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Bengals Mailbag: 2018 optimism, Expectations for Mixon and halftime adjustments

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We received some great ones from our Orange and Black Insider listeners this week. Why should we be excited for this team in 2018 and how should Joe Mixon factor into the plans? Will Marvin Lewis finally show belief in “halftime adjustments”?

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It’s an odd time for the Cincinnati Bengals right now, as they are attempting to turn the page from two straight losing seasons. In doing so, they have retained Marvin Lewis and other key figures, but have allowed other assistant coaches to walk.

Aside from that, they are facing some recent P.R. issues. Whether it’s some questionable behavior from the club that has surfaced in the recent AJ McCarron free agency decision and a lack of perceived movement by the team in outside signings next month, or in the news that quarterback Jeff Driskel broke his arm while lining up at receiver in a December practice, it hasn’t exactly been a banner start to 2018 for the Bengals.

Because of these issues and others teeming at the surface, we’ve been contacted by a number of Cincy Jungle readers, as well as listeners of the Orange and Black Insider Bengals podcast. You can give us your questions to be answered by contacting us on Twitter @CincyJungle or @CJAnthonyCUI, or you can tune into our live OBI broadcasts to have them answered in this written feature and on the air!

What are the reasons for Bengals optimism in 2018?

This was actually an email I received from fan, Chad Ruffner. He, like so many Bengals fans right now, is trying to cling to some form of hope for the 2018 season after two seasons where the plateaus were “meh”.

It’s very easy to be pessimistic as a Bengals fan right now. McCarron is on his way out of the door, as some are left wondering what the Bengals could have done if he was the starter, with many more being frustrated with a lack of a lucrative trade being conducted for him.

Marvin Lewis is back at head coach, and while there have been some vague rumblings of “change”, certain quotes from both he and Mike Brown point to things staying at status quo. In fact, there are some folks with inside knowledge who believe the inactive nature of the club in free agency will continue.

Oh, did we mention that a talented pass-catcher and recent first round pick in Tyler Eifert may leave? Yay.

But, there are signs, however small, to cling to this offseason. And, if Lewis has shown us anything in his seemingly endless reign in Cincinnati, it’s in his ability to get a team to rebound quickly after a poor season (2003, 2009, 2011).

Though the offense was ranked at the bottom of the league in major categories and the line was a mess, there were some aspects that the unit can build upon for next season.

  • A.J. Green had two touchdowns of 70-plus yards, while Tyler Kroft, Brandon LaFell, Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon all had pass receptions of at least 35 yards—many of which were scores. So, while the Bengals’ offense couldn’t do the little things well, the “boom” aspect of their offense still showed flashes.
  • Speaking of Mixon, even though he had a paltry 3.5 yards per carry last year, he averaged 9.6 yards per catch and had an 88.2% catch rate. That’s pretty good for a rookie back and if the Bengals beef up the offensive line this year, his rushing numbers should catch up to his rookie ones through the air.
  • Giovani Bernard remained a triple threat for the Bengals’ offense, racking up 847 yards from scrimmage in a sometimes-limited role. He also continues to show that he’s effective and undervalued as a pass protector.

There are other macro perspectives to use when looking at other points of optimism. Whether it’s general position groups, or some of the few new coaching hires, there are other areas to point at for a potential 2018 turnaround.

  • Frank Pollack is taking over the offensive line group. Enough said.
  • The Bengals should hold four picks within the first three rounds of the draft. While their overall free agency strategy is maddening, if they do their homework and actually allow young players to vie for playing time, they could net some immediate impact players.
  • Darqueze Dennard and William Jackson turned respective corners (see what I did there?) in 2017. It’s unknown if Adam Jones will be a salary cap casualty or not, but these two should continue to contribute this season.
  • Of their 11 impending unrestricted free agents, only three really have had big impacts on the club in their tenure. Eifert, which remains a huge decisions with his injury concerns, Kevin Huber, who should be easy and relatively inexpensive because of the position he plays, and, of course, Russell Bodine. With an estimated $31-$36 million under the cap this offseason, Cincinnati theoretically has enough to help out their roster, both internally and externally.

