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Bengals mailbag: William Jackson’s transition, Hue Jackson’s next move and the devaluation of interior linemen

Is William Jackson struggling with Teryl Austin’s concepts? Will Hue Jackson return to the Bengals now that he’s been fired? How will Cincinnati finish the year?

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For a bye week, the Cincinnati Bengals sure know how to keep things interesting. A.J. Green avoided surgery for his injured, but it’s unclear how much time he’ll miss at a very critical point in the season.

Meanwhile, the team worked out a few players, but have yet to make a significant move. Between the injuries to Green and Carl Lawson, as well as the overall performance (or lack thereof) of the defense has the fans clamoring for a significant move.

We talked about these topics and a bunch of others on this week’s Orange and Black Insider podcast. On the show, we had a number of listeners submit their questions, and we got a few on Twitter as well.

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We’ve got a standalone post on a record prediction for the rest of the season, so we’ll let the first part of Sam’s question be answered there. However, his second question on William Jackson III is another solid one.

Coming into this season, Jackson was a Pro Football Focus darling. His shutting down of Antonio Brown last year pointed towards a big 2018 campaign—his first full season as the team’s No. 1 corner.

However, through eight games, he, along with fellow first round corners Darqueze Dennard and Dre Kirkpatrick, have been disappointments. The trio have yet to record an interception, and the Bengals’ pass defense is dead-last in the NFL this season.

When the Bengals hired Teryl Austin to take over at defensive coordinator for Paul Guenther, many were excited at the possibility of the unit gaining more game-changing turnovers. We figured there would be a bit more of a gambler’s approach by the players on the defense, but we didn’t think it would be so feast-or-famine.

Really, the defense can be largely credited for four wins (Colts, Ravens, Dolphins, Buccaneers), but they’re disastrous tendencies credit them with the team’s three losses.

In short, the unit has been a massive disappointment this year.

Jackson very well could be the poster child for that disappointment, given his first-round status and all of the offseason hype. Like many of his teammates, he’s had opportunities to corral interceptions, but has dropped a couple of them.

When Jackson, Kirkpatrick and Dennard were drafted, either Guenther or Mike Zimmer were the team’s defensive coordinators. In their schemes and philosophies, they liked to get pressure with minimal blitzing and allow their talented corners “play on an island”, if you will.

Part of what they liked about each guy’s skill set was their physicality—either in getting their hands on receivers and/or being willing tacklers. Jackson and Kirkpatrick have particularly long arms for the position and that’s something that drew the brain trust to taking those guys in the first round.

Zimmer and Guenther trusted these guys to play a lot of one-on-one press coverage and they largely thrived to varying degrees of success (as did re-treads like Nate Clements and Terence Newman). They’re doing some of the same concepts, but by my take, not nearly as often and that’s probably part of the issue.

And, this probably isn’t a popular opinion, but there seem to be communication issues continuously occurring between the corners and safeties. When you look at the stat lines of Jessie Bates and Shawn Williams, they are playing solid ball. And, Bates recently was noted as a favorite of PFF as well.

However, even with Williams’ and Bates’ six combined interceptions this year, way too many big plays have been given up in the passing game. And, when they usually occur, the crew looks around at each other with a “where were you?” type of pantomime.

There are a myriad of issues on the defensive side of the ball right now. Injuries aren’t helping matters, but the players just aren’t responding to Austin’s scheme and play calls.

I realize that Vontaze Burfict isn’t a popular guy in the NFL landscape, but his football IQ is off of the charts. That’s why I take a bit of stock into this one here after the last-second loss to the Steelers:

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One of the callers from the last OBI episode talked about the effectiveness and overall need for interior defensive linemen in the NFL. Sure, guys like Aaron Donald, Sheldon Rankins and the Bengals’ own Geno Atkins are necessities, but what about the other bigger guys?

The crux of the question resided in the change we’ve seen in the NFL landscape. Most teams are pass-happy and love to spread defenses out. More and more frequently, we see coordinators kick edge rushers inside to try and get to the passer. Heck, the Bengals have been doing this the past couple of seasons with Michael Johnson.

Three offseasons ago, Andrew Billings was a popular name mocked to the Bengals in the first round of the 2016 draft. He made it to Cincinnati, but all the way in the fourth round.

While some were wondering about his health that spring and what caused his fall, rumblings began to surface about the value of a big interior defensive tackle. As it turns out, teams just weren’t overly-enamored with a guy who they felt was a “one or two-down player”.

To be fair to Billings, he’s taken some decent strides this year, even though the defensive unit has largely been an overall disaster. This isn’t about him specifically, but rather the position he plays.

For the most part, the days of Sam Adams (not the alesmith) and Gilbert Brown are all but gone. Players with versatility are far more highly-coveted, as defenses try to keep up with the complexities of evolving offenses.

There is a bit of a caveat in the AFC North, though. Sure the division has a lot of exciting pass-catchers, but the teams also employ solid backs. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are probably the tops in that regard, with the Steelers being able to churn out 100-yard backs with extreme ease.

In that sense, big beef in the middle is still valued in the AFC North. Still, pass-rushers and guys being able to cover in space are trending up throughout the league.

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Naturally, with the Browns firing head coach Hue Jackson, the questions on if Marvin Lewis will bring back his old friend to Cincinnati surfaced. Jackson was with Cincinnati from 2004-2006 as a receivers coach and again from 2012-2015 as their running backs coach, an assistant on special teams and in the secondary, and eventually offensive coordinator.

When Lewis was asked about the possibility, he gave the media his usual tight-lipped type of answer: “I’m not going to make a headline”.

Okay.

Currently, there isn’t really a spot for Jackson on this team. Sure, Lewis could find a consultant type of role for his friend, but how much value is there in that type of move at this point? Can Jackson truly coach defense?

Look, Jackson spearheaded one of the best offenses the Bengals have ever seen in the 2015 clan. He was innovative and used the myriad of weapons to near perfection.

There just doesn’t seem to be room or a pressing need for him on the staff at the moment, other than potentially tipping some Cleveland game plans. Perhaps that possibility can be re-assessed in the offseason, but we don’t expect to see Jackson in Cincinnati this season.

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