This is it, this is the season. I know, it’s week seven, and the Cincinnati Bengals (4-3) are playing a non-divisional, non-conference opponent in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-3), but this is a must-win game.
Like it or not, the Bengals and Buccaneers are known, throughout the country, as two of the more irrelevant NFL franchises. They’ve faced each other just 11 times, with the Bucs winning seven of those contests. Cincinnati beat Tampa Bay 14-13 in 2014. It was the first time the Bengals beat the Buccaneers since 1989. Andy Dalton scored two touchdowns, one rushing and one passing, to lead the Bengals to victory.
Few things feel great about this Bengals team, after two-straight losses. They’ve scored just 31 points in their last two games. They gained a measly 239 yards against a defense that had allowed the most yards in history, through the first six games.
Enter the Buccaneers defense which has allowed the most touchdown passes (18) and has the least interceptions (1). We’ve heard this story before — just last week, but the Bengals should be able to move the ball through the air on this defense.
Cincinnati has two main concerns on offense this week, one of which sounds familiar: which Andy shows up, and who blocks Jason Pierre-Paul?
Dalton was one of the biggest, if not the biggest reason the Bengals began the year 4-1. He also is one of the reasons they’ve lost two straight. Sure, you can point the finger at the defense, but Andy, for all his experience, got rattled early against the Chiefs and never recovered.
On top of their in-house worries, here comes a very talented defensive end who is enjoying some early season success. Pierre-Paul has six sacks and is leading an otherwise pedestrian Buccaneers defense. Expect a steady dose of JPP versus Bobby Hart.
Where the offense has questions, the defense has legitimate concerns. Can they tackle? Can they cover? Can they put pressure on the quarterback? Can they stop the run? Yeah, that’s pretty much every question asked of any defense, and so far the answer has been no. Cincinnati is ranked 31st in yards allowed, 30th in average passing yards allowed per game (300.7), and 26th in rushing yards allowed per game (128.7).
Lindsay Jones wrote an interesting article for The Athletic talking about the “Chiefs Hangover” for defenses. It sounds goofy, but the Bengals have some legitimate concerns as the numbers back up this theory. Of the six defenses to play against the Chiefs and then play the next week, only one of them has allowed less than 400 yards to their next opponent. That one team was the Chargers, who faced rookie Josh Allen and the Bills, and still gave up 362 total yards. Every defense who has gone up against Patrick Mahomes and company has allowed more than their average yards against, in the following week. If that’s the case with the Bengals facing the Buccaneers, bet the over (line set at 54.5, currently). It’ll be the easiest money you’ve made this year.
One last note on the Bengals defense will be to mention the linebackers. A constant source of frustration for Cincinnati, this season, they may be forced to start Hardy Nickerson Jr., Jordan Evans, and Vinny Rey. If you have either Cameron Brate or OJ Howard (Tampa’s tight ends) on your fantasy football team, start em.
I mentioned it in the beginning of this post — this is a must-win for the Bengals. A loss puts them at 4-4 going into their bye with a real shot of coming out of their bye in third place, or even last place, in the AFC North. A win means they get right and fix some of the problems that plagued them the last two weeks.
First on the list is the play calling by Bill Lazor. It’s as if he was board of doing well and scrapped everything the Bengals succeeded at, in the first five weeks. He’s gone back to having no clue how to use Joe Mixon, no clue how to get the ball to John Ross, and hiding all receiving options not named AJ Green. The Chiefs picked up on this. Heck, Andy’s pick-six he threw, AJ was the target and four, not one, not two, but four Chiefs were covering him. The Bengals don’t beat anyone with the play calling last Sunday night, let alone the best offense in the game. If they try that again against the Buccaneers, it will be the same result.
Bringing it Home
I have been overly optimistic the last two weeks, picking the Bengals to win both times, only to be wrong both times. Call it pessimism, call it reverse psychology, whatever, I’m not picking them to win this game. I firmly believe the problems that have appeared the last two games are not easily fixed. I also think the absence of John Ross, with Gio Bernard and Tyler Eifert already not-present, dooms this offense to be flat, again, and the defense continue to flounder against a red-hot James Winston and solid receiving group. Did I mention they have talented tight ends in Tampa? Right, Bucs win this one and send Bengals fans, myself included, reeling.
Prediction: Buccaneers 38, Bengals 24
P.S. – As is typical with my predictions of doom and gloom, I hope I’m wrong
Gerald McCoy in stripes makes plenty of sense
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.
— Dianna (@diannaESPN) May 22, 2019
As for Gerald McCoy and the Bengals — @diannaESPN was first on Marvin's departure, Burfict's release, and then Webb and Dennard's signings.
— JG (@JoeGoodberry) May 22, 2019
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.
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.
The AFC North Power Vacuum
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.
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.
The Bengals fans guide to Super Bowl LIII
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
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
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
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
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.