Now I know how Ethan Hunt (Mission Impossible) must have felt . . . “Your mission, should you choose to accept it . . .”
My mission seemed simple enough: Find 3-5 players who need to improve in order for the Cincinnati Bengals to reach the playoffs. Believe me when I say that this is not going to be easy.
Because, in reality, almost everyone needs to improve if the Bengals hope to reach the promised land for the third straight year.
As most of you know, Pro Football Focus (PFF) grades the play of every position player in the NFL. It uses a scale of 0-100, with higher grades indicating better play. A breakdown of its grading looks like this: 100-90 elite; 89-85 Pro Bowler; 84-70 starter; 69-60 backup; and 59-0 replaceable.
According to PFF, there is only one player on the entire roster who scores better than the average NFL backup. Six games into the season, Ja’Marr Chase scores like the Pro Bowler he is, with an overall grade of 86.7. Things go straight downhill from there.
The next best score on the offensive side of the ball is Jonah Williams, who posted an overall grade of 67.6 and has shown consistency as both a run and pass blocker.
Quarterback Joe Burrow, the Bengals’ $275 million dollar man, comes in at 66.4, only slightly ahead of his backup, Jake Browning. ESPN ranks Burrow at No. 18 in passing stats, while his total quarterback rating (QBR) of 39.9 places him at No. 26.
So, aside from the obvious (I’m counting left guard Cordell Volson among this group), who else needs to improve in order for the Bengals to make the playoffs?
The first player on that list may come as something of a surprise. Left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., the Bengals’ prize free-agent acquisition, has posted a run-blocking grade of 45.8. That’s the lowest on the offensive line by over eight points, and it’s just not good enough.
It’s little wonder that Cincinnati has struggled to run the football. Tight end Tanner Hudson, who the Bengals’ brain trust has relegated to the practice squad, owns a run-blocking grade of 81.8. Center Ted Karras checks in at 71.1, followed by Williams (63.5), Volson (62.6), and Alex Cappa (53.9).
Wide receiver Tee Higgins, who many considered to be a co-No. 1 along with Chase coming into the season, has struggled mightily in that department. Higgins has really only had one good game this season and owns a receiving score of 56.2. He has got to do better than that if Cincinnati hopes to continue its ascension into the upper echelons of the NFL.
On the defensive side of the ball, Mike Hilton came to the Bengals with a reputation as an elite run defender. He has been anything but so far this season. Hilton currently owns a PFF grade of 29.4 in run defense.
Through the first six games of the season, Cincinnati stands at No. 27 in run defense, giving up an average of 142.8 yards per game. Chidobe Awuzie (42.9), Cam Taylor-Britt (43.6), and B.J. Hill (48.0) have also been sub-par against the run, so there is lots of room for improvement there, as well.
In pass coverage, safety Nick Scott, who the Bengals acquired from the Los Angeles Rams to shore up the back end of their defense after the loss of Jesse Bates III and Vonn Bell to free agency, has been a liability, to say the least. His coverage grade of 36.6 speaks for itself.
In short, several players need to step up their game if Cincinnati hopes to make a return trip to the playoffs. But, as someone once said, it’s not how you start that counts, it’s how you finish.