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Bengals mailbag: Injury impact, Andy Dalton and Steel City drama

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Our listeners had a lot on their minds after the Bengals got to 2-0. Should we continue to expect an implosion from the Steelers? Has Dre Kirkpatrick lived up to expectations? Can we still have faith the Bengals can keep up the momentum with so many injuries hitting them in Week 2?

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We’ve been contacted in a number of different ways with questions this week, and on many different topics. The Cincinnati Bengals are 2-0, but they have some major tests ahead in determining their 2018 playoff viability.

Here are some of the topics we’ve been approached with this week:

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With the team starting 2-0, fans are now puffing out their chests about the depth on the Bengals’ roster. The top three tight ends on the roster have notched receptions in the first two games, while a number of players on defense have stood out over the past couple of weeks.

Take the defensive line, for example. Michael Johnson is a “starter” on the edge, but often gets relieved by Carl Lawson or Sam Hubbard. Johnson went down with a knee ligament sprain on Thursday night, paving the way for more snaps for the rookie.

Hubbard took advantage, notching a sack and another tackle-for-loss. With Johnson possibly out, the hope is that Hubbard keeps impressing.

Oh, and even though Lawson hasn’t cracked the sack column yet, that doesn’t mean he isn’t making plays.

The secondary looks pretty stacked, logging two interceptions so far, with many other golden opportunities going through their hands and the receivers are helping out Andy Dalton in a big way. Heck, even the embattled second-year receiver, John Ross, has a touchdown catch this year.

And, aside from lauding the overall roster depth—which is actually being heavily-tested this week with injuries to Johnson, Joe Mixon, Billy Price, Preston Brown and others—Ross is where we’ll start off with this week’s mailbag.

Whether it’s been in chatter on Twitter, the Cincy Jungle comment threads and/or in general conversations I’ve had, people are wondering about the progress with Ross. After grabbing a touchdown in the opener, he had just one catch against the Ravens and an end-around that went for minus-three yards.

He’s still had the occasional flirtations with the “dropsies”, and that was on display last week. Additionally, Dalton still hasn’t seemed to fully develop trust in Ross, yet, causing all-around frustration.

Given the stunt in his professional growth in 2017, we weren’t expecting a weekly seven-catch, 100-yard performance. Still, through two games, the long bombs haven’t come, nor have creative yards-after-the-catch opportunities in the way the team used the speedy and shifty Andrew Hawkins a few years back.

Through two games, Ross’ biggest asset to the offense has basically been as a decoy. His speed has helped to open things up for others in the offense.

That being said, these next few weeks are going to tell us a lot about Ross and his continuing role in the offense. A.J. Green has four touchdowns in two games, while Tyler Boyd continues to make plays to move the sticks.

Because of the nice starts by both wideouts, even more coverage will be bracketed to them than has been in the past. Ross should have opportunities to carve up a defense, so he and Bill Lazor will want to take advantage.

Look, this is essentially Ross’ rookie year. He missed most of last season with injuries and being sat, creating a mutually disadvantageous relationship. Ross is a work in progress, but the good news is that there is a lot of clay there to mold.

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We love our listeners on The Orange and Black Insider. Aside from being so passionate to the team and loyal to our program, they, like all Bengals fans, are very well-informed.

For instance, one of our listeners pointed out that in the last 16 games since Bill Lazor took over, Dalton has 31 touchdowns against just nine interceptions. Another texted us letting us know that those 31 touchdown passes rank third in the span.

It’s always fun when others do the research for you. But, we digress.

There are a couple of things at play here. The first, and most obvious, is that Lazor has been devising plans conducive to Dalton’s success.

Quick-hitters and deep balls to Green, drag routes to Boyd and YAC plays to Tyler Eifert, Tyler Kroft and C.J. Uzomah has been putting No. 14 in a major comfort zone. While it’s been more noticeable in 2018, the foundation was set last season.

Additionally, having two able pass-catchers at the running back position also helps. Giovani Bernard is one of the best in the league in the facet, while Mixon shows solid prowess when called upon as well.

For 2018, the thing to note is the offensive line. Cincinnati is running the ball more effectively, as they are currently 17th, compared to their dead-last finish in the category last season.

It’s a shame that Price strained his foot on Thursday, as he was having a nice start to the season. Clint Boling remains solid at left guard, but it’s in the offseason addition of Cordy Glenn that remains one of the biggest (and quietest) reasons for the 2-0 start.

As it goes with offenses in American football, and especially in the NFL, offensive line play is crucial. Even though there have been some issues on the right side, the overall switching of four starters up front from last season have made a huge difference this year.

If there’s one criticism with Lazor’s offense and Dalton at the helm, it’s in some pretty long in-game dry spells. For instance, after shooting out to a 28-point first half against Baltimore, Cincinnati scored just six points in the final 33 minutes of the game.

And, in Week 1, it took the Bengals over 28 game minutes to get into the end zone. Sure, they shot themselves in the foot with a couple of turnovers, but it made the game much closer than it should been. Throw in the fact that one of the touchdowns the Bengals scored was via defense and there are some areas to be critical of so far.

Still, we may just be picking nits. This offense is far more fun to watch than that of 2016 and much of last year. Until defenses make adjustments, we’ve got to give Dalton and Lazor their due.

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Much has been made about the recent drama with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Let’s recap, shall we?

  • Le’Veon Bell continues to hold out and has missed the first two weeks of the season, in hopes for a long-term deal.
  • As the season approached, the team’s offensive linemen appeared to be fed up with Bell’s absence and his reasoning for it.
  • After tying with the Browns in Week 1 and getting beat at home by the Chiefs last Sunday, star wide receiver Antonio Brown has thrown a bit of a public tantrum.
  • And, now there is some really disappointing, albeit non-surprising and somewhat-old news surrounding Ben Roethlisberger:

In short, it’s been a glorious few months for Bengals fans, as they sit back and watch the dumpster fire.

Now, look, the Bengals faithful aren’t ones to overly-wish misfortune on others, but it’s easy to do so with the Steelers. Between their style of play, their recent ownership of the series between the squads and their fan base, Pittsburgh remains the outlier in that regard.

Here’s the thing, though: do you really believe that the Steelers’ organization is incapable of overcoming all of this? How many times have they been down and out, only to mount a massive comeback and prove that they are one of the elite franchises in professional sports?

Take the 2005 season for example. Yes, they “lucked out” in Carson Palmer’s injury in the Wild Card round, but it wasn’t all rosy that year for Pittsburgh. Towards the end of the season, the Steelers were 7-5 and in danger of not making the postseason.

What did they do? Only rattle off eight straight wins (four regular season and four postseason), to become world champions.

Look, this is a team that exudes success—like it or not. Not counting the two games of 2018, Pittsburgh has played 18 seasons since 2000. They have made the postseason 12 times in that span and have gone to three Super Bowls, winning two of them.

This year might resemble of those six seasons where the Steelers didn’t make the January bracket. As you can see above, they have a lot to get past if they want to change things around.

But, we should never count this team out of anything. In the meantime, Bengaldom will enjoy the fact that the drama they once had in their own locker room has now seemingly migrated to the Steel City.

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