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Cincinnati Bengals

The linebackers tasked with stepping up in Vontaze Burfict’s absence

Russell Heltman

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Another year, another multi-game suspension handed down to Vontaze Burfict.

2018 marks the third-straight season the Bengals star linebacker has been sidelined by a suspension. 2016 and 2017 were marred by on-field transgressions, but this time around Burfict has no one to blame but himself after testing positive for an illegal substance on December 27th of last year. The Bengals are a whole different monster when Burfict’s consistent play is available and they’ll have to navigate some tough opponents without him.

Burfict tested positive for a banned substance that stemmed from a medication he took after suffering a shoulder sprain against the Detroit Lions. The really frustrating part about this is Burfict could have refrained from taking the medication for a few more days and been safe from any potential league penalty.

Sadly, hindsight is 20/20 and that’s exactly the kind of precision the rest of this Bengals linebacking corps needs to have if they are going to weather the storm during the first four games. There is talent on that side of the depth chart so let’s take a look at who Teryl Austin is counting on to pick up the slack.

Preston Brown

Nov 12, 2017; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Buffalo Bills middle linebacker Preston Brown (52) on the field prior to a game against the New Orleans Saints at New Era Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals followed the trend they have established over the last few years by signing a proven middle linebacker to a one-year deal.

First it was Karlos Dansby then Kevin Minter and now Preston Brown.

What sets Brown apart from the previous two stopgaps is durability, Brown was the leader of the Buffalo Bills defense last year and has started 62-of-64 games since being drafted by the Bills in 2014. On top of that durability, Brown has always been around the football and he tied for the league lead in tackles with 144 last season. On first glance, the Brown signing seemed like a home run, but despite notching all of those tackles, Brown really struggled in pass coverage last year. That was a big reason why he ranked 42nd among linebackers according to Pro Football Focus.

For Brown to live up to expectations, his pass coverage in space has to improve. Look for him to pick up the pass defense production a little bit after a full offseason with linebackers coach Jim Haslett, and rest easy knowing he won’t add to the countless missed tackles we’ve seen from this defense in the Marvin Lewis era.

Vincent Rey

Jan 9, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals outside linebacker Vincent Rey (57) misses an interception during the second quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Wild Card playoff football game at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The longest-tenured player in this linebacker corps, Rey has been a model of consistency for this Bengals defense, missing just two games since dealing with injuries in his rookie season. It might be too much to ask of a 30-year old but Cincinnati needs Rey to show more productive stability than the consistency we so often talked about with former-Bengals center Russell Bodine.

Both players have been lauded for essentially showing up every day.

Sure Rey has made some impact plays here or there but not enough to move the needle in the eyes of evaluators. The former Duke Blue Devil received a 45.1 overall grade from Pro Football Focus last season, that ranked 62nd among qualified linebackers.

Rey makes up a third of the veteran presence in this linebacking corps and that gives him an advantage on some of the younger talent heading into the Summer. Consistency is his calling card but that only gets you so far in this league and there are plenty of hungry young players waiting behind him.

Nick Vigil

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

Nick Vigil was a versatile, every-down linebacker when the Bengals drafted him out of Utah State in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft. After a developmental rookie year, the former Aggie became a weekly starter until his season ended due to injury in Week 11 and finished fourth on the team in tackles despite missing the final five games.

On the surface Vigil seems like a solid option on the strong side but he’s never made an impact around the ball like his counterpart Carl Lawson. That is a big reason why he was ranked 84th among linebackers according to Pro Football Focus last year. The experts at PFF pegged him as the lowest of low-end starters and it was a contributing factor in the decision to use another third-round pick on a linebacker this year.

Malik Jefferson is one of the most intriguing athletes to be drafted in 2018 and Nick Vigil likely needs to prove he belongs in a starting role early on to stave off the rookie. The spotlight will be especially bright on him with Burfict on the sideline. One of these young linebackers needs to step up and Vigil should get the chance to be that guy.

