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
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.
An Open Letter to Marvin Lewis
Dear Mr. Lewis,
I have been contemplating sending you this letter for quite some time, and I hope it finds you well. You don’t know me, but I am a loyal fan of the Cincinnati Bengals. The second Super Bowl loss to the San Francisco 49ers remains as the first time I can remember experiencing heartbreak. I have, quite literally, hated Joe Montana for what he did to my then 12 year old self, for 30 years now. That said, my fandom has endured. Admittedly, as I was in college in the late 90’s, I was not as honed in on every move my Bengals made. So many losses, so little time. Sure, I loved Jeff Blake, Corey Dillon, and Takeo Spikes, but I had finals to take and parties from which to recover. But then something happened. Something unexpected. Mike Brown hired you as the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2003. Marvin Lewis – the legendary architect of one of the greatest defenses in the history of the league – was coming to be our coach! The excitement was palpable, and you were brimming with confidence. It was a swagger not seen around here since the days of Sam Wyche.
As the years passed, you began to place your stamp on the team and the city. The Marvin Lewis community fund is an outstanding work of art, and a tribute to your dedication to the people of Cincinnati. Kudos. On the field, the likes of Carson Palmer, Chad Johnson, Rudi Johnson, Willie Anderson, and TJ Houshmandzadeh, made being a Bengals’ fan fun again. They became must see TV, if not in person appointment viewing. Cleveland was a guaranteed two wins. Baltimore was almost two. Pittsburgh was likely a couple of losses, but the wins were sweet, and the losses were respectable. I’d look forward to your post-game interviews, and your Monday press conferences. There was useful information to be gleaned from them. Things that the average fan would miss as they had long turned off the broadcast and moved on with their lives. Not me. I am a loyal fan, remember? I don’t break down tape or have some hot draft take, but I love my Bengals, and I follow them closely – you included.
I need to take a moment to give you some props on the transition from the Palmer-era to the Dalton-era. That entire thing was a mess, what with Carson forcing his way out, you hiring an unproven offensive coordinator in Jay Gruden, and then drafting/starting a rookie quarterback in Andy Dalton. And all during an NFL lockout. I still remember predictions of the team going 0-16 that year. Somehow, some way, you guided this team, not only to a winning record, but to the playoffs. I am not sure if I have ever been more impressed by an NFL coach. You completely rebooted the franchise, and had a whole new cast of characters for us to get to know. Dalton, AJ Green, Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Clint Boling, and Andrew Whitworth. Young talent, ready to take on the AFC North. Two wins versus Cleveland – check. Almost two wins versus Baltimore – check. Still two losses to Pittsburgh – yeah, most of the time, but division titles weren’t out of reach. The playoffs became an annual event. This is where I need to touch on the obvious…
I do not understand your philosophy when it comes to playoff games, and for that matter, night games, games against Pittsburgh, Monday Night Football games, and any other game not at 1 pm eastern. You seem to have think and preach that these games are just the same as any other. No need for extra emphasis. No need for extra hype. No need to bring an extra chin strap because it’s just another game. After watching 16 years of this approach from you, I humbly disagree. Your teams are consistently outplayed, out-coached, and seemingly unprepared for the spotlight of these match-ups. At some point, would it not make sense to try a different approach? Maybe call it Pittsburgh week? Maybe say this Sunday night game is going to be huge for us? Maybe say that your team is chomping at the bit to play on Monday Night Football? It’s got to be better than just another game – just another loss.
I know you love this city and this franchise. I genuinely believe you want to win – for Mike Brown, and for the fans. That said, I think that it is time to move on with your life’s work. You gave it your all. You got more out of Mr. Brown than anyone ever thought possible. You raised this franchise to a level of respectability that no one could have predicted. You have done good work. It’s just not enough. There is no shame in that. And if I am being honest, you just do not seem to enjoy this anymore. Your press conferences, that I used to look forward to hearing, are all the same. Short, full of disdain for the people asking questions, and random giggles that make no sense. The fire and energy after 16 years of being an NFL head coach have faded. Why not let someone else give it a shot? We both know Mike Brown isn’t going to fire you, so why not walk away? Do what’s best for the franchise, and make them look for a coach. Last time, it brought us you!
Thank you for reading, and I wish you all the best in your next adventure.
P. S. Please take Hue Jackson with you. Thanks