The fourth quarter of the season starts with a trip to Cincinnati and the Bengals. Time to venture back into the AFC North with our guide, Scott Schulze of the Cincy Jungle. Scott and I had a back and forth discussing the current state of the Bengals, the future of Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton, the strengths of AJ Green, and I even got in a food related question at the end.
Windy City Gridiron: The Bengals ownership unit has a reputation for being cheap (sound familiar Bears fans?) and part of Marvin Lewis' longevity has been attributed to an ownership group that doesn't want to pay out on a contract. With Lewis nearing the end of season 15(!) in Cincinnati, what does his future look like and if he is on the way out, who are Bengals fans hoping for as a replacement?
Cincy Jungle: Generally Bengals fans are ready for Lewis to be coaching his last season. The Bengals were horrible for the decade of the 90’s which preceded Lewis’ arrival, so it seems that Lewis was given quite a long leash because he transformed the team from horrible to good, almost as if there was a fear of instantly reverting to horrible once the team moved on from Lewis. But in those 15 seasons he’s never been able to take that step from good to great. His record in playoff games, primetime games, and games against teams with winning records are all abysmal. His disbelief in halftime adjustments being a thing that really exists, and insistence on playing mediocre veterans over much better rookies and younger players, have all had a part in working against his success on the field.
As far as a replacement, at his point Bengals fans really aren’t leaning one direction or another, as we still aren’t entirely sure that the Bengals are going to let him go after this season. We have that optimism like a kid on Christmas morning, hoping that the team will surprise us with a shiny new head coach. But we also have that realization that we have been disappointed in the past, and will be looking ahead with cautious optimism. Four Bengals assistants went and became head coaches over the past half decade, and we generally would have preferred to have kept them around and replaced Lewis. I think in order of preference, we would have liked to have kept Mike Zimmer (Vikings), Hue Jackson (Browns), Vance Joseph (Broncos), Jay Gruden (Redskins). Historically the Bengals hire an NFL assistant to become their head coach, so I’d expect them to go that route if Lewis is actually in his last season with the Bengals.
WCG: Let's talk about Andy Dalton. The ginger quarterback has settled into his career as an average to maybe above average quarterback. He's cut down on his interceptions in recent years but has a reputation of being limited in terms of taking his team deep in the playoffs. Do the Bengals have Dalton in their long term plans?
CJ: As long as Marvin Lewis is the head coach, Dalton is this team’s quarterback. He is a solid, effective quarterback who can put up good numbers when he has a lot of good players around him. He’s never going to be confused for Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, or Tom Brady who is just going to carry a team on his back, but can produce well in a good system, surrounded by talent. If the team moves on from Lewis, then all bets are off. They have A.J. McCarron sitting behind Dalton, who has never really had a chance to replace him with Lewis as the coach. And they have 3rd string QB Jeff Driskel, who outplayed McCarron in camp and in preseason, by most accounts. With this being a supposed QB-heavy draft, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a new coach grab a QB since Dalton is on a deal that costs the team little to release him once a new QB is ready to take over.
WCG: 3. A couple years ago, the Bengals appeared to be the deepest team in the league along the offensive line with stalwarts Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith starting at the tackles and investing in Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher in the first two rounds of the 2015 draft. After letting Whitworth and guard Kevin Zeitler walk in free agency this year, the line seems to be a big problem area. What the heck happened?
CJ: The short version - this team builds via the draft, and not via free agency. And when they miss in the draft, it shows up on the field. Also, the Bengals focus on the outside of the offensive line, while neglecting the interior. So when they whiff on both tackles Ogbuehi (LT) and Fisher (RT) in the draft, it’s a recipe for disaster, since they typically have one of the league’s worst centers, and their guards are rarely the best in the league. For the first half of 2017 this offensive line was perhaps the worst one in the NFL, and the worst one that Bengals fans have seen since in over a decade.
Regarding Zeitler, we weren’t surprised to see him leave in free agency. The Bengals aren’t one to spend money on a guard or center, so we saw his departure coming for a while. Whitworth is another matter. Many of us expected him to retire a Bengal, and I think that was his intention also. But the Rams threw a bunch of money to him, which the Bengals were unwilling to match, and so he walked. And we quickly realized how spoiled we had gotten with a great left tackle immediately after he left. When the Bengals used a 1stround pick on Ogbuehi, he was entering the draft with no feel for the position, bad technique, poor functional strength, had struggled in college, and was injured. He had the “quick feet” and “athleticism” that one might look for in a project that one drafts in the mid rounds, but taking him in the 1st round was a bit much. In his first 2 seasons, he was essentially terrible, and got benched last year. This year the Bengals had no choice but to play him, and he has looked horrible again this year. Although, over the past few weeks he has looked serviceable. So here’s to hoping he is slowly improving. Fisher, the other tackle they drafted in 2015 (2nd round) has looked even worse than Ogbuehi, and is probably destined to be a career backup in the NFL, who could possibly serve as a backup blocking tight end, too.
