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4 Bengals who must finish the season strong

Cincinnati’s playoff hopes are hanging in the balance, but their chances can greatly improve if these players step up.

Minnesota Vikings v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

There have been times this year when the process was working to perfection. The exact things that needed to hit for the Cincinnati Bengals were hitting on all cylinders, so it shouldn’t be shocking to realize those same aspects are the reasons why they’re now barely above .500 with half the season remaining.

Offensively, they have statistical leaders and are producing explosive plays at a much higher rate compared to last year. Talent is winning more often than not, and when it’s not, mental errors are causing close games to turn into losses. The offense had been catching up to the defense’s stability up until that unit forgot how to get to the quarterback and bring down ballcarriers.

Fortunately, this team has the vast majority of its starters healthy for a second-half push. They have the components to get back on track because we’ve seen what it looks like when it all clicks.

Some things simply can’t improve until offseason adjustments are put into place. For now, rekindling success from earlier in the season can get the Bengals rolling back into playoff picture. These are the players that can best help with that.

Joe Burrow

Hey you, finish reading before typing something.

This NFL season has been extremely unpredictable. Underdogs have been frequently covering spreads and even out-right winning games this year at a notable rate. Parity is reigning supreme, specifically in the AFC. But you know how teams aren’t losing? Like usual, they’re winning the turnover battle. Teams are 91-23-1 when they achieve a positive turnover margin this year. Even in a whacky season, some things remain true.

Having a quarterback near the top of the interception leaderboard is not ideal in a year where everything seems so open. That’s the one drawback to Burrow’s impressive sophomore campaign. He’s putting the ball in harm’s way more than most, and he’s paying for it more than most with his league-leading 11 interceptions (only Sam Darnold has as many).

Interceptions weren’t a problem for Burrow in college or as a rookie last year. They aren’t becoming a product of inaccuracy, but of decision-making. Burrow’s aggressiveness has allowed the Bengals’ offense to become more explosive. He’s playing like his 2019 LSU-self, and NFL defenses are proving to be better at collapsing down on tight windows and taking the ball away, specifically in the short area of the field.

Five of Burrow’s 11 picks have come within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. His Pro Football Focus passing grade is significantly lower on throws to that area compared to the intermediate and deep parts of the field because of those turnover-worthy decisions.

No one in Cincinnati should ask Burrow to lose his aggressive play style. That said, he needs to cut down on the unnecessary turnovers on plays that should be easy yards. Doing so combined with the explosive plays he’s conducting will keep the Bengals in the playoff race.

Trey Hopkins

No one has fought through consistency issues for Cincinnati more than Hopkins has this season. He’ll respond to poor games with shades of his former self, and then revert back to his current form the next week. But it’s the ugly plays that stick in our minds the most and form the perception of his underwhelming season.

The issues are mostly in pass protection. He’s not getting out of his stance as quick as he used to and allowing penetration more frequently to shaded nose tackles. That’s led to some unpleasing reps and the killing of certain plays. Those plays aren’t necessarily happening every drive, but the frequency isn’t trending downwards, either.

It’s plausible that this is just who Hopkins will be for the rest of the year. Bengals fans can remember how Geno Atkins looked far less dominant for the entire 2014 season after he tore his ACL on Halloween of 2013. But Atkins was still 26 that year and had years of dominance to follow. Hopkins is 29 and this is not the first ACL injury of his career. He’s now just 10 months past his surgery.

A more stable Hopkins as a pass blocker would help the offensive line find its best form and help the passing game operate with more consistency. We’ll see if that’s indeed possible.

Larry Ogunjobi

The hype for the Bengals’ new 3-technique has dwindled of late, and for appropriate reasons. He’s the ultimate boom or bust defensive tackle, and the booms have been far and few between of late.

In the last two weeks os losing football, the defense as a whole has had issues with tackling. Ogunjobi has five missed tackles of his own, more than any other defender in that span. His pass-rush win rate has been slightly above his season-long average, but that number lies in the bottom half of starting interior rushers.

That he has a high number of sacks and stops while also missing a high number of tackles and sporting a low win rate is a fascinating dichotomy.

This is largely who Ogunjobi has been in his career. The Bengals just need him to continue capitalizing on his pressures. Any decrease in missed tackles would be a plus.

Jessie Bates

Before the start of the season, Bates would’ve been the popular answer to the question: “Who’s the best player on the Bengals?” The expectations for him coming off a should’ve-been All-Pro 2020 season were extremely high. For whatever reason, Bates hasn’t stood out as the difference maker he was last year.

There were no signs to indicate this at the beginning of the season. He put together a solid three-game start before a neck injury made him unavailable for the team’s Thursday Night victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Since then, Bates has been one of PFF’s lowest-graded safeties, and tackling issues of his past have surged.

Bates has attributed this slump to a lack of focus. He’s in a contract year, and talks came to a halt before the season began. This usually provides a boost for players to over-perform in hopes of signing a massive deal, but for Bates, the opposite seemed to have occurred. The pressure to prove the front office wrong backfired as his performance and the rest of the defense began dwindling in the wake of a two-game losing streak.

Just because Bates hasn’t made the impact plays he consistently provided last year doesn’t mean his value has decreased. This is especially true after the injury to backup safety Brandon Wilson. The defense is better when No. 30 is playing for it, but they need him to react a bit quicker in coverage and—like most of their starters—finish more tackles.

Bates getting back in the right head space will benefit the Bengals’ defense now, and his bank account later.