Who are you?
This is the overlying question that the Bengals need to ask themselves:
Are you the team who shocked the nation by coming out of Baltimore with a 41-17 win, or are you the team who played terribly against the New York Jets a week later?
The truth is probably somewhere in between, but the truth doesn’t really matter. It’s more about what this team believes coming out of the bye week.
The Bengals dropped two games in a row, including a loss to a bad Jets team. Last season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost two consecutive games to the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs. Both are good teams, and neither game rivaled the beating the Bengals took at the hands of the Cleveland Browns. The Buccaneers did, however, lose to the middling Chicago Bears and were blown out at home by the New Orleans Saints 3-38 (rounding out the Saints’ sweep of Tom Brady’s crew that year).
Am I comparing the Bengals to the Buccaneers or saying that the Bengals are Super Bowl bound? No, that’s not the point. The point is that it is a long season and good teams can have bad games, and indeed bad stretches.
The Bengals are still very much in the hunt, but they must keep the faith and come out of the bye week strong.
A win on the road against a quality team like the Las Vegas Raiders would go a long way to reestablishing belief both inside (important) and outside (irrelevant) of the locker room.
There are three more specific questions they’ll need to answer along the way.
Is this defense for real?
Even the most optimistic Bengals fans didn’t expect the defense to perform the way it did early in the season. They were fantastic, specifically in the red zone, where it really counts.
When they have had issues, it came down to tackling. This was a big problem against the Jets. Against the Browns, they were simply outclassed. The Browns offensive line pushed them around. The Bengals linebackers were slow to fill, and Nick Chubb did what Nick Chubb does. Many of their issues in that game were based on the situation. Mainly, this team is not equipped to play the Browns from behind.
What can’t happen are the big plays. They gave up a 60-yard touchdown pass and a 70-yard touchdown run. Good offenses will score, but you have to make them earn it. They also need to figure out how to generate more turnovers. If they can do those two things and continue to buckle down in the red zone, this team will win a lot of games. They don’t need to be a top five defense, they just need to be good in these areas.
Can the offensive line be good enough?
This question is a bit oversimplified, but it makes for a good headline.
The offensive line has been the biggest question mark for this team all along. A lot of attention has been drawn to the center and right guard positions, but in truth there have been consistency issues even with the best players in the group.
The Bengals have indicated that they’ll go with Hakeem Adeniji at right guard against the Raiders. He steps in for 2nd Round pick Jackson Carman, who has had his ups and downs, but seems to be trending in the right direction. While Adeniji’s experience at the guard position and under offensive line coach Frank Pollack is limited, the move is about consistency. Adeniji played a bit high against the Browns and had a fair amount of whiffs, but was more reliable than Carman.
At center, there are no real options. Trey Hopkins tore his ACL at the end of last season, which has been the go-to answer to why he is having a bad season, but at this point it is irrelevant. Maybe he won’t be himself until 2022, but that doesn’t do this team any good right now. We saw very little of Hopkins in the preseason, but when the Bengals traded Billy Price, it seemed to be a good sign. Still, here we are.
The Bengals have been running the ball better in recent weeks, but still struggle in short yardage situations. Their pass protection has been shaky, but that has not been as simple as a weak link in the group. There have been some communication issues, as well as errors from the running backs, tight ends, and the quarterback leading to sacks. So it is not only on Pollack, but also tight ends coach James Casey, running backs coach Justin Hill, and quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher to get it fixed.
There is enough talent there to make it work. Can they make it all come together?
Can this offense take the next step?
Heading into this season, the offense was seen as the strength of the team, and it was believed that it would be the driving force behind their wins.
It makes sense. With Joe Burrow and a plethora of talented receivers, this could be a top offense, but they didn’t score more than 30 points in a game or crack the top ten in scoring until after they beat the Lions in Week 6.
They have been strong in the middle and second half of games, but have had too many turnovers and too many three-and-outs.
Can they step up and be the dynamic offense they need to be?
First round pick Ja’Marr Chase has looked like the clear rookie of the year at times, but he has been a bit inconsistent recently. Tee Higgins has made some nice plays, but at times it seems like he and Burrow are not on the same page. Tyler Boyd has been underutilized this season as the team looks to work the receivers on the outside. How will they get him involved?
The Bengals need all of these guys performing at the top of their game with C.J. Uzomah and the running backs complementing them to have the offensive success they need.
The Bengals won games at the beginning of the season by playing well on defense and getting some big plays out of their offense, but in order to win in the second half of the year, they may need to flip that script.
The offense and specifically the offensive line, needs to pick up their game. They need to win on the line of scrimmage and Burrow and the passing game need to drive this team’s success.