Malik Jefferson

Oct 28, 2017; Waco, TX, USA; Texas Longhorns linebacker Malik Jefferson (46) in action during the game against the Baylor Bears at McLane Stadium. The Longhorns defeat the Bears 38-7. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking of the athletic rookie, I truly believe the Bengals used a second-day pick on the former Longhorn because they think he can be a solid contributor for a squad with eyes on the playoffs.

Rey is expected to handle the bulk of the snaps left behind by Burfict, but a strong camp and some early impact plays could vault him into a starter’s role. The physical gifts are there, 4.52 40-yard dash, 27 reps on the bench press, and a 36-inch vertical pop off the page. While many will see those numbers and the 110 tackles (10 for loss) and think “third-rounder, what gives?”

What gives is one key attribute of an NFL linebacker: Focus.

Too often Jefferson struggled to make quick decisions during his time with the Longhorns, relying on his physical gifts to make the majority of his plays. Jefferson’s playing time this season will largely boil down to his willingness to slow things down and absorb all of the knowledge Haslett is dropping on him.

As the former number one high school linebacker in the country and a top-20 recruit in his own right, Jefferson has the talent to craft a similar success story to his oft-suspended teammate.

The first page is ready to be written on September 1st.

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

An Open Letter to Marvin Lewis

Andre Edwards

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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.

 

Sincerely,

Andre

 

P. S. Please take Hue Jackson with you.  Thanks

 

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Cincinnati Bengals

Blog of Football Sorrows: Week 13

Jeffery Carr

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Today I officially changed the name of this game recap blog. It just fits. To be positive about this iteration of the Bengals is to be a master of the mind that I cannot comprehend (aka delusional).

They’re done. I didn’t think they had much hope for the playoffs before the game, and they certainly don’t now. The injuries are a problem, but they aren’t the problem. The offense has been stale for weeks thriving on an identity-less scheme filled with dink and dunk passes and zero creativity. They now have four games left. The Raiders seem winnable, but with the hope of starting over, do we fans want that? Do we want there to be a glimmer of hope in management’s eyes? I don’t. I want change, and that doesn’t happen by winning any remaining games, this year. Lose em all, blow it up, let’s start fixing the problems that have been ignored for too long.

Jeff Driskel, to no fault of his own, was meh. Which is much the story of 2018. The game plan, in the beginning, seemed to be for him to get momentum built through screens and flat routes…but then they kept the training wheels on. Second quarter, third quarter…it kept going. The Bengals fell behind on the scoreboard and their answer was to run more crossing routes and short outs? Cincinnati ran RPO plays…and only passed. They asked an athletic quarterback who can move to stand tall in the pocket and fend off pressure from a defense with its ears pinned back matching up with a bad and battered offensive line. Kind of like James mentioned on the post-game pod, how bad is Cedric Ogbuehi that the answer to filling in for Cordy Glenn is the starting left guard and not your former first round pick, who is actually supposed to be a left tackle? So the coaching game plan was to tell Driskel to grin and bear it behind an uninspired line with uninspired play calling? But, you know, Marvin Lewis says “We’ve got to do our jobs better. The players have to execute the game plan the way it is coached.” What? The game plan hasn’t changed in 10 years! Different personnel, different opponents, different circumstances, same stale, boring, dull, lifeless, clueless plan. I get sick to my stomach when I listen to Marvin do a press conference.

The only thing left is the future, whatever may come. I know that is bleak. Not one of you reading these words can say, with a straight face, that you can see a different coach roaming the sidelines in 2019 who isn’t Marvin or Hue Jackson. We know. We know there isn’t going to be any change, and that’s why the stadium is empty. That’s why the orange in the stands at Paul Brown Stadium was Bronco orange and not Bengal orange. The sound at the end of the game? Cheers and applause, because anyone still there was a fan of the visiting victors. There’s no one left to boo because they’ve been booing for so long they’ve lost interest. It is understood that the most likely outcome this season, if change comes at all, is that Hue takes the reigns. We’ll go from a boring, uninspired, regularly out-maneuvered coach to a joke of a coach. So how can anyone care? I looked at tickets before the game. You could have sit 12 rows back in the endzone for $35…and I said no. Why? Because the joke that is the visual of the stands at PBS is the last thing we fans have left to tell ownership to get their rear in gear and fix this. Will they? You tell me…

Follow @jefffcarr and @lockedonBengals on Twitter for more angst Bengals content.

