Bengals Preview, Week Eight: Baltimore
What's wrong with this team? There are many more questions surrounding the Bengals, but answering this one pretty much answers the rest.
Obviously there are layers to this issue. If we zoom all the way out from Paul Brown Stadium, the questions lead to team management. At this point, though, the competitive model the Cincinnati Bengals have formed in terms of a football organization can't really be all that criticized anymore. Sure, fans would like playoff wins, but to say that Mike Brown is still the issue is unfounded now that Katie Blackburn and Marvin Lewis have increasingly taken more vital roles of the team. The Bengals didn't lose last week because Mike Brown owns the team.
Scrutinizing the coaches is the next layer to the onion, though it seems important to remember how pleased everyone was with play-calling at the beginning of the season on both sides of the ball. Marvin Lewis isn't the rah-rah type of coach—and is often criticized for it—but he employs a consistently talented coaching staff and runs a good program. That being said, there is a shadow over this team that the men in charge must learn to overcome, and that is: when the team feels it is under the microscope, and things start to go bad, they so often collectively wilt and allow the moment to become bigger than themselves.
Had Cincinnati lost to New England and Indianapolis more admirably by picking themselves up from the mat and showing a little fire before they lost, a certain amount of pride and integrity would remain around this team. As it is, however, their propensity to become absolutely shell-shocked and allow themselves to become feasted upon after a negative sequence is a disturbing trend that may be a team personality issue.
As for the coordinators, there is more room there to place blame than the head coach. Last week's offensive game plan came off as perhaps too rigid once it was apparent that the original strategy wasn't getting it done. Hue Jackson may have outsmarted himself by resisting the run and calling a lot of lateral plays when they did go to the ground game. I can sympathize with Jackson in terms of not having the team's top three pass-catchers, but if receivers aren't getting open and the opposing defense has whipped itself into a frenzy on screens and pitch plays, running straight ahead can't be the worst option, can it?
Next is the player evaluation stage of answering our original question of what's wrong this team. Injuries have been annoying in the season's first half so far. A.J. Green not playing is the biggest blow and has really strained the position's depth. Mohamed Sanu has been good and sometimes looks like a poor man's Julio Jones, and the others have made plays on occasion this year too, but over the course of a season, not having your big guns eventually catches up with teams and severely limits their offensive explosiveness. With Green apparently not playing again this week, and after the dismal output of a week ago, how can this team not rely more on the run?
The offensive line hasn't found its run-blocking rhythm so far. They all appear to be adequate pass protectors, but it seems important that the group establish an identity in the ground game. Last year in San Diego, Andrew Whitworth moved over to left guard and they became a heavy smash-mouth team that ran the ball down the Chargers throats that day. The Bengals aren't going to do that again because of the lack of quality left tackle depth, but maybe they can still be a power-run team that stays under center and runs inside the tackle box, preferably with Jeremy Hill. Basic? Yes, but clearly the fancy stuff isn't working right now.
How the Bengals will morph their approach is hard to say due to the ineptitude of last week. The best teams are always changing and slipping out of one style of play to another. Most times, teams do stress the run later in the season as the wintery elements set in so perhaps Jackson will begin to lean in that direction. No matter what kind of style he goes with, however, simplifying the game seems appropriate at this point.
Defensively, the Bengals are missing a lot of talent in their linebacker ranks. For as great as Vontaze Burfict has been in his first two years, his Tasmanian Devil style of play is quickly wearing out his body, particularly his head. One has to wonder how reliable a player that gets his bell rung in every game can be. Emmanuel Lemur has been on and off the field and Rey Maualuga is nursing a pulled hamstring. That leaves all backups and it shows.
Today's linebacker simply can't cover very well in the NFL, so coaches drop them back in a zone and tell them to react if any action comes into their area. It doesn't work that great, especially when there is not enough of a pass rush to distract the quarterback. During the last three weeks, it's looked like the Bengals defense allowed the offense to play the style it wants rather than dictate the strategy and force the opposition out of its comfort zone. With the steady investment the team has made in pass rushers in recent years, Paul Guenther has to find a way to get more sacks. The whole philosophy is to relieve the pressure of an aged secondary and backup linebackers with a heavy pass rush from the front four. When that doesn't happen, the whole thing breaks down and tight ends find empty spots on the field on third down all day long.
The Ravens love using the middle of the field when they pass. In their wins the last two weeks, Baltimore roasted Tampa Bay and Atlanta on slants and seam routes up the middle. The linebackers looked completely inept in zone coverage against them and Joe Flacco seems like he's in one of those comfortable stretches, which makes him dangerous.
The reason he feels so comfortable is because all of the offensive parts are meshing perfectly with one another right now. The offensive line that seemed like a question mark in the beginning of the year has found their sweet spot by creating running lanes for Justin Forsett and giving Flacco the time he needs to take those long drop-backs that he likes so much. Because Forsett has been so successful in the first part of this year, the offense as a whole is humming right along. It's up to the Bengals defensive line to disrupt the offensive harmony Baltimore has put together.
So we've answered our question. This team cannot handle adversity when the spotlight is on them, and, their offensive line cannot block well on the runs that have been called by coordinator Hue Jackson. The spotlight remains on them this Sunday because of the increasing doubt that is piling upon the Bengals thanks to some recent stinkers against quality teams. They are not getting any receiver help this week, so if the line can't create space for the running backs, how can the Bengals move the ball? They do play well at home and they should come out angry and aggressive, but those factors aren't enough to tip the scale.
Ravens 24, Bengals 22
Written by Bryan Burke, associate editor