As it often goes with the Bengals’ faithful, one loss can change perceptions on a dime. We knew this wasn’t a perfect team heading into 2018, but a 2-0 start to the season began to build confidence—both inside and outside of the walls of Paul Brown Stadium.
Yet, a single loss and many began to proclaim the team’s roster to be a house of cards. And, in a loss, certain players and position groups begin to get targeted for criticism.
Such is the case for this week’s mailbag. You can have your questions answered on this weekly article by sending them via Twitter to @CincyJungle or @CJAnthonyCUI, or by joining us for live recordings of The Orange and Black Insider.
The hot topic this week has to be that of John Ross and his (lack of) progress with the Bengals. After scoring a touchdown in the opener, fans thought he was on his way to some great things in Bill Lazor’s offense for the rest of 2018.
Fast forward two subsequent games and all of a sudden, and Ross has become every fan’s favorite whipping boy. A couple of drops, miscommunication with his quarterback leading to interceptions, and just three catches for 24 yards since has folks chanting “bust”.
This one last week against Carolina may have been the most damning:
Best view of the other deep ball to Ross. These are the ones he's here to catch. pic.twitter.com/xNJDaR28fh— Goodberry (@JoeGoodberry) September 25, 2018
Can we be real here for a second, though? We knew Ross was uber-fast and dominated the college ranks, but it became apparent that he had a little trouble adjusting to the pro game last year.
Still, just over a year into his career and Bengals fans are now ready to have him be another team’s project. We know we’re throwing some blanket accusations out there about fans, but the folks on Twitter, Facebook, The Orange and Black Insider and the CJ comment threads have been quite vocal, causing us to address the situation.
Six games. That’s the amount of regular season contests the 23-year old has under his professional belt. And, you’re ready to write him off?
Look, we’re not erasing all blame from Ross, either. He and Andy Dalton continuously appear to be seeing different things in routes and what the defense shows them, while fighting for contested throws also appears to not be one of Ross’s fortes.
What he is currently doing, though, is presenting himself as a bit of a decoy. At a minimum, he’s opening up opportunities for others.
First drive shows an example of Ross's speed helping to open the field for others. He demands that the FS stay deep with him and it leaves the middle of the field open. pic.twitter.com/ejqDPr3VLt— Goodberry (@JoeGoodberry) September 24, 2018
Regardless, throwing him on the trash heap at this point is utterly ridiculous. And, in fact, there is an argument to be made that Lazor should be shouldering some of the blame.
Back when Ross was initially drafted by the Bengals, I advocated for a game plan to be devised for him akin to what Jay Gruden and Hue Jackson did with Andrew Hawkins in Cincinnati and in Cleveland.
Yes, we know Ross and Hawkins aren’t the exact same player. However, their respective speed and shiftiness can be used in similar fashions.
Drag routes, screens and other designed plays of simple nature to use his yards-after-the-catch ability should be part and parcel of every week’s game plan. Not only could it benefit the offense, but it could boost the youngster’s confidence.
You don’t like the “Baby Hawk” comparisons, eh? How about Tyreek Hill? Since his emergence to stardom last year, the amount of kick and punt return opportunities have diminished, but Andy Reid still gives his explosive star the occasional chance on special teams.
Will the ever-conservative Marvin Lewis allow the same opportunities, if Lazor’s schemes aren’t always Ross-friendly?
We all realize that huge expectations come with being a No. 9 overall pick, but this current offense doesn’t run through Ross. Can you imagine the fan ire towards No. 15 if A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd and/or Tyler Eifert weren’t on this roster?
Let’s at least give it a full 16 NFL games to gauge Ross’ progress. Many areas of this team are filled with youth, so we might start seeing guys like Ross hit their stride later in the year.
And, that’s the time on the NFL calendar that largely counts.
If you’re a Bengals fan who isn’t harping on Ross’s issues right now, then perhaps you’re all over Dre Kirkpatrick. Since signing a sizable second contract in the 2017 offseason, Kirkpatrick has just one interception in the last 17 games, as well as having the dubious distinction of being the most penalized defensive player from 2014-2017.
