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Cincinnati Bengals

More names missing from a reeling defense

Russell Heltman

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It’s been a rough first half of the season for a Cincinnati Bengals defense that many expected to wow from the get go. Sunday’s 45-10 drubbing by Kansas City was a culmination of poor tackling, scheme, and a little bit of the injury bug mixed in.

Cincinnati ranks 30th in yards allowed (3,006), 29th in passing yards allowed (300.7 per game), 26th in rushing yards allowed (128.7 per game), and 28th in points per game (29). To add insult to injury, literally, my colleague Jeffrey Carr noted how defenses have had a “hangover” in the game following a matchup with the Chiefs.

Everything seems to be pointing in the wrong direction for this group especially the injury report, which confirmed three starters will be missing for Sunday’s tilt against Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Let’s run through the names and see who will need to step up.

 

Oct 7, 2018; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict (55) follows the play against the Miami Dolphins in the first half at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

LB – Vontaze Burfict 

A big loss on the surface but Vontaze Burfict did not play to the level anyone expected from him in his first three games back from suspension. Burfict recorded 17 total tackles (one for loss), and two passes defended in three games. Toss in a handful of missed tackles including a few of the 18 whiffs against Kansas City and Burfict has been a negative influence since his return.

The problem is we expected the defense to get better with Burfict not only because he has shown to be a rare talent but also because of the depth behind him. Vincent Rey has looked older and older every week during his age 31 season and its warranted a 34.1 grade from Pro Football Focus. Meanwhile, Hardy Nickerson has fared a little bit better but he wouldn’t be a second-stringer on most NFL Rosters. The Bengals sorely lack athleticism at this position and it would be great to see Malik Jefferson get a chance but when you can’t learn the basics you won’t play, especially on a Marvin Lewis coached ball club.

 

Oct 29, 2017; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals outside linebacker Nick Vigil (59) against the Indianapolis Colts at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

LB – Nick Vigil

Vigil was having a career year before going down early against the Pittsburgh Steelers and he will miss his second consecutive game on Sunday.

You know the tackling has been bad when:

A.) Your team leader is a safety (Jessie Bates)

B.) Vigil can miss almost two whole games and stay in the top three

Vigil has carried a 69.2 PFF rating this season, good for 23rd among linebackers and he leads all linebackers with a 15 % run stop percentage.

The burgeoning star will be replaced by a trio comprising Jordan Evans and the two I mentioned above. Evans has played respectably in a backup role this season, no big mistakes have helped earn him an above average PFF grade. The catch: he hasn’t recorded a sack, tackle for loss, forced fumble, or interception this year.

Whether he’s ready or not in his second season the Bengals need Evans to start making some impact plays, forcing a turnover or two would be a great start.

 

Oct 14, 2018; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals defensive back Darqueze Dennard (21) defends against Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (19) in the first half at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

CB – Darqueze Dennard

The Bengals nickel cornerback is missing his second straight game following a separated shoulder on the play pictured above. Dennard has been a gamer all season long ranking fourth on the team in tackles (29 total) and is graded as one of the best third-corner options in the league (#69 Overall).

The backup scenario here is a little less daunting than at linebacker because of the surprising play from Darius Phillips and Tony Mcrae. Phillips has shown some potential in limited work after a shaky preseason. The other option is Mcrae, who did give up the game-winner to Antonio Brown, but has still shown a consistent presence in coverage and can hold his own on the inside.

 

This Tampa Bay offense will be a massive test for the Bengals but if they can take any advice out of this week, I’d latch onto a Paul Brown nugget Dave Lapham shared on Thursday’s Locked On Bengals Podcast:

“He (Brown) told us obviously you guys are not capable of handling what we installed, your football acumen is not their men, it’s not happening so we are going to simplify, we are only going to run six runs, and seven passes until you guys feel confident we can execute these plays.”

Keep. It. Simple.

The Buccaneers interim defensive coordinator Mark Dufner did exactly that against the Browns last weekend and they came out with a win. Teryl Austin should look up at the name on his home stadium and heed the wisdom.

It’s simple.

A Cincinnati sports fan since before he could walk, Russ grew up in Anderson Township and currently attends Ohio University where he is pursuing a degree in Broadcast Journalism. Aside from cheering on all of the lovable losers in Cincinnati, Russ is an avid golfer and diehard Charlotte Hornets fan. When he's not breaking down the Bengals on 97 WATH you can find his analysis and thoughts on everything Orange and Black right here.

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Cincinnati Bengals

Gerald McCoy in stripes makes plenty of sense

Russell Heltman

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers moved on from star defensive tackle Gerald McCoy earlier this week after failing to find a suitable trade partner for his $13 million salary and the Cincinnati Bengals have taken notice.

Russini is clearly qualified and plugged in when it comes to breaking Bengals related news and this seems like a step in the right direction for fans who want this “New Dey” for the Bengals to start going after top tier talent with minimal long term risk. It’s clear that no team around the league wanted to give up draft picks while taking on McCoy at such a high cap number.

