immediately called up and had a huge impact as a receiver in their action with the team. Maybe Michael Westbrook in 2002?
Here’s the thing, though. Cincinnati obviously feels good about the crew of Tate, Core, Malone and Alex Erickson behind Ross, Boyd and Green, otherwise they would have made a trade or gone after Dez Bryant in free agency. So, if they want to show everyone that they were correct, they need to let these guys play and put them in positions to succeed.
Maybe he’ll make a couple of clutch plays on Sunday and help the team towards a signature win—who knows? But, expecting the world from the kid when being activated in his first NFL game isn’t fair.
For some reason, fans are looking ahead at 2019, despite a 5-3 first half of the season. Yes, there are a couple of bad losses on the resume, but this team currently holds the six seed in the AFC.
Nipping at their heels are teams like Miami and Baltimore (who they’ve already beaten), along with a slew of three-win teams. This doesn’t necessarily point to them making noise when in the January bracket, but they appear to be one of the better teams in the conference.
Even so, we received a question from an OBI listener this week who wanted to re-address the Bengals’ needs in next year’s draft. The usual suspects remain on the table: offensive guard, offensive tackle and linebacker.
However, the team also has to make a few difficult decisions this offseason. All of a sudden, the core guys they’ve built around from the 2010 and 2011 draft classes will be in their early 30s.
Aside from a gold window for a championship run closing, replacements for some of these great players might need to found. Injuries to other valuable players is also opening up the possibilities.
Headlining that area are guys like Vontaze Burfict and Tyler Eifert. The former can’t stay on the field because of both injuries and suspensions, while the latter keeps getting the raw end of the deal to stunt his immense potential.
Meanwhile, Giovani Bernard, who is a valuable guy in three dimensions of the game, has missed 14 games in his five and a half seasons. That’s almost an entire season of football as a guy who has never received the lion’s share of the touches at his position.
Carl Lawson had an outstanding rookie season, and even though he had just one sack in 2018, optimism is high. However, he tore his ACL and that is now an injury that has occurred to both of his knees in just a handful of years.
Then, there’s wide receiver. The position group employs two former top-10 picks (Green and Ross), a second round selection (Boyd) and a fourth round pick (Malone). However, what if Ross can’t figure it out and/or Malone, Core and Tate provide no answers?
This past year, fans were surprised to varying degrees to see the team draft Sam Hubbard and Mark Walton. Hubbard has been productive and has proven to be needed in the wake of Lawson’s injury, while Walton is still trying to find his groove.
I suppose that the answer is that, despite the glaring needs on the right side of the offensive line and at linebacker, very few positions should be off of the table for discussion next spring.
However, what the team will need is to be more proactive in March. We’re not saying they need to get every top free agent out there, but getting some of those upper-tier guys can really open up the draft and pave the way for an even more balanced roster.
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