What better way to get some intel about our weekly opponent than by going straight to an expert that's been covering them for years? In anticipation of the Chicago Bears' regular season opener versus the Bengals, I chatted with Josh Kirkendall of Cincy Jungle to find out what's really going on with his team.
1- The Bengals have made it to the playoffs three of the last four seasons, but haven't quite gotten that little extra push to really compete for an AFC crown. How hot is Marvin Lewis' seat in 2013, and how close are the Bengals from being a legitimate threat in the AFC?
Marvin Lewis could be the safest head coach in football. I'm actually serious. But it's not for the recent postseason trend -- he's made it, but no wins -- nor overall regular season success -- he's one game below .500 in ten years. It's all about the team's owner, Mike Brown. From '07-'10, the Bengals sported a winning percentage of .398, which included two four-win seasons.
That kind of run should (and does) warrant a firing for most teams. After going 4-12 in 2010, Brown still tried to sign Lewis, whose entered the offseason with an expiring contract. Eventually Lewis relented and wrestled some control from Brown, which helped expand the scouting department and that's paid dividends with the draft.
Now the culture has changed. Our core players want to stay, and the foundation that they've built over the past four years (mostly through the draft) has led to this point. We always go back to the moment that Lewis returned in 2011, but gained a measure of control on which direction the franchise takes.
On paper, I feel that they're a significant threat, but preseason expectations are dangerous when comparing them to the reality of the regular season. You know, your readers know, anything can happen. One play ends with your superstar player suffering a torn ligament and then the season suddenly looks like a television showering static.
2- Give us an idea of the last couple of NFL drafts for your team... Who are some sophomores and rookies that could make a splash in 2013?
Offensively, there's rookies Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard, both of whom will be backup role players this weekend. Eifert will play the second tight end in two-tight formations and split out wide. Bernard has been special with soft hands out of the backfield, quickness around the edges and enough strength to gain yards during power runs -- he scored three touchdowns from inside the two yard line during the preseason -- mostly against ones and twos.
Wide receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, second-year players, will join them on offense as a second and third receiver respectively. Jones will help stretch the field alongside A.J. Green. Mohamed Sanu is a power receiver that uses his body to shield defenders in short-yardage situations. Second-year guard Kevin Zeitler is the team's starting right guard, and he graded as the 12th-best guard as a rookie last season. So there's huge expectations.
Margus Hunt is an athletic freak with the rare combination of size, speed, and dry humor. You probably won't see much of him on defense, especially with Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap taking a bulk of the team's snaps. Defensively the team doesn't have the impact players yet, but like Hunt, they're grooming behind starters like Devon Still under Geno Atkins and Brandon Thompson under Domata Peko.
3- What is the biggest strength on the offensive side of the ball? Weakness?
Here's the thing. Offensively this team hasn't been great. Perhaps it's the decision-making process of Andy Dalton, heavy coverage against A.J. Green, or an extremely inconsistent rushing offense; all has contributed. Even with Jay Gruden, this team has never ranked higher than 20th offensively and they've completely collapsed during the postseason.
Does that make them bad? Of course not. They go on their runs and they're at their best when sustaining possessions. Don't get me wrong, arching throws down the sidelines for A.J. Green is always in the team's back-pocket. But a balanced attack using the run and quick three-step passes is usually when this team is at their best.
4- What about on defense?
Pass rush. Without a doubt. Geno Atkins leads Planet Earth on rushes, hits, and sacks by a three-technique defensive tackle. Michael Johnson sported double-digit sacks as a right defensive end and Carlos Dunlap actually posted better rushing numbers than Atkins (in almost everything but sacks) in the past three years, if you break it down by averages. And that doesn't include Wallace Gilberry, who generated 6.5 sacks in limited snaps as a defensive end that plays inside during passing situations.
The rush defense is very good also. As good as Atkins is as a pass rusher, he's equally as destructive against the run. Domata Peko doesn't put up the numbers as a one-technique tackle, but he draws attention and consumes blockers which allows linebackers like Vontaze Burfict to roam free.
However, good pass protection with timing routes over the middle will expose some issues in the underneath zones. Leon Hall, Terence Newman and Adam Jones are good corners that maintain the sidelines but it's mostly all in zone coverage. The linebackers aren't very good in coverage, opening up opportunities over the middle or in regions 10-15 yards off the ball.
5- Mike Brown is the owner, president, and general manager of the team... He's had his share of criticism over the years, but in some circles also seems to be quite endeared. What's the real situation with him running that team? Is he basically a cheaper version of Jerry Jones? Should he/ will he ever hire someone to run the team for him?
The truth is that mostly everything you've heard is true. He's been a fickle owner, that's warranted much of the criticism. But his control is significantly lessened, and that might part of the reason Cincinnati has become more successful. Marvin Lewis has far more input on personnel decisions, and works beautifully with Duke Tobin, the team's Director of Player Personnel.
Tobin is credited with a large part of this team's roster building. Many of you saw him on Hard Knocks -- the big eyed, bald dude that often participated when the team was making personnel decisions. He's not a true General Manager, in that he doesn't participate in contract negotiations, but he directs the scouting department and has significant influence on what personnel decisions are made. If there comes a day that the team names a General Manager, it will be Duke Tobin. And if he doesn't get that title in Cincinnati, he'll get it elsewhere in the NFL.
But currently Brown's daughter Katie Blackburn runs a majority of this team and since she's taken over, the team has signed long-term extensions with several key personnel, including Geno Atkins earlier this week.
Thanks again to Josh for hooking us up with some intel this week... By far one of the best Five Questions we've ever had here at WCG. Make sure to check out Cincy Jungle's version of this post HERE.
More from Windy City Gridiron:
- Chicago Bears Playbook - Keys to Beating the Cincinnati Bengals
- Bears vs Bengals will be the CBS national game, Cowher and Esiason weigh in on Cutler
- Chicago Bears wide receiver Earl Bennett takes $1 million pay cut
- The Bears Den: September 06, 2013 - Week 1 news and notes
- Jerry Angelo says Jay Cutler is, "A good bet to have a top year"