The Bengals should roll the dice here and take a calculated chance on a guy like McCoy who could turn this entire defense into the group most Bengals fans had high expectations for last season but ultimately finished as a bottom-three unit. McCoy and Geno Atkins would make up arguably the best interior line combination in the league. One that would rival the duo of Ndamokung Suh and Aaron Donald that the Rams rode to the Super Bowl.

After missing the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2012 last season, McCoy still notched six sacks and more importantly a team-high 21 pressures for the Buccaneers. Over his highly productive career, the former Oklahoma Sooner has tallied 393 pressures, good for sixth among interior linemen since 2010. McCoy is a stud who was the best defensive player on his team and a wrecker who has never been surrounded by much talent in the trenches.

Despite a rough year across the board for this Bengals defense, Atkins clearly showed he is still at the top of his game after tallying double-digit sacks for the first time since 2010 and creating 64 pressures, which ranked fourth among all interior linemen. Joe and Jake brought up a great point on Wednesday’s podcast, McCoy would be the best inside partner that Atkins has ever played with and would not only help open up more playmaking opportunities for him but also spell players across the line more rest after it was ravaged by injury in 2018.

Sep 24, 2018; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (93) reacts during the first half against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals have roughly $23 million in cap room as we head into the summer months and despite a clear goal of extending Tyler Boyd and A.J. Green, signing McCoy to a one or two year deal worth $10-12 million annually is more than doable. Green already accounts for $15 million against the cap this year and most estimates have his new deal reaching around $18 million per year, while Boyd has gone on record this week with expectations of a deal similar to Sterling Shepard’s four year/$41 million contract.

That leaves Cincinnati with just enough room to sign McCoy to a deal he’d be happy with.

The bottom line is players like this don’t come around very often, and during the Marvin Lewis Era, they were almost never targeted by the front office. McCoy could turn this swiss cheese-defense into a formidable force overnight while helping Bengals fans see the light of a New Dey at Paul Brown Stadium.

 

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Cincinnati Bengals

The AFC North Power Vacuum

Russell Heltman

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The AB shoe has dropped.

After a drama-filled start to the offseason, Antonio Brown got his wish: A new home and contract in the Bay Area. The Pittsburgh Steelers shipped their disgruntled star to the Oakland Raiders for a pair of third and sixth round picks in this year’s draft.

The Killer-B Era in the Steel City is over.

Le’veon Bell called the organizations bluff last year and sat the entire season after he was offered $14.5 million on another franchise tag. That decision left the Steelers with the fifth most unused cap space in the NFL last season and now the loss of Brown hamstrings them even more. The Steelers must now eat $21 million in dead cap money with Brown in the Silver and Black, ostensibly the largest hit of its kind in league history.

Dec 10, 2017; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell (26) celebrates with wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) after scoring a touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens during the first quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Sweet, sweet music for the rest of the AFC North.

While Pittsburgh holds on to a fading era the other three teams in the division have kickstarted themselves with new coaches, quarterbacks, and in the Cleveland Browns case, both.

Baker Mayfield‘s talents are now fully paired with Freddie Kitchens, the duo led Cleveland to a 5-2 record down the stretch and has injected a breadth of confidence the franchise hasn’t felt since returning to the shores of Lake Erie in 1999. The Lamar Jackson Era is in full swing after the Baltimore Ravens shipped Joe Flacco to Denver for a fourth-round pick. Jackson is a dynamic playmaker but struggled as a passer in year one, despite aerial issues the former Heisman winner notched six wins in seven starts with a 27-24 loss to Kansas City mixed in.

In Cincinnati all of the eggs now lie in the Zac Taylor basket, The entire coaching staff has been overhauled outside of special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons and after 16 seasons of Marvin Lewis, there is tepid optimism surrounding this young coaching staff.

For the first time since Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie season, the Steelers don’t seem like the go-to favorite to win the AFC North and stomp on another Marvin Lewis team. Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan are bringing fresh eyes and concepts to this roster and ideally Bengals fans will experience the 2018 LA Rams Offense: Midwest Edition when they roll into Paul Brown Stadium this Fall.

On the defensive side things can’t get much worse than last season with new coordinator Lou Anarumo taking the reins of a unit that ranked 32nd in total defense (413.6 yards allowed per game), 32nd against the pass (275.9 per game), 30th in points allowed (28.4 per game) and 29th against the run (137.8 yards per game).

Meanwhile, many of the draft experts have the Bengals selecting do-it-all LSU linebacker Devin White with the 11th pick. A massive value at that spot, White is as durable a player you’ll find at the linebacker position and is graded by Scouts Inc. as the fourth best prospect available in April. He would be a welcome addition to a defense that was the worst in the NFL defending tight ends last season.

A New Dey has arrived not only in Cincinnati but throughout the rest of the AFC North and with the Killer-B’s done in Pittsburgh the Bengals have their chance to fill the power void.