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Cincinnati Bengals

Replacing Marvin

Russell Heltman

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A lot of Bengals fans (myself included) wondered before the year why a young team with so much talent was pegged with worse Super Bowl odds than our in-state neighbors.

In the eyes of Las Vegas, it didn’t matter that the Bengals rallied to end last season at 7-9 with a signature victory over the Baltimore Ravens. It didn’t matter that the Bengals made legitimate offseason moves to sure up the offensive line. It didn’t matter that Bill Lazor was given a whole offseason to install his system or that Teryl Austin was bringing a turnovers-or-bust mentality with him from Detroit.

It. Didn’t. Matter.

The only thing that mattered was the face of the franchise returning for his 16th year. Marvin Lewis is and always will be the reason people around the NFL don’t take the Bengals seriously and it’s become both a blessing and a curse.

When Lewis arrived in 2003, he inherited what many considered to be one of the worst franchises in pro sports at the time. The players were using old jock straps, it was a dark time in Bengals history. Though to Lewis’ credit, he rebuilt this franchise into something fans could actually be proud of.

They became competitive, they got to the base of Championship Mountain, but that’s not good enough. Of the six coaches in the NFL who’ve been at the helm for at least a decade, Marvin Lewis is the only one without a Super Bowl trophy.

As of Nov. 28, Cincinnati has lost five of their past six games, their defense is the worst in the league, the offense can’t operate without A.J. Green, and they’ve fired one coach in waiting while rehiring another. That go-ahead score against Pittsburgh in mid-October feels like it happened in 2015.

The Bengals might not have moved on from Marvin, but I have, there’s nothing else I need to see following that 35-20 beatdown this past Sunday. ESPN has pegged Lewis with a 60 percent chance to be fired and though this might be for nothing, here are two head coaching paths the Bengals could choose to down in January.

Anyone But Hue Jackson

Aug 29, 2015; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson against the Chicago Bears in a preseason NFL football game at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals won 21-10. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

11-44-1

That’s really all that needs to be said. Hue Jackson is a great POSITION coach, but he has proved over a large sample size that he is inept as a HEAD coach. Jason La Canfora reported before the Browns game that Jackson has a real shot to replace Lewis if he steps down or takes a front office role.

Fans would be less excited about this than retaining Lewis, especially if he’s in the building overseeing nine of the 10 or 11 losses this team is headed for. Who are we kidding here, this is Lewis’ best friend and if anyone has shown the ability to persuade Mike Brown over the last 16 years, it’s Marvin Lewis.

Jackson is the clear frontrunner if a coaching change ends up happening.

Eric Bieniemy

Dec 7, 2014; Glendale, AZ, USA; Kansas City Chiefs running backs coach Eric Bieniemy against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Chiefs 17-14. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

A former Bengals player from 1995-98, This is the home run hire for Cincinnati. Bieniemy is in his first season as offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs and I don’t have to throw stats in here to prove why that’s been a success.

As a former player for the franchise, Bieniemy has that familiarity that Brown always looks for in new hires. He could come in and immediately offer a fresh perspective on this roster, answer the Andy Dalton question, and start to move this organization into a new era.

Bieniemy has primarily coached running backs before taking over for Matt Nagy this season and some great ones at that: Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Kareem Hunt have all learned and thrived under Bieniemy. Imagine his expertise paired with the talent of Joe Mixon.

Oh and for those concerned with the “lack of coaching experience” after just one season as an OC, just look at the past two guys to hold Bieniemy’s current spot. Doug Pederson went from Chiefs OC to winning a Super Bowl, Nagy has turned the Bears from a laughing stock to a contender in his first season. Those expectations might not be fair for Bieniemy, but the blueprint is out there for Mike Brown to make a championship hire.

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