Well, at least we know the Bengals aren’t the worst team in the NFL… We also got something else from the admittedly unimportant 30-16 victory over the hapless Oakland/Reno/Santa Clara/Carson/Las Vegas Raiders that snapped a horrid five-game losing streak. Despite the win, results elsewhere meant that Cincinnati was officially eliminated from the postseason, which, as I’ve noted, is almost certainly for the best.
Yet it has to be said that, now that Marvin Lewis has been in charge of the defense for a few games, that side of the ball has indeed looked better. Really since the second half of the Browns game, the Bengals’ D has approached what we expected from the unit before the season began—not special, perhaps, but nothing like the 500-yards per game sieve that took the field for the first 10 games. While running backs catching passes out of the backfield continue to plague the team (last in the NFL) along with production from opponents’ #2 wide receivers (29th), defending tight ends has improved drastically (up to 16th overall) and Cincinnati is actually fifth in the league in stopping #3 and #4 wideouts, for what that’s worth. And since they haven’t been playing from behind as much, the pass rush has been more effective.
William Jackson, as we talked about last week, had another strong game against the Raiders, and Lewis’ switch to more man-to-man concepts has certainly done him good. Sudden Sam Hubbard continued to build on a strong rookie campaign with a pair of sacks and multiple pressures. Shawn Williams had a tremendous game. Geno looked like Geno. Even Dre Kirkpatrick played well. It lets you dream that if only the team could finally get some linebackers who can run and cover, we might have something here.
Meanwhile, our focus from last week, Joe Mixon, had a tremendous afternoon, piling up 129 yards on 27 carries, both career highs, and cracked the end zone twice. It begs the question further: Why hasn’t Mix been featured more heavily this season? And why did it take a plethora of injuries to other playmakers to get us to this point? He’s now fourth in the league in rushing yards with 995, and first in the AFC (Zeke Elliott, Todd Gurley, and Saquon Barkley are the only players with more yards). In terms of efficiency, he has almost exactly the same DVOA and DYAR as Barkley, who some people consider a Hall-of-Famer already.
In other words, Mixon is an elite offensive player, and it’s fair to say he could well be the offensive centerpiece next year even with a healthy A.J. Green out there. Often compared to Le’Veon Bell, Mixon has, by necessity, become more like Barkley or Gurley than Bell this season. With the iffiness up front on the offensive line, Mixon can’t be as patient as he was at Oklahoma, waiting behind a strong blocking line for the holes to develop. Instead he’s relied more on power, like Gurley, and has some boom-or-bust ratio to his carries, like Barkley, though the extra weight has sapped him of Barkley’s home run hitting ability. The fact that we’re comparing him to these elite backs shows how good Mixon already is and how much better he can still be.
What remains for the season’s final fortnight is to get a glimpse of what some other guys can become, notably the younger players buried by Lewis for whatever reason. It should be recalled that last year at this time Tyler Boyd was a bust, consistently in Marvin’s doghouse for not knowing where to be and what to do while on the field. Then in the final couple of games it clicked into place, culminating in the Bomb in Baltimore and extending into this season’s excellent play.
There is no reason why John Ross, who has had some success this year but remains shy of what we hope he can be, can’t be force-fed targets over the last two games. He’s struggled in his sophomore year with effort and route completion, but these things are correctable and just might disappear with some heavy action in the game plan, a la Boyd. Christian Westerman, Christian Ringo, Auden Tate, Darius Philips, and Brandon Wilson are some other players who deserve to have their snaps ramped up. And while we’re at it, how about letting Ross or Gio Bernard return some kicks? Bernard in particular has been lost this season, despite remaining effective when his number is called. Maybe Bill Lazor can call up some two-back sets given the paucity of healthy wideouts? Using the best players still standing is the only way to compete against the Browns and Steelers, and Gio is definitely one of them.
I was very confident the Bengals would shut up the Browns this Sunday and get some payback for last time—until it was confirmed that Boyd is indeed out with a knee sprain (he hasn’t been put on injured reserve yet, though Malik Jefferson showed up there this week, making it 15 Bengals so designated). Jeff Driskel was horrible Sunday, which makes the two-touchdown win over the Raiders that much more impressive, and it was particularly noticeable when Boyd left the game. Cleveland has standout rookie corner Denzel Ward returning from a concussion and has been superb against the pass this season. Cincinnati with its current lineup is perhaps the worst or second-worst passing offense in the league, meaning they’ll lean even more heavily on the run game. It will be tough to win while being so one-dimensional, though I think they can cover the absurd 9-point spread I’ve seen in places.
Of course, knocking the Browns down from their pedestal and perhaps even taking Pittsburgh out of the playoffs, while fantastic, would probably be counter-productive, in much the way last season’s double whammy of wins at the end boomeranged on the team. Lewis would no doubt be back next season, their draft position would be hindered, and the feeling that “we aren’t far away” would prevent the sort of hard self-scouting that’s crucial in BengaLand.
That being said, Cincinnati has a nucleus of exciting young players. There are a coterie of important players who should return from injury, and hopefully there can’t possibly be a repeat of this year’s injury vortex. But there is still something hollow at the core of the team, and no amount of late-season feel good performances will alter that come 2019.
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.