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Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals fans guide to Super Bowl LIII

Russell Heltman

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It’s been 30 years since the Cincinnati Bengals last played in a Super Bowl. A heartbreaking 20-16 loss to the San Francisco 49ers was the Bengals most recent shot at glory, and while Sunday’s matchup between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams showcases how far Cincinnati is to breaking that drought, there are plenty of things for Bengals fans to focus on inside of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

 

Keep an Eye on the Incoming Head Coach

Dec 3, 2017; Glendale, AZ, USA; Los Angeles Rams assistant wide receivers coach Zac Taylor against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Zac Taylor is taking the reins from Marvin Lewis in what will be the first head coaching change since I started watching Bengals games during that magical 2005 season. The 35-year old Rams QB coach joins six other “young, offensive-minded” hires from this years coaching carousel. For Bengals fans, they are hoping he’s a cut above the rest, despite being the last to ink a deal. Bengals faithful should pay close attention any and every time the CBS production crew decides to show him in action on Sunday.

This is the biggest game Taylor has been a part of since entering the NFL coaching ranks with the Dolphins back in 2012 and it will be really interesting to see him handle a moment all Bengals fans hope he can relive sooner rather than later in Cincinnati. No one on the outside of the Rams organization really knows how involved Taylor is with setting up the gameplan, but he has clearly had a very positive effect on Jared Goff since taking over his tutelage in 2017.

How he interacts with Goff in between plays and coaches him through mistakes could go a long way in determining how he will help Andy Dalton (or Ryan Tannehill?) return to his 2015 form. Zac Taylor might not be the most experienced coach getting a chance this year but the results with Goff prove he deserves this opportunity.

 

Pre-snap and Play-Action

Jan 20, 2019; New Orleans, LA, USA; Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff (16) audibles during the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship game against the New Orleans Saints at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

There are still questions as to who will call plays and control the 2019 Bengals offense, but in saying that fans should expect a lot of carryover from this Rams system that has willed their way to Atlanta with pre-snap communication and play-action passing. It’s no secret that Goff and Rams head coach Sean McVay communicate right up to the 15-second cutoff during every play.

McVay can read the defense, then call something to match their formation and he often times uses motion to accomplish that. Former Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor was allergic to this kind of communication and the offense ranked 32nd and 26th in his two seasons because of it. Expect Taylor to have his voice in the Red Rifle’s ear plenty on Sundays.

In terms of play-action passing the Rams used these plays as the cornerstone of their offense, calling them 34 percent of the time with devastating effect. LA’s 9.0 yards per play on these calls ranked third in the NFL and they averaged 1.9 yards per play more than regular calls. On the flip side, Cincinnati ranked 13th in the league calling play-action on 24 percent for 1.5 yards per play more than all other calls. It’s not rocket science, play-action works wonders in today’s NFL and Taylor is expected to bring that mindset with him to the Queen City.

 

Todd Gurley: The Receiver

Jan 20, 2019; New Orleans, LA, USA; Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley (30) is tackled by New Orleans Saints middle linebacker Alex Anzalone (47) during the fourth quarter in the NFC Championship game at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Player A: 55 targets, 43 receptions, 296 yards, 6.9 yards per catch, 1 TD

Player B: 81 targets, 59 receptions, 580 yards, 9.8 yards per catch, 4 TD

Yes, I know Joe Mixon had a stellar year running the ball (1,168 yards, 4.9 yards per carry) but he was totally mismanaged in the passing game and his Player A numbers reflect that. Player B, well I’d say he was used correctly and will continue to be used that way on Sunday. Despite his two costly drops in the NFC Championship Game, Todd Gurley is still one of the best receiving backs in the NFL.

A big reason why he’s so productive is the way LA puts him in an ideal position to make big plays, whether it’s a wheel route down the sideline or a throwback screen off of…. play action, this coaching staff does all they can to help him gash defenses. So far in Mixon’s career, I’ve barely seen any of that, it’s similar to putting a governor on a 66′ Cobra. Keep an eye on how the Rams use Gurley’s receiving skills to their advantage and imagine Mixon on the other end of those throws.

This One’s For Whit

Sep 27, 2018; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Rams offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth (77) and offensive guard Rodger Saffold (76) during the game against the Minnesota Vikingsat Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Rams defeated the Vikings 38-31. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Every Bengals fan should be rooting for the new head coach to bring a Super Bowl winning pedigree with him to his new digs in Cincinnati, but if that wasn’t enough, we should all be rooting for Andrew Whitworth.

Likely on his way to back-to-back All-Pro selections Whitworth is one of the best players to ever play the tackle position and was a consummate professional during his 11-year stint in a Bengals uniform. He notched his first playoff win 13 years into his career and why not knock down all of the playoff milestones in one run. I know who I’m rooting for come Super Bowl Sunday.

Enjoy the holiday.

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