The Bengals’ D Gets a Passing Grade

Every other facet of the winless team’s play has been a failure.
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Considering the Bengals entered last Sunday’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars minus their starting offensive tackles, perimeter wideouts, defensive ends, and cornerbacks, a long afternoon was seemingly nigh. Yet despite the missing parts and another tragicomic effort at running the ball, somehow the Bengals led the game to start the fourth quarter; except for an Andy Dalton implosion in the final 15 minutes, they could well have pulled out that elusive first win of the season. Alas, of course, they did not, losing 27-17 thanks to Big D’s three fourth quarter interceptions.

 

I’m supposed to be good with the losses, I know, meaning as it does a higher draft slot. But I’m not. And I’m really not OK with the endless futility in the run game. Sunday in particular made little sense from a scheme standpoint. The Bengals stayed in “11” personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) to the point of inanity, despite the fact that their best wideout on the day was Alex Erickson, the fact that they re-signed two tight ends in the offseason and drafted a third in the second round, and the fact that they have two supposedly top-shelf running backs. If ever there was a day to put multiple tight ends on the field as an essential part of the game plan—perhaps even a “13” package utilizing Messrs. Eifert, Uzomah, and Sample—it was Sunday. Instead, the coaches continued to let their D-level offensive line lose matchup after matchup, and the run game was nonexistent as a result.

This is the kind of thinking that turns Joe Mixon into Corey Dillon. He is already aping CD’s moves, such as peeling off his uniform a piece at a time while on the field in the dying moments of the game and bolting the locker room before saying something he regrets. I mean, his last 18 carries have gone for 12 total yards! Mixon could be Christian McCaffrey if used properly. Right now he’s being completely wasted not only behind a terrible line but with a playbook that doesn’t utilize his talents at all. Remember, the line stunk last season, too, but Mixon managed to lead the AFC in rushing anyway. It has to be deeply frustrating.

As we speak, the Bengals have 372 yards rushing as a team on the season. They’ve allowed 1,323, a difference of nearly a grand, a stack, a large one. In seven games! I won’t get into the historic pace that implies, but suffice to say you’d think Zac Taylor and his handpicked staff of geniuses would alter their approach if only to stay out of the record books. But this week’s game is against Taylor’s mentor, Sean McVay, and his Los Angeles Rams. No doubt Taylor will feel compelled to try and beat the master at his own game, meaning yet more “11” scheming. Aaron Donald awaits.

Given all of that offensive futility, it is something of a minor miracle that in the seven losses the Bengals have been at least competitive, and actually ahead in the fourth quarter in five of them. That’s a tribute to the continuing excellence in a specific (and crucial) area: Red Zone defense. It was on display again on Sunday, from the very first drive, when Leonard Fournette was stuffed on fourth and goal from the one. Jacksonville was also forced to kick a pair of 29-yard field goals in the first half, and pierced the 20-yard line again after Cincinnati fumbled early in the second half, only to be held to three once more. Toss in a late-game hold inside the 10 to force yet another field goal, and the Bengals allowed a TD on just one of six Red Zone trips. Cincinnati has now allowed a big score on just 40.7% of RZ opportunities, good for fourth in the NFL. With any offense at all, the Bengals could be above .500 and right in the playoff chase.

Alas, that one touchdown was a crippler. Tony McRae saw a ton of the field with starting CBs William Jackson and Dre Kirkpatrick out, and for the most part he held up OK. But he was burned on a little comeback lob to Chris Conley and again on the 2-point conversion, and those were killers. Well, maybe not so much if Dalton had been better, but on a day when the defense did a lot right, that sequence was glaring.

Quintessential Florida Man and rookie sensation Gardner Minshew was held mostly in check, thanks in part to Geno Atkins’ best game of the season as well as sound pass rush lane discipline. The same team that was carved up by Lamar Jackson’s runs last week held Minshew to 48 yards on his nine scrambles.

With so many players injured, two efforts stood out besides Geno. In his first game back off the PUP list, slot corner Darqueze Dennard didn’t tiptoe into the wading pool so much as cannonball into the deep end, playing 70 snaps and giving a game effort in run support. And safety Shawn Williams stayed on the field for every play despite limping on a bum quad. Had the offense done any damn thing, those two would have gotten game balls.

The defense hasn’t given up, but has Cordy Glenn? The drama of the concussed tackle was the embarrassing sideshow leading up to the game, with Glenn suspended apparently for pointing out that O-line coach Jim Turner was a terrible hire, which we all knew at the time he was brought aboard. The situation has become similar to the one in D.C., where Trent Williams refuses to play for an organization he (rightly) feels doesn’t care about his well-being. There was another lineman/medical staff contretemps with the Jets, where guard Kelechi Osemele said the Gang Green doctors were forcing Toradol on him in order to get him to play while injured. In other words, the three crappiest organizations in football are in dispute with important wide bodies they counted on to help their offense, which currently none of the three can do. (At least the Bengals scored this weekend, unlike the Jets or Skins.)

Who can blame Glenn if he’s in conflict with a historically player-unfriendly medical staff in Cincinnati? The team has a long record of misdiagnoses, running players out before they’re fully healed, and improper preparation for preventing injury in the first place. Between Glenn and the ongoing mystery of A.J. Green’s ankle, the status of various body parts is about the lone remaining suspense in BengalLand in 2019.

As I write this column, our old pal Mo Sanu was traded by the Falcons to the Patriots (natch) for a second-round pick in next year’s draft. It goes without saying that we need all the draft picks we can get. I remain on the fence about trading Green, but not when it comes to the other dealable assets on the roster, including Dalton if anyone will have him. The franchise has got to show fans it gives even a whisker of a rat’s fanny, or the resulting checkout will be epic.

Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders and authored three books. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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