WCG: The Bears have played against the best receivers in the league this year - Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Michael Thomas, Alshon Jeffery and Mike Evans to name a few. AJ Green obviously will add another outstanding name to that list. What does he do best and where do you rank him among current NFL wideouts? Are there viable secondary options for Dalton in the absence of Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones Jr.?
CJ: If I were to try to isolate one or two things that A.J. Green does well I’d have to go with his ability to get separation and his ability to make absurd, highlight-reel catches in traffic. I’d describe him as “silky smooth” as far as his ability to beat man coverage and make defensive backs look silly in coverage. He also has great concentration when balls are in the air, and makes some of the craziest catches that you have to watch 4 or 5 times to believe. One thing he has going against him, as compared to many of the other WR’s you mentioned, is that he doesn’t have a quarterback who is known for having a great deep ball. Throughout his history with the Bengals, Green has missed out on plenty of receiving yards where he beat his defender(s), but Dalton’s passes were just bad (usually underthrown). Bengals fans have pondered how much better Green’s numbers would be if he were in a more pass-happy offense, or had a quarterback with a good deep ball accuracy. Another thing Bengals fans like about Green is that he’s not your typical run-the-mouth wide receiver diva. He comes across as a very blue collar player who focuses on doing his job, and doing it well. I’d easily place Green in the group of top WR’s in the league with Julio, ODB, Fitzgerald, Hopkins, etc…
Their #2 wide receiver is Brandon LaFell, who isn’t a bad second option. He’s a solid contributor who does his job well. They drafted wide receiver Tyler Boyd in the 2nd round last year, and John Ross in the 1st round this year, but inexplicably refuse to use either one. Boyd has 15 targets thru 12 games this season, while Ross has been a healthy inactive for much of the year. Both running backs Giovani Bernard and Joe Mixon are very good receivers, but we’re at a loss as to why the Bengals used high picks on both Boyd and Ross, but refuse to use either one.
WCG: I've already run out of time so let me get a quick question in on this defense. Football Outsiders has the Bengals in the dead center of the league in terms of defensive DVOA and the ranks on run and pass defense are essentially the same. Does this unit do anything well or are they, as the numbers suggest, an average unit that won't win or lose a game for you? Who are the players on that side of the ball Bears fans should keep an eye on?
CJ: The Bengals defense has been what has carried them so far this year, and I’d argue are a better unit than they get credit for. The reason I say this is that the Bengals offense has been at the bottom of the league in categories such as time of possession and yards per drive, which puts the Bengals defense on the field far too frequently, and the offense’s inability to build leads doesn’t do them any favors either. All around I’d say they are a solid unit. They like to play the nickel and don’t blitz a whole lot. They don’t seem to scheme anything too crazy. Generally they will make life miserable for teams with mediocre or bad offensive lines, although if you have a great offensive line or an elite quarterback, they can get pushed around and picked apart – especially later in the game when they wear down thanks to the offense’s inability to stay on the field.
They have 3 players who stand out. The top defensive player is Geno Atkins, who a perennial All Pro candidate as one of the league’s premier 3-technique DT’s. Vontaze Burfict, who is typically only viewed by those outside of Cincinnati as a “dirty player”, is actually a very good linebacker, with great instincts for making plays and diagnosing the offense. Rookie Carl Lawson has been very impressive in his edge rushing role from the right side, and I think leads all rookies in sacks. A couple weeks ago I saw that he was leading the NFL in pass rush efficiency per Pro Football Focus.
WCG: Bonus - What the heck is Cincinnati Chili?
CJ: I suppose many areas of the country have their own, distinct cuisines. For Cincinnati, it’s “Cincinnati style” chili, which isn’t chili in the traditional sense. Instead, it’s a soupy meat sauce that is served atop spaghetti or coneys (hot dogs). I think it dates back about a century to immigrants from the Mediterranean who first served it in the Cincinnati area, and it kind of took off.
You can find it at many restaurants around Cincinnati, with both Skyline and Gold Star as local chains that specialize in serving this dish. It also comes with its own method of ordering: 2-way, 3-way, 4-way, and 5-way, which just means the toppings you want on the chili. It’s unique enough to the greater Cincinnati area that it’s probably worth a taste when you visit Cincinnati.
Thanks to Scott and Cincy Jungle!