Even though the Cincinnati Bengals grabbed a much-needed divisional win last week, it’s been a disappointing start to the season. They have a chance to get things back on track against a solid Bills team this Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, but they need to achieve a number of things to do so.
Here are the five biggest keys for the Bengals to get to 2-3 before their bye week.
Lean on the defense:
While the offense has begun to pick up the slack the past couple of weeks, the Bengals’ defense remains a strong point of the team at this point. They are No. 7 in the NFL in opposing quarterback rating with 76.2, as well as No. 3 in the league with allowing just 164.8 passing yards per game.
Meanwhile, the Bills are 29th in the NFL on offense, in terms of total average yards per game (284.2) and have the 31st-ranked passing offense this year. Tyrod Taylor can scramble and make plays on the move, but the Bengals are much more athletic up front than they were last season, as evidenced by their 12 sacks in 2017 (tied for third-best).
Nick Vigil is playing some solid football this year, and Vontaze Burfict is also back in the linebacker group after a three-game suspension. Paul Guenther just needs to allow his best players to do their thing and the stats will almost undoubtedly fall Cincinnati’s way.
Bill Lazor and Andy Dalton finding a turnover-free formula:
The Buffalo defense is tied for third in the NFL with six interceptions through the first four games, as the entire unit is helping to carry the Bills in 2017. Additionally, the Bills are the second-best team in the NFL, regarding opposing quarterback rating with 64.1. These numbers are from facing Josh McCown, Cam Newton, Trevor Siemian, and Matt Ryan, respectively.
These are pretty impressive stats, given the team shipping Ronald Darby, a former Pro Bowler, off to the Eagles this offseason, as well as their losing of Stephon Gilmore to the Patriots in free agency. After turning the ball over five times in the opener, Dalton has zero interceptions, and one fumble lost against six touchdown passes in their last three games. Even though the pressure is still prevalent, Dalton will need to be both careful and decisive with the football in a solid game plan by Lazor against an opportunistic defense.
Establish the run game and find the proper offensive line look:
Yes, this is an old adage which could be applied every week in this feature, but it’s still something that rings true this particular week. When you look at the above-mentioned pass defense stats by the Bills, running the ball and grinding the clock at home seems to be a sound foundation to a much-needed Bengals win.
The Bengals’ offensive line has been a mess this year, with Lazor now using a rotation at tackle. Andre Smith has been spelling Cedric Ogbuehi on the left at times, as well as Jake Fisher on the right and it seems to work well at times. Still, the interior of the line is failing to open up regular holes for the backs.
Giovani Bernard has been the most productive and explosive of the Bengals’ backs this year, so riding the hot hand with him could be a good plan. Joe Mixon is making a lot out of nothing, so hopefully, he’ll find more room this week.
Big returns on special teams:
Cincinnati has had some nice moments from Alex Erickson and Adam Jones this year. In fact, the Bengals lead the NFL with 216 punt return yards this season and are No. 6 in average yards per punt return through the first four games.
This needs to continue for a couple of reasons. First, with Buffalo’s tough defense, Cincinnati’s offense might need to have some starts with excellent field position to maximize opportunities for points. Secondly, these types of back-breaking plays get the home crowd energized and behind the team.
Doing the little things correctly:
While Marvin Lewis has done a lot of good things in Cincinnati in his 15 years, getting his team to pay attention to even the most minute of details isn’t one of them. One Cincy Jungle reader recently made the comment that the Bengals are two plays away from being 3-1 this year: Tyler Eifert stepping out of bounds in the end zone against Houston and Randy Bullock’s missed field goal against Green Bay. Maybe, maybe not.
Still, these missed opportunities epitomize the Lewis era. With the Bills off to a surprising 3-1 start, Cincinnati can’t commit bonehead penalties and turnovers if they want to continue the road of turning around their season.