This year has been a bunch of ebbs and flows for Kirkpatrick in just three games. Cincinnati has pedestrian-like No. 23 ranking in passing yards allowed this year, and Kirkpatrick hasn’t necessarily let up long touchdown bombs, but...
In the first three games of 2018, Kirkpatrick has had at least four golden opportunities for a game-changing interception. Capitalizing on those plays is what Teryl Austin has preached this offseason, but both Kirkpatrick and his entire unit failed in this capacity last week against the Panthers.
Additionally, Kirkpatrick has seemed to be the victim of conversions of some big third downs. Aside from allowing Devin Funchess corral a touchdown last week, he was victimized on two other third-and-long conversion opportunities.
All of this seems to hurt more, given the news that he was seen working on catching the football this week. He was also seen cradling footballs during post-practice interviews leading up to Sunday’s clash against Carolina, but it didn’t seem to ring home.
Like Ross, Kirkpatrick is a bit of a victim of his draft status. There were rumors that even when the Bengals made No. 27 a first-round pick back in 2012, then-defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer had to teach him proper backpedaling techniques and the like. Hence his stay on the bench for most of his first three seasons.
However, seven years later, he’s one of the veterans the team is leaning on at the moment. Missed interception opportunities aside, he should be a guy who gives stability to a secondary with a much different look this year.
Yet, for those Pro Football Focus nerds out there, the numbers favor Kirkpatrick—particularly as a No. 1A corner for the Bengals. In 2018, Kirkpatrick has a 70.0 rating which puts him in the “above average” to “good” category.
It’s no secret that Marvin Lewis and the Bengals love first round corners, as they currently employ three of them, including Kirkpatrick. And, for most intents and purposes, Kirkpatrick is holding up his end of the bargain—especially when one considers Lewis’ high prioritizing of locker room staples, which Kirkpatrick seems to have embraced after signing his big contract.
Still, what if he grabbed at least some of those “gimme” interceptions...
Also on this week’s show, one of our listeners was asking why Malik Jefferson isn’t getting a shot. Of course, this comes on the heels of a 230-yard rushing performance by the Panthers last week, and the Bengals’ preference to trot out a group of linebackers who seem to be a step behind most plays.
Hardy Nickerson, Jordan Evans, Nick Vigil and Vincent Rey have somewhat-admirably held down the fort in the wake of the absences of Preston Brown and Vontaze Burfict, but this is a completely different unit without them.
Why isn’t Jefferson getting a look? Will it really hold the team back that much?
We don’t fully know the answers to these questions, just like we don’t know why Christian Westerman continues to wither away on the bench. However, we do know that Lewis hasn’t traditionally trusted young players with significant roles.
Hell, it took an insane 2012 preseason and subsequent injury to Thomas Howard (RIP) before Burfict got his chance with the club. At certain positions and in certain points of the season, Lewis wants steady veterans over the wild card rookies.
And, unfortunately, that’s who Jefferson is at this point. Is he P.J. Dawson, or is he Tremaine Edmunds? Somewhere in between?
On this week’s episode, we grasped at straws a bit, but there is a form of a comparison to be made, in terms of a pro-Jefferson argument. It’s in some of the dominant defenses displayed by the Ravens and Steelers from 2003-2013.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens employed some of the NFL’s best defenses for over a decade. And, both of them trotted out spark plugs of players in Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed.
Aside from their own immense skill set, what was a common denominator of those defenses and Reed/Polamalu? They were largely given free reign in what were defenses filled with surrounding disciplined players.
Given Jefferson’s raw athleticism, but “wild child” ways, it’s understandable that he has had to bide his time. But, what if he’s flanked with a number of high IQ players on the Bengals’ defense?
Once Brown, Burfict and Michael Johnson all return, maybe that’s the time to let the young colt out of the stable. Oh yeah, it appears as if that most of that will happen this week, if not fully coming to fruition in Week 5.
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