The Bengals are 5-3 going into the bye week and are still very much in the hunt for a playoff spot. However, they are 1-2 in their last three games and barely beat a Buccaneers team that hasn’t been able to stop anyone on defense this season. To be considered real contenders, the Bengals are going to have to improve in several areas after the bye when they will face a tough New Orleans Saints team.
1. Better coverage from the linebackers
The Bengals finally got some decent play out of Jordan Evans against the Buccaneers on Sunday. However, they still need better play out of the linebacker group and ideally Evans should continue to improve. With Nick Vigil currently dealing with a MCL injury, the Bengals are extremely slow at linebacker outside of Evans and it might not hurt to let Malik Jefferson get a few snaps to increase the overall speed at linebacker. It is unlikely that Jefferson could play as poorly as Hardy Nickerson has when he’s been on the field. It would also help if Burfict starts playing again and plays more like his typical self. The Bengals are seemingly playing better without him than with him this year and now he’s injured with no clear return date set.
2. Get another wide receiver actively involved in the passing game
Some people may not see this as a problem, but since John Ross and Tyler Eifert were injured against Atlanta, the offense has not been as good. The first half against the Buccaneers was a big step in the right direction, but the defense also got four interceptions to help out. With Alex Erickson playing outside snaps, opposing teams are not afraid of just sitting on underneath routes, which makes it harder for Tyler Boyd, the tight ends and the running backs to succeed. The Bengals need to get more speed out of the outside wide receiver position, whether that is from Ross healing up or getting Josh Malone more involved, or Erickson catching more passes.
3. Better seal the edge in the run game
The Bengals have struggled to make stops in the run game and the biggest reason for that is their inability to seal the edge. The defensive ends are not able to make plays at the rate at which they should, which is certainly a problem. But generally they are in the right position to make a play. The bigger problem is the inability of the linebackers to get to the edge before opposing running backs and their blockers. Once again this is largely a problem due to a lack of speed and it may benefit the team to get Jefferson involved. Although, one of his bigger knocks coming out was not being a particularly instinctual player, which could hurt him against the run game. The defensive ends are too talented to be getting burnt on plays.
4. Consistently feature Joe Mixon
A.J. Green is consistently good and Tyler Boyd is coming along as a top-tier WR2. Now, Joe Mixon is showing why the Bengals drafted him in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft. It would be wise for the Bengals to feature him in the second half of games, as he has been consistently productive and his versatility could also help the passing game. He had more than 100 yards in the first half against the Buccaneers, but the Bengals slowed their usage of Mixon and it’s not a coincidence the scoring slowed from there, too. We’ve seen Mixon fail to get enough opportunities in all of the last three games and it’s time for that to stop.
5. GET HEALTHY!
The biggest thing the Bengals could do to improve during the bye is get players healthy. John Ross, Tyler Kroft, Giovani Bernard, Vontaze Burfict, Vigil, Burfict and Darqueze Dennard are all important and talented players who have missed multiple weeks and getting all or most of those guys back and healthy would be a big help to this team. Heck, even getting a few or simply one of them back would help. Of course we don’t want the Bengals to rush anyone back (as seemingly happened with Ross when he to aggravate the original injury to his groin and made it worse) but the Bengals need to get their players back on the field. We’re talking about a lot of key starters here.
The Bengals are not a bad team, but they are far from realizing their potential. If they can fix some of these problems they have a much better chance of getting to the playoffs and actually winning a game (games!) when they get there.