The Bengals at Midseason: Optimism or Pessimism?

After crunching all the numbers, the answer is a little of both.

Exhale, everybody. Yes, a loss to Tampa would have really stung. Blowing a three-touchdown lead at home to lose to Cincinnati’s onetime backup QB would have really really stung, perhaps even been season-killing. As Tyler Boyd eloquently put it, “That would have been a hurt piece.”

Fortunately, Andy Dalton led yet another game-winning—or, in the case of the Pittsburgh game, shoulda-been-game-winning—drive, and the Bengals escaped with the 37-34 victory and the 5-3 record we all would have signed up for when the schedule first came out. How crucial to the big picture was the W? According to my colleagues at Football Outsiders, Cincinnati’s playoff odds increased 21.9% with the win, up to 48.2%, by far the biggest leap of the weekend. They’re still slightly behind the Steelers and the Ravens in this department, but a loss would have devastated their chances.

And, thank the Lord, the bye week is here. Boy, does this injury-riddled squad ever need it. Especially the defense. Remember back in September, when the thought was this could be an elite defense or at least approximate one in this pass-happy era? Times sure have changed. Now the Bengals have given up more yards than any team in the NFL and are on pace to give up more yards than any team in NFL history. Yikes.

Yards allowed is, of course, a largely meaningless stat in the big picture, but the more relevant stats are hardly encouraging. Only four teams have given up more yards per play, for example; much worse, only three others are surrendering more points per game. Cincinnati remains dead last in third down percentage allowed, and only the Browns have faced more snaps from scrimmage against. The Bengals are 25th in defensive DVOA, 29th against the run.

Part of the reason the Bengals’ stats are so bad on defense is the high quality of offenses they’ve been forced to try to stop—indeed, no team has faced a higher aggregate offensive DVOA in the first half of the season than Cincinnati. But there is little doubt that the tackling has been atrocious, the linebackers picked on relentlessly in the passing game, and the run defense gashed. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin needs to spend the week off trying to find a way to staunch the bleeding.

Fortunately, Austin has been here before: His 2015 Lions were also historically bad on defense in the first half of the season, then totally turned things around after a bye week. Can he do the same in BengalLand? The schedule won’t help in that department: Five of the remaining eight games are against top-14 offenses by DVOA, including #3 (Chargers), #4 (Saints), #8 (Steelers), #10 (Broncos), and #14 (Ravens). Only the pair of Browns games figure to be easier rows to hoe; even there, we won’t have Hue Jackson to kick around anymore. Cincinnati outscored Jackson’s Browns 115-50 in the four games they played in 2016-17.

The one area where Austin’s unit has delivered, as promised, is in turnovers. They have 13 takeaways (10 of those interceptions) and four touchdown returns, a huge reason the Bengals are 5-3 instead of 3-5. For all the complaints about poor play, this is what counts in such a closely contested league. Last season, the defense was equally inconsistent but managed just 14 takeaways all year—a major reason they finished 7-9—and turnovers will be the reason the Bengals improve on that record.

There are other subtle indicators that have helped the cause. Somewhat surprisingly, the Bengals are beneficiaries of the yellow hankies. Cincinnati has been called for 51 accepted penalties, tied for 15th-most (Pittsburgh leads the league with 66) and are mid-pack in yardage at 458 (the Steelers are again the worst, with 588). But Cincinnati’s opponents have been flagged 64 times for 533 yards (second- and third-most in the league, respectively), and that plus-13 penalty differential puts the Bengals at third best in the NFL.

How much of that is to the Bengals’ credit and how much is their opponents’ ineptitude is tricky to quantify precisely, but one obvious area is in forcing pass interference. Cincinnati is tied for the league lead in drawing DPI penalties, which further augments the passing attack’s excellence.

That leads us to the stars of the first half, the Rifle (Andy Dalton) and the Lazor (offensive coordinator Bill Lazor). Perhaps the only stat as important as forced turnovers is red zone scoring percentage, where the Bengals are leading the NFL by banging it in for six 77% of the time they get inside the 20. Talent and matchups can get you down the field, but it takes scheming and play calling to get it in the end zone. A good touchdown rate means an offensive coordinator is getting the job done.

Dalton is playing very well, especially given the injuries that have robbed the offense of playmakers. Lazor is putting him in good spots. The offensive line, coached up by Frank Pollack, has played well overall, despite troubles along the right side and the injury to top pick Billy Price. The unit ranks 10th in Adjusted Sack Rate and is tied for eighth in least pressure allowed and tied for ninth in rushing yards before contact. Who would’ve thought that after last year’s debacle?

Lazor has the Bengals humming in another important and underappreciated stat: conversion rate on third and medium (between three and six yards to go), where Cincinnati is sixth in the NFL. Third and long is tough for everyone, and converting third and short doesn’t make you a good offense, but third and medium separates the wheat from the chaff. And the Bengals have been strong there.

A lot of these highlights come from increased production in the standard “11” personnel grouping: one back, one tight end, and three wideouts. Even though John Ross is ever-injured and the other receivers behind A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd have struggled to make an impact, Cincinnati is ninth in the league in average yards per play when the offense runs three wideouts in the formation. One wrinkle Lazor has turned to in order to keep the chains moving is putting Green in the slot far more in previous seasons. Green is actually sixth in the league in yards coming out of the slot, muddying the stereotype of the smallish, handsy receiver working inside and the fleet stud working outside.

An area that needs improvement and is directly related to the struggles on offense is time of possession. TOP can be an overrated metric, used poorly by television broadcasts, but when a team is 30th in the league, as Cincinnati is, it’s a clear indicator that the defense is being forced to stay on the field far too long.

Big picture, the Bengals have reason for both optimism and pessimism. As we noted up top, sitting at 5-3 is worth celebrating. But the losses to the Steel City boogeymen and in primetime to K.C. left everyone with the standard “Here we go again” feeling, one reflected in the large swaths of empty seats at Paul Brown Stadium for the Tampa game. Hard to blame the fans for that—they’re simply acknowledging the feeling we all share, that even with a good second half, an improvement in the defense, and continued strong play from the annually inconsistent Andy D., the team’s ceiling is yet another first-round exit in the postseason.

The way it all sets up, that final Sunday game against Pittsburgh will be for a playoff berth—possibly for the division title, but more likely for a wild-card spot. And who would the opponent be in that first round? Probably either the Steelers again or a rematch with the Chargers, neither of which feels like a legitimate opportunity to end the loooooooong playoff winless streak.

Enjoy the bye week!

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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