It may not be much to some, but at this point in the season and with this ownership, it’s all we have.

What kind of productivity should we expect from Joe Mixon in his second pro season?

We already talked about some of Mixon’s 2017 stats, so we won’t re-hash many of those same areas. Really, the answer to this question has to do with how Bill Lazor plans to use Bernard and if the team will draft another running back relatively high this year.

By those parameters, we’re operating under the assumption that Jeremy Hill will be playing for another team in 2018. Heck, he basically said so on his Twitter account recently.

We do expect Mixon’s overall touches to be over that of 2017’s 14.8 average, but we also expect Bernard’s to be higher than his own 12.9 average from last year without Hill cutting into carries early in contests. As we sit here today, the Bengals should simply commit to feeding these two backs and getting the proper big uglies in front of them to balance out the offense.

Frankly, it’s the latter strategy that will largely determine Mixon’s 2018 productivity. The second-year back flashed big-play ability at times in 2017, but either predictable play-calling or getting hit right after receiving the handoff hurt his overall numbers.

On 208 total touches in 2017 (178 rushes, 30 catches), Mixon had 913 total yards from scrimmage (65.2 total yards per game average). When the Hill/Bernard two-man show was the rage in the Bengals’ offense from 2014-2016, Hill had 243.3 touches per season, while Bernard had around 213.3 overall touches.

Given Hill’s numbers and Mixon’s skill set, we’re prone to believe he’ll be closer to about 275 touches next year. He’s a better receiver than Hill (his 30 catches last season were higher than any number Hill logged in a season), so he’ll probably be above that 250-ish mark, in terms of total touches.

If you want a shot-in-the-dark fantasy projection, I’d say seven total touchdowns (five rushing, two receiving), and around 1,350 yards from scrimmage. That would equate to 84.4 total yards per game.

We’ll see how big of a dope I look like in November on this one.

Are halftime adjustments part of what may “change” with Marvin Lewis in 2018?

This sentiment goes back to the idea that Lewis wrestled away organizational power from Brown back when he was re-signed after a dismal 2010 campaign. Of course, the Bengals went on to rattle off five straight postseason berths.

Back in 2014, Brown corroborated the notion, stating that Lewis and Katie Blackburn run the show and “the ball is in their court”. It was music to longtime Bengals fans’ ears, as it finally seemed as if the old man was getting past his own ego and out of his own way.

Is it any coincidence that this comment was made in the midst of one of the best regular season stretches in Bengals history? Yet, shortly after Lewis signed the unpopular two-year extension this time around, Brown’s tune seemed to have changed a bit.

“Quite often I permit him to go forward when I don’t necessarily see it the same way,” Brown said via The Cincinnati Enquirer. “Occasionally, I will say no, it’s going to be this way. It’s a mix of all that.”

Obviously, these quotes referencing organizational inner-workings aren’t directly related to on-field coaching. Timeout usage, challenges of plays and halftime adjustments have all been facets for criticism under Lewis’ watch.

Though they are different in many ways, Lewis and Brown are also very similar. It’s why they’ve worked together for so long and why the team has shown many of the same traits that has made them both successful and failures over the past 15 years.

Both men are very set in their ways and how they think things should be done. If Lewis wants to refer to certain metrics-based organizations as “dumb ass websites” and prefers to play higher floor veterans over youngsters with higher ceilings, what makes you think he’ll change something as serious as altering things at halftime, as is the M.O. of modern NFL teams?

Maybe some of the new coaches he’s brought on board (i.e. Teryl Austin and Frank Pollack) will help matters in this regard, but I’m not convinced yet.

If you’re unable to join us live here at Cincy Jungle or YouTube every episode, all Orange and Black Insider content is available here on CJ, as well as on our SoundCloud and YouTube channels, and on iTunes! You can tweet us@BengalsOBI or get in touch with us via email at theobinsider@gmail.com. Thanks for listening!