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Bengals’ coaching revisions make Sunday a curiosity

The Bengals changed their coaching staff this week, which means the Week 11 clash with the Ravens could go differently than some would expect.

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Cincinnati Bengals v Cleveland Browns
CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 01: Head coach Hue Jackson of the Cleveland Browns and head coach Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals hug after the game at FirstEnergy Stadium on October 1, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Justin Aller /Getty Images)
Photo by Justin Aller /Getty Images

Marvin Lewis, the defensive coordinator, is back.

After allowing 51 points against the New Orleans Saints — while also becoming the first ever NFL team to allow 500 yards or more in three straight games — the Bengals fired defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.

The tally was epic: Nine games coached, six games with 300 yards passing allowed, five games with 450 total yards allowed, and five games with 30 points or more allowed. The Bengals’ pass rush wasn’t good and production from their linebackers was worse. In fairness to Austin, injuries gutted several positions; unfortunately, excuses offer zero recompense; there are no injury mulligans in the NFL and no reset button on the Xbox when one when your best player limps off with a long-term injury.

Nothing about this situation worked. Cincinnati recognized this and fired Austin on Monday.

Marvin Lewis, the defensive coordinator, is back.

Citing mediocre numbers during his tenure in Detroit, Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty wondered “why hire him in the first place

It’s unusual for a Marvin hire to fail so spectacularly. If there has been one consistent Marvin (virtue), it has been his ability to spot top coaching talent. Not since Leslie Frazier has Lewis missed so badly.

Lewis has had misses though. Expanding on the point above, Lewis took over play-calling from Leslie Frazier against Cleveland in 2004, firing him after the season. Chuck Breshnahan, already on staff in 2004, was another miss (his defense never ranked higher than 27th), though the Bengals were a turnover machine in 2005. He didn’t return after 2007.

Mike Zimmer became the standard-barer of defense between 2008-2013, creating a squad that never ranked outside the top-15, and was firmly entrenched as a top-10 defense in four of his six seasons. It was only a matter of time before he departed for a promotion. Paul Guenther experienced success, but I’ve always attributed that to the ghosts of what Zimmer built.

Lewis has hired decent coaches, but he’s missed far more on defensive coordinators.

That means... Marvin Lewis, the defensive coordinator, is back.

According to reports, his return to a role that made him so prominent in the NFL has given him a new energy. “It’s fun, I’ll tell you that,” Lewis said. “It’s exciting for me.”

We should be excited. At minimum, curious.

You know his history as a defensive play-caller. Lewis was Baltimore’s defensive coordinator between 1996-01, building a defense that finished second in each of his final three seasons there, including a Super Bowl defense considered one of the best in NFL history.

We’re not getting that.

However, where pessimism once existed about 2018, curiosity now reigns. Players are fascinated by the change.

  • Shawn Williams (via the Cincinnati Enquirer): “I have no idea. I guess I’ll have to wait until Sunday and see.”
  • Carlos Dunlap (via the Associated Press): “I’ve never been under the reins of Marvin Lewis as a defensive coordinator, so it’s going to be pretty interesting. He’s not going to change the defense. It’s just going to be called differently. He’s going to put his twist on it.”
  • Preston Brown (via the Dayton Daily News): “He definitely was one of the best defensive coordinators in NFL history. So to have him calling plays should be fun. … (This is) a guy who’s been here for a long time, who’s known all the defenses, with (Mike) Zimmer and Paulie (Guenther), he knows all those guys well. (There are plays) from 10 years ago that he can dial up, so it’s pretty cool to have a guy like that calling plays.”

Marvin Lewis, the defensive coordinator, is back.

There’s a lot on the line for Lewis.

He’s directly accountable now; it’ll be harder to offload blame. I’m not convinced the Bengals will reach the playoffs at this stage (I would love to be wrong), despite the ease of their second-half schedule. Significant injuries have had an impact the offense, and the defense is still the worst in the NFL (for now).

Lewis, the defensive coordinator, could clot the bleeding and give Cincinnati a seven-game push toward the postseason.

There’s also the return of Hue Jackson, fired from Cleveland about two weeks ago. Jackson’s role is best conjectured as an extension of Lewis more than anything. However, there’s caution here. Could Jackson distract Bill Lazor? Who knows. His role is undefined. Even Jackson isn’t sure what to expect. “We haven’t gotten to Sunday and discussed exactly what that’s going to look like,” Jackson said on Wednesday, “but whatever (Lewis) needs me to do I’m prepared to do.”

I do believe Jackson enhances this coaching staff. Players typically enjoy his presence and as an assistant coach, he’s good. I might lose my mind if there’s a path for him to become Cincinnati’s next head coach, but that’s a conversation for another day.

Jackson will essentially do what Lewis, getting his hands dirty with the defense, can’t.

This is all very interesting.

A curiosity.

Sunday will bear fruit to these changes.

Cincinnati travels to Baltimore to face the sliding 4-5 Baltimore Ravens, who are trying to avoid a four-game losing streak after losses to the Saints, Panthers, and Steelers. Starting quarterback Joe Flacco is doubtful with a hip injury, increasing the likelihood that rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson, who missed practice on Thursday with an illness, will make his first NFL start.

While this provides an optimistic perspective with Cincinnati’s chances in an important division game with wild card implications, the Bengals are equally hurt. Starting linebacker Preston Brown is out, joining Nick Vigil. Wide receiver A.J. Green is doubtful — it’s rare in Cincinnati for a player, after missing practice all week, to be doubtful and play. Let’s scratch his name too. Tight end Tyler Kroft was placed on Injured Reserve, wide receiver Josh Malone is also out, and John Ross is questionable.

Win, loss, or draw, the curiosity about Sunday’s game centers around the changes in Cincinnati’s coaching ranks. Marvin Lewis, the defensive coordinator is, back. Hue Jackson, who has sported several titles during his multiple tenures in Cincinnati, is back.

How will this play out?

No one knows.

It kind of makes it exciting.