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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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Podcast

Austin, Bates and Kirkpatrick discuss George Iloka’s release

James Rapien

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I discuss the Bengals’ decision to release George Iloka on today’s podcast. Plus, hear from defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and the man who’s expected to replace Iloka in the starting lineup – Jessie Bates. Hear that and more on today’s Locked on Bengals podcast.

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Cincinnati Bengals

Grading the Bengals victory in Dallas

Russell Heltman

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The Cincinnati Bengals are undefeated halfway through the 2018 preseason slate but if the 2017 Browns taught us anything it’s that victories before September matter a lot less than the performances that go into them. With that being said it was a victorious night for the orange and black but it was rarely pretty, time to assess their performance in each phase of the game.

Offense: C-

It was an ugly night on offense for Cincinnati, The starters basically no-showed in the first half and here’s how each drive looked before they headed to the locker room: Punt, Punt, Punt, Fumble, Punt, Interception.

All in all the first-team offense put together two drives with no first downs and 10 total yards.

That’s enough to put any team down three scores early in a regular season game and plenty of those struggles were linked to the offensive line. The left side looked decent with Clint Boling and Cordy Glenn proving they can be trusted with backside pressure. Outside of that, it was pretty rough, Bobby Hart started the game at right tackle and was shredded by Pro Bowl end Demarcus Lawrence. Cedric Ogbuehi was even worse as his replacement, allowing a sack to Taco Charlton even though he was called for a hold on the play.

As for right guard and center, Trey Hopkins didn’t make any egregious mistakes and contributed as the center on a 14-play, 92-yard TD drive in the third quarter. The argument could be made for him to be the backup center over T.J. Johnson.

Rookie center Billy Price on the other hand still has a lot of work to do, some of it looks like rookie mistakes but that is now two games into his career where he’s looked a little lost. The former Buckeye isn’t quite where we need him to be three weeks from Indianapolis. Right now Joe Mixon is averaging 2.4 yards per carry in the preseason, don’t expect that to get much better without improvement up front.

On a positive note, Jeff Driskel looked competent and collected in the second half. The Florida product went 10-of-16, for 116 yards and 1 interception but he led the Bengals longest drive of the night highlighted by this gem to John Ross.

The Bengals got the win and scored 21 points but still have a long, long way to go on the offensive line.

Defense: A

I fully expect this group to be the heart and soul of the 2018 Cincinnati Bengals.

They were absolutely dominant in Dallas, especially on the defensive line where they picked up five sacks including this power rush from Jordan Willis.

Sam Hubbard, Nick Vigil, and Carl Lawson tallied a sack and highlighted this crew’s biggest strengths: depth and versatility. Teryl Austin has the luxury of a talented front seven that isn’t reliant on one or two players but on the machine as a whole. The Cowboys could never get into a rhythm offensively because Cincinnati consistently won the first two seconds of each play. Andrew Billings was a big part of that equation, he got pressure on the inside all night and all but cemented a starting spot alongside Geno Atkins.

Pair this group with another deep crew in the cornerback room and all of those issues I mentioned above might not matter if the defense only allows 13 points on a regular basis.

As for the last line of defense, rookie Jessie Bates III got some first-team reps in place of George Iloka and looked the part, Austin has talked about running more three-safety looks all offseason and Bates III is making that game plan look more likely each week.

The offense might not be ready but this defense, despite missing Vontaze Burfict, looks ready to pounce on Andrew Luck in week one.

Special Teams: B+

This was arguably the Jonathan Brown game.

The soccer convert out of Louisville had never kicked a field goal at any level before coming to the NFL and now he has put the pressure on incumbent kicker Randy Bullock. Brown went 2-for-2 on field goal tries including a 55-yard field in the third quarter, that would have tied the Bengals regular season record set by Mike Nugent.

Marvin Lewis came out after the game and said Bullock is still the guy, which isn’t big news, he did go 18-of-20 for the Bengals last season, but keep an eye on Brown over the last two preseason games. Cincinnati let a young kicker go last year who is shaping up to be pretty special.

As far as the return game goes, Darius Phillips will be returning his fair share of kicks for the Bengals this season. he flashed serious game-breaking ability last night, finishing with three returns for 96 total yards. Making it pretty clear how he left Western Michigan as the NCAA’s all-time leader in return touchdowns.

Phillips can slide in alongside Alex Erickson this season and form one of the most dynamic return duos in the NFL. The Cowboys put together a couple of nice kickoff returns but Cincinnati’s unit won the night in the end.

