Bengals Preview, Week Six: Carolina
Sunday night's drubbing at the hands of the Patriots put the Bengals in a bad mood this week.
There was talk of fans jumping off of the bandwagon after the big loss, the ire toward Marvin Lewis reared its ugly head again, and the credibility of the team and its promising future was damaged mightily for just one loss on the season.
It all seems like overreacting really. Former great James Lofton said it best. When you look at a schedule before the season begins and you feel you could go 12-4 on the year after looking at that schedule, you probably feel pretty good about things. Nonetheless, you still accounted for four losses on the year. So which games do you therefore chalk up as losses? Wouldn't playing in New England on a Sunday night likely qualify for a predicted loss before the season unfolded? Of course.
Obviously no one likes a blowout, but what happened can easily be summed as this: the Bengals were caught by surprise by the most hurried-up offense the world has seen in a while, and by the time they settled in some, the game had spiraled out of control on them. Tom Brady was masterful in his dissection of the Cincinnati defense and looked like his hall-of-fame self after he was written off as a has-been the week before.
The Bengals took one on the chin and were showed the newest way to beat them. You could perceive it as doom and gloom if you'd like, but it's almost guaranteed the men in the Cincinnati locker room don't see that way. Instead, they probably see the game as a learning lesson and they should be better prepared the next time a team tries those types of shenanigans again.
The team they play this week isn't likely to replicate the furious pace the Patriots displayed a week ago. While Cam Newton still has a computer-generated prototype of a body for an NFL quarterback, he does not have the mastery of his offense the way Brady has of his. Newton has a rocket arm, of course, but his passing accuracy is only average at best. All too often, and especially on third down, his throws are too high and lead to incompletions or tipped interceptions.
Also Newton has sadly become notorious for his moping when the chips are down. Perhaps no other quarterback facially demonstrates his disappointment than does Cam. Even if the game is still in hand, if he thinks it's over, he plays like it. To me, this is his greatest drawback.
What doesn't help the situation is that the weapons around him have dried up quickly. Gone is Steve Smith who brought toughness and grit to an offense that was void of it without him. Hurt again are their two first-round running backs of DeAngelo Williams and Johnathan Stewart. Even the cinder block Mike Tolbert is on the injury list which leaves names that are hard to recognize that run the ball for the Panthers.
They did draft a unique offensive player with their first pick this year in receiver Kelvin Benjamin who is simply immense for a wide out. So far, he has made the plays that Carolina was banking on him making and looks like a match-up nightmare for any defensive back in the NFL. Benjamin excels at making the contested catch and uses his big body well to shield much smaller defenders. His size also helps Newton's inconsistent accuracy as he is able to bring in some of the high passes we see from Cam.
Along those lines is tight end Gregg Olson who is another big, tough guy that has proven to be a reliable target for Newton and the Panthers. This pair gives Carolina targets that have a wide catch-radius and aren't afraid to take on contact when bringing the ball in. Because of their youth and inexperience at the position, they also signed veterans Jericho Cotchery and Jason Avant to provide stability, yet rather under-whelming athletic characteristics. This group is not likely to hurt defenses deep but can become problematic if the Bengals allow them to catch shorter passes for first downs on a nickel-and-dime approach.
What Cincinnati didn't do last week, which was likely due to the early shock of facing an immediate deficit brought on by the hurry-up, was jam the Patriots receivers at the line of scrimmage. Tight ends especially were wide open on seam routes all night as they came off the line untouched and found large open pockets in the soft Bengal zone coverage. The linebackers proved especially vulnerable in pass protection as they were either unable to get to the flats fast enough to prevent first downs or became lost in space between the hash marks.
New England wasn't able to go deep, and nor should Carolina be able to do the same. That is all fine and good, but if a defense can't stop the eight-yard pass play seemingly at all, a blowout can ensue all the same, as we saw on prime-time last Sunday.
The Bengals must be aggressive and physical inside the box. They have to get their hands on receivers and tight ends before they get out of their break in order to disrupt the timing between receiver and quarterback. They have to create a surge at the line of scrimmage that doesn't allow the ball carrier to fall forward on short-yardage conversions. Their front four need to find a way to get to the quarterback if the linebackers and secondary are unable to help out on blitzes. In a word, the Bengals must be tougher, something that seemed automatic before everything fell apart in Foxboro.
On offense, sticking with the run game seems like the logical focal point heading into this match up. Some of that has to do with the fact that Cincinnati will be without its most talented pass-catchers in Tyler Eifert, Marvin Jones (still) and, of course, A.J. Green. For a lot of teams, not suiting up three players of this caliber would be terrifying but the Bengals have won this way before. Andy Dalton has been much more careful avoiding turnovers this season and despite last week's woes, looks to be in total command of the offensive playbook. Mohamed Sanu has elevated his game this season and has been absolutely vital to the team's early success. After treading water for his first couple of years in the league, Sanu this year under Hue Jackson has really showcased his multiple talents and is a hard player to guard.
The key, though, is the explosive running back pair of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard and the offensive line they run behind. Everybody likes what Gio does for the Stripes. He's an exciting fireball of potential with nifty footwork and noticeable acceleration, but his running style does not provide enough consistency to feature him as the team's marquee back. Hill is much better suited as the grinder that can carry the bulk of the load and get medium gains on regular basis. Bernard then is the ideal change-of-pace back that can blowup for a big gain, or be stopped at the line for no gain. An offense simply has a much harder time staying on schedule when giving the ball to a feat-or-famine back like Gio rather than a between-the-tackles, downhill runner like Hill.
The Panthers defense only rushes the passer well with their front four. Outside of that, they do not stop the run well, they have one reliable tackler in their second and third tier and have regularly been pushed around by tougher teams like Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Their secondary gives a ton of cushion to receivers before the snap and none of them stand out as what might be described as playmakers.
If the Bengals can get an early lead or even simply hang around within one score, they should lean on the run, even on third down. If it comes down to a lot of punts and a low score, then the game should be decided by self-inflicted mistakes which the Bengals have done very well this year to avoid, at least in their first three games. Many of Carolina's opponents this season have looked to their tight ends to make plays against the Panthers outside linebackers, but Jermaine Gresham continues to be a beacon of frustration for his team and their fans as his penalties, drops and fumbles have gone on long enough to prove to us that he is simply that kind of player. His window to improve is all but closed at this point, and because of his deficiencies, the running game and the Sanu passing game becomes even more paramount to the Bengals success.
Lastly, Mike Nugent must become more consistent when he is given field goal opportunities. When a team is missing multiple big-play, touchdown threats, the grind-it-out kicking game becomes crucial to that team's success. Loyalty toward kickers is already extremely tenuous. Once that faith is shaken, it is almost impossible to restore it to its previous levels.
The Bengals have to show that they are an emotionally even-keeled group. If they come out sluggish on offense, and are unable to stop whatever backup running back the Panthers trot out there, real concern will become immediately tangible. If they play strong at home like they usually do, however, the world will return to normalcy, and the Bengals will become contenders once more in the mind of many.
Bengals 20, Panthers 10
Written by Bryan Burke, associate editor
Photo via Bengals Facebook page