A Must-Win Game?

The Bengals get a beatable Tampa team at home, hoping to right the season before a bye and an easier second-half schedule.
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In the 2017 draft, the Bengals chose John Ross with the ninth pick. Kansas City then traded up and with the 10th pick selected Patrick Mahomes. And that’s about all I’ll say about Sunday night’s entirely predictable yet still entirely depressing debacle.

 

Yes, as I thought would happen back before the Steelers-Chiefs two-step, Cincinnati is now being dismissed as fraudulent in the national media. But little has changed, other than the fact that any confidence this might finally be the year the Bengals win a playoff game is now out the window. But within the context of the regular season, a win at home over entirely beatable Tampa this Sunday would put the Cats at 5-3 at the halfway mark, with a much-needed bye week to follow and a manageable second half sked ahead. A 5-3 mark is something we all would have taken before the season began, and given the fact the Bengals have had the second-most difficult schedule thus far (by DVOA) it’s a pretty good achievement. There’s no reason to believe the campaign won’t come down to that final game in Pittsburgh, just like we always knew it would.

The main complication at the moment is the team’s hurricane of injuries, which has left the Bengals with major issues in various spots, especially at tight end. Remember back in August, when the position was so deep the Bengals could release Ryan Hewitt? Right now, with only C.J. Uzomah healthy and five others down for the count, the team would kill to have Hewitt back. Heck, they might call Arizona to get Jermaine Gresham back at this point. Has Rodney Holman been working out? How about Bob Trumpy?

With the trade deadline approaching and several teams open for business, should the Bengals be calling around the league for deal possibilities? Of course they should. Oakland might be willing to part with Jared Cook, even though he’s been their best player. Cincinnati should certainly ask about getting right guard Gabe Jackson while they’re at it. Or if Gareon Conley is really available, throw a draft choice at Jon “10 Years, $100 Million, Suckers” Gruden and see if he bites. Oakland already has seven former Bengals on its roster—one of the reasons they stink—so why not?

Patrick Peterson, Hassan Reddick, and Deone Bucannon are reportedly on the block in Arizona. Chris Harris and Demaryius Thomas could be pried out of Denver. Then there are the Giants, also apparently in teardown mode. Evan Engram doesn’t seem like he’d be dealt, but it can’t hurt to ask, right? Alec Ogletree and Janoris Jenkins have expensive contracts, but Cincinnati has never been shy about spending to win, right?

Oh, yeah, I got a bit dizzy there for a second. Of course the Bengals won’t be aggressive about trying to improve the squad from outside. That would require what is called in the business world “second-line thinking”—adaptation to a changing environment with quickness and smarts. This front office doesn’t bother with that. So even after the Eagles fortified their team a year ago with midseason trades to the point they could actually win the Super Bowl with Nick Foles at quarterback, Cincinnati will sit back as always and go with who they have, while prizing future draft choices that haven’t exactly been panning out of late.

Meanwhile, the K.C. game sent Cincinnati plummeting all the way to 22nd in the league in DVOA, down from 12th. They’re now 27th in defense, which is what happens when you can’t tackle, the linebackers are painfully exposed, and the turnovers dry up. Indeed, Teryl Austin is not impressing in his debut season as defensive coordinator. Yes, defense is a league-wide issue, and injuries have hurt here, too. But when Mike Zimmer was around, the team could scheme and play call its way out of weaknesses. So far, that hasn’t happened. To be fair, not many teams stop Pittsburgh and Kansas City. Let’s see what the defense does with the Bucs, ranked 11th in offensive DVOA (27th overall).

The good news is Tampa is even worse on defense than the Bengals—dead last in the NFL. They’ve actually been pretty solid against the run, but it hasn’t mattered since teams are chucking it at will on their secondary. Tampa’s defensive coordinator, Mike Smith, was given the ol’ Zampese and heaved overboard a week ago in favor of Mark Duffner. The team responded by playing well for three quarters against the Browns last Sunday before almost choking away a big lead in the fourth quarter.

The pass rush, a focus for the boys in pewter in the offseason, remains highly disappointing (24th in Adjusted Sack Rate). Tight ends and running backs have destroyed Tampa’s coverage all season. We know Cincinnati will be hard pressed to take advantage of the former, but the screen game to Joe Mixon should be highly rewarding. It hasn’t been the last couple of weeks, however, and that’s worrying. Mixon was targeted 12 times against Pittsburgh and K.C. and has all of 21 yards to show from it—incredibly, under two yards per target. He had one yard (one!) receiving on Sunday night. Yuck.

Much of this is scheme. The Bengals tend to motion Mixon out, then throw to him as the defense converges, leaving it up to him to proceed from there, rather than vacate space for him to maneuver. It’s got to be frustrating for Mixon, who has excellent hands and could be dangerous in a scheme devoted to making him a more diverse weapon. It’s somewhat on the backs, too, though—neither Mixon nor Gio Bernard are breaking any tackles out there. Sometimes schemes (and stats) are made to look good by players outperforming their opponents. Right now neither the coaches nor the players are getting it done.

The Bucs are in a similar swing spot to Cincinnati, sitting at a somewhat unexpected 3-3 with a soft second-half schedule and a murky long-term future. Dirk Koetter is coaching for his job, Jameis Winston quarterbacking for his, and the team could well be broken up if it loses to the Bengals and decides to re-rack in 2019. They will be very motivated Sunday, make no mistake, and with Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson and, worse for the Bengals, a pair of playmaking tight ends in O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate, they’ll be able to put up points. Until Sunday night, the Bengals had matched other teams in the firepower department. But since Tyler Eifert’s injury and with Ross back on the shelf and Alex Redmond continuing to plague the team at right guard, the team is less able to do so right now than it’s been all season.

Tampa’s defense is a mess, yes, but then so was Kansas City’s, and the Bengals made that unit look as though Buck Buchanan, Willie Lanier, and Bobby Bell were still roaming the field. A much, much better performance from the healthy players and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor is required in order to reach 5-3. Reportedly there was a players-only meeting in the wake of the Chiefs game. Let’s hope it had some effect.

If nothing else, the game is back in Cincinnati’s comfort zone, Sunday at 1 p.m. Let’s hope last Sunday night will make the league and NBC think twice about flexing the Sunshine Stripes under the lights again any time soon.

Robert Weintraub is a Fulcher 2 Stay contributor and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. He is also the author of three books. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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