The Bengals were edged out in one phase while dominating the other two and that often leads to victories in the NFL. We will see if they can link all three together next week in Buffalo.

 

For more quick-hit thoughts on the Bengals follow me on Twitter: @russheltman11

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Cincinnati Bengals

Players are buying into Bill Lazor’s offense

James Rapien

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The Bengals finished dead last in total offense last season. Yes, the 0-16 Browns finished ahead of them. So did the Colts, who played all 16 games without quarterback Andrew Luck. If you love offense, then you probably didn’t enjoy watching the Bengals last season. They scored less than 10 points in five games and didn’t reach the end zone until week three.

The offense hit rock bottom in 2017, but they don’t expect that trend to continue. Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor led a complete overhaul of an offensive that had been in place since Andy Dalton and A.J. Green were drafted in 2011. Sure, they made some tweaks over the past seven seasons, but nothing like this. Lazor rebuilt an offense that needed it desperately and the players are buying in.

“I like it. It’s different terminology, numbers and stuff like that,” Alex Erickson said. “It’s obviously challenging in the beginning, but we’ve had minicamp and OTA’s to really learn it. It’s allowed us to really progress this training camp.”

Erickson hasn’t played on a winning Bengals team. He beat out Brandon Tate for a roster spot in 2016, after going undrafted. The former Wisconsin Badger is one of the many weapons that Lazor has in his arsenal. Did he design a system that will put the skill players in the best position to succeed? That’s a question that cannot be answered until actual games start, but it’s been asked since Lazor was named offensive coordinator.

The Bengals used high draft picks on skill players over the past three seasons. They drafted a wide receiver in the top ten, a running back in the second round and multiple wide receivers in rounds two through four. They have former pro bowler Tyler Eifert, a talented running back like Giovani Bernard and a top five wide receiver in Green. Did Lazor design a system that will get the most out of a young, but talented offense? Third-year wide receiver Tyler Boyd loves the depth this team has.

“We got fresh guys out there. Guys that are hungry,” Boyd said. “Guys that are willing and dying to get out there on the field and make plays. Every guy wants the best out of each other. We do a great job of motivating each other, grinding hard and competing with one another. We all have a great friendship. We’re all cool and we’re all real tight. We all want everyone to play a part. We don’t want it to just be me and A.J. all of the time. We are able to get me and A.J. a break or get two fresh guys in there and continue what we were doing. It makes it a lot easier for the offense to improve from last year.”

That unselfishness is important to have, even on a team that finished dead last in total offense last season. There are a lot of mouths to feed. From Joe Mixon and Bernard, to Eifert and Tyler Kroft, who are both in contract years. Boyd is eager to prove last year was a mere speed bump, in what will be a successful career in Cincinnati. Former ninth overall pick John Ross not only wants to move past last season, he wants to show people that the Bengals made the right decision when they drafted him in 2017. Instead of worrying about their own touches, it seems like the offense is more worried about being successful.

Fans got their first glimpse of Lazor’s new offense last Thursday at Paul Brown Stadium. The first-team offense scored two touchdowns on three drives. Dalton completed six passes to five different players. They were nearly perfect, outside of an interception that occurred when Ross fell down on a route. The Bengals are buying into Lazor’s system and the skill players are excited about their potential.

“You look at the depth at each and every position. To me, it’s absolutely insane,” tight end C.J. Uzomah said. “It’s not fair – how much skill we have. The offensive line is protecting well. When we’re able to establish the run early, I think that opens everything else up.”

The Bengals will need to be better on the ground this season. They averaged 3.6 yards-per-carry last year and finished next to last in the NFL in total rushing yards with 1,366. Detroit was last with 1,221. If this team is going to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2015, they’re going to need their rushing attack to take a significant step forward. The offensive line is expected to be better with the additions of Cordy Glenn, Billy Price and Bobby Hart. Improvement up front will give Lazor a chance to show he can properly utilize two dynamic and versatile running backs in Mixon and Bernard.

And while the Bengals offense may begin with the ground game, it certainly won’t end there. They have made a concerted effort to throw the ball downfield in training camp. That makes sense when you have Green, Ross and other young players who are capable of making huge plays. Rookie Auden Tate has been impressive and so has second-year wide receiver Josh Malone.

They have shown their potential throughout training camp. Don’t look now, but this offense may complete a 180-degree turnaround from where they were a year ago.

 

For more on Bengals training camp, listen to today’s Locked on Bengals podcast:

 

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