With their post-Thursday Night Massacre Redemption Tour against the mediocrity that is pro football in the American South—seriously, the environment in Tampa Bay 10 days ago looked about as rowdy as a pictionary tournament at a retirement home—coming to a screeching halt Sunday against the Steelers, the question of whether the Bengals can regroup fast enough to save their collective psyches does not matter.
Why? This team has two clear limitations:
*Limitation No. 1: The Bengals are depth-deprived
There’s a reason backups are backups, especially when the backups accumulating playing time are replacing certifiable studs.
Vincent Rey is a nice player, but there’s a reason the linebacker saw time in all 16 games from 2011-13, but recorded only 58 total tackles—that reason is Vontaze Burfict, a Human Tackling Machine that was put on Earth to be one of the best three-down linebackers in the NFL.
There’s a reason Andre Smith was the sixth overall pick of the 2009 draft. Smith takes a lot of shit from fans, but he’s a helluva of a right tackle. Simply moving left guard Clint Boling to right tackle and inserting Mike Pollak into the lineup—then adding ‘depth’ by signing a guy who hasn’t played since 2013 because the Marshall Newhouse Experiment was a disaster—screams ‘patchwork’ and ‘desperate.’
The defensive line has zero depth. Geno Atkins, ineffective while recovering from a major knee injury early in the season, has improved steadily as the year has worn on, but the decline of Domata Peko has hurt the run defense’s effectiveness. Brandon Thompson, Margus Hunt, Devon Still and Robert Geathers don’t move the needle consistently—per ESPN Stats & Info, the Bengals notch sacks on three percent of dropbacks, the worst mark in the NFL—which is bad news for a defense ranked 23rd in defensive DVOA and 28th in total defense.
Burfict and Smith are out for the year. Wideout Marvin Jones (10 touchdown receptions in 2013) never played a snap this season. It’s looking more and more like tight end Tyler Eifert, knocked out in the first quarter of Week 1 with a dislocated elbow, won’t be back. (Get healthy Tyler. I’d rather volunteer for a root canal than witness another tight end screen to Jermaine Gresham.) A.J. Green missed three full games and parts of two others. Gio Bernard missed four weeks.
All that attrition, particularly to key cogs, adds up on a 53-person NFL roster.
*Limitation No. 2: Andy Dalton can’t beat good-to-great teams on his own
This isn’t a criticism of Dalton, but rather a simple reality. The truth arrives with depressing haste, but I’m not sure there are 10 quarterbacks in the league capable of beating good-to-great teams on their own. Every loss by Cincinnati is either indirectly or directly spun as an indictment of the franchise and of Dalton, an unfair but evident truth that only swells when the team plays within the confines of Paul Brown Stadium. (And let’s be clear: Cincinnati didn’t lose Sunday because of Dalton, it lost because the Bengals’ defense made the Steelers looks like the Greatest Show on Turf.)
Still, the truth hurts. Against three teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today, the Bengals have been bludgeoned each time, losing 43-17 to the Patriots, 27-0 to the Colts, and 42-21 to Pittsburgh. With a narrow window to win against non-mediocre teams, how will the Bengals respond in a season-defining close to 2014 against the Browns (7-6), Broncos (10-3) on Monday Night, and Steelers (8-5)?
The past two seasons, the Bengals—with a stout, deep defense and a healthy offense—sewed up playoff berths with strong finishes to the regular season, finishing 4-1 in December during each campaign. If the Bengals are to make their fourth straight playoff appearance, they will have to go against the grain this time around.
Whether it’s the Hue Jackson School of Motivation, Marvin Lewis Foot-in-Mouth Syndrome, or sticking to their Formula for Success, the Bengals need to find a rallying cry and hope pluck trumps talent and depth this December.