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Five Questions with Cincy Jungle: “this team believes they are a playoff team”

Chicago Bears v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

As the Bears get ready to square off against the Bengals, we met up with Scott Schulze of the Cincy Jungle to discuss all things striped. The Bears, of course, were AFC North champions last year, posting a perfect 4-0 record against that division, but it was the Bengals game where they looked the best. It was a 33-7 victory with a near-perfect Mitchell Trubisky (25-32, 271 yards) and a stellar day from Jordan Howard (147 yards, 2 TDs). Can the Bengals get back to their playoff form or is this the last ride for Marvin Lewis?

Windy City Gridiron: 1. It seemed like the entire offense was just plain terrible last year. Let’s take this one step at a time. Was it Joe Mixon, the offensive line, or both responsible for the 3.5 yards per carry average? Any hope for improvement this year?

Cincy Jungle: Ugh, the 2017 Bengals offense. The unit that seemingly made it their mission to make every defense look like the ’85 Bears. In their first two weeks they scored a total of nine points, and managed only about 250 yards per game of offense. That got their offensive coordinator Ken Zampese fired, and replaced with Bill Lazor. That move was essentially like putting a little Paw Patrol bandage on a kid with severe hemorrhaging. It was a step in the right direction, but was far from the solution. The Bengals still had four games with less than 200 yards of offense in their final eleven.

To put it bluntly, the biggest issue for the Bengals 2017 offense was the offensive line. For the past few seasons the Bengals had one of the league’s worst centers in Russell Bodine but had been able to mask that with solid players around him, such as All-Pro left tackle Andrew Whitworth, and a good right guard in Kevin Zeitler. But prior to the 2017 season the Bengals lost both of them, who were their two best linemen, in free agency. In 2018 the Bengals line had more holes than plugs, and the results were predictably disastrous, wrecking pretty much anything the team tried to do on offense.

Yeah, a 3.5 average on rushes looks pretty pedestrian, and it would be easy to dismiss Joe Mixon due to the numbers. But watching him, he looks like the real deal. He seems to be naturally elusive and has good vision. The blocking in front of him was pretty abysmal, and he did a lot of work just on his own just to get that average up to 3.5.

WCG: 2. Andy Dalton had his worst year since his rookie season. Is it simply a matter of the line not providing enough time for Dalton to work, or is there real worry about the Red Rifle’s future in Cincinnati?

CJ: After watching Andy Dalton for seven seasons, I think it’s fair to say that he is certainly limited in what he can do as a quarterback, but is also a bit underappreciated. He can make accurate throws and does a great with his pre-snap reads. He also does a good job of not giving away the football (outside of one awful game last season, has averaged under 8 interceptions thrown over the past three years). But Dalton is not without his limitations – the greatest of which is his play under pressure.

If you give Dalton a cookbook and all the ingredients, he will consistently make you a great 5-star meal. But if you take away the rosemary, hide the cast iron skillet, and force him to improvise, you’re going to get something that makes you think it was picked up off the floor at a local fast food joint. Last season, Dalton had little time to throw, and was frequently put in the situation of taking a sack, throwing the ball away, or trying to extend a play and make something out of nothing (which isn’t his specialty).

With the right amount of protection, and enough weapons around him, Dalton can return to the QB who was a strong MVP contender in 2015 before his season-ending injury. But without those components, you get the Dalton of 2017.

WCG: 3. John Ross had a year to forget. His rookie season was such a disaster that the two of us had more fantasy football points than Ross did. What can we expect from him this year?

CJ: Hopefully, we can expect more than 2017, which saw Ross collect a total of zero receptions for zero yards, and one rush which gained 12 yards, but ended in a fumble. Ross was already injured when drafted, and coaches never seemed to think that he got “up to speed” (hard to do for a guy that ran the 40 yard dash in 4.22 seconds) in the offense.

The Bengals just recently cut last year’s #2 receiver, Brandon LaFell, and installed Ross as their starter opposite A.J. Green in their pre-season scrimmage. That seems to bode well for Ross’s development as an NFL wide receiver. I think he will be more than just a streaking deep threat, so barring injury, he should be able to easily generate more fantasy points than the two of us combined.

WCG: 4. The Bengals defense seemed to be a middle-of-the-road unit last year. What’s changed this off-season and what should we expect to see from them this fall?

CJ: That famous adage “the best defense is a good offense” certainly played out last season with the Bengals awful offense. There were some games where the Bengals defense just struggled (such as their game against the Bears). But at other times, the Bengals defense looked very good, but spent so much time on the field that the opponent’s points and yardage piled up, resulting in bad statistical numbers.

The biggest change from last year’s defense would have to be the change at defensive coordinator from Paul Guenther (now with the Raiders) to Teryl Austin (from the Lions). The expectation is that the defense will transition away from more of a bend-don’t-break defense, to one that is more attacking and generates more turnovers, which was a problem last year.

One notable addition the Bengals made with signing Preston Brown at middle linebacker. For years, the Bengals have been slow (Rey Maualuga) and old (Kevin Minter) at that position. But Brown brings them a young linebacker who is coming off a season with a league leading 144 tackles. Other than that, the biggest changes may be additional playing time for younger players. Edge rusher Carl Lawson racked up 8.5 sacks as a rookie last season, despite only playing 41% of the team’s defensive snaps, and cornerback William Jackson III only got significant playing time in 4 of the team’s first 9 games last year. Despite that, Jackson still ended up as one of PFF’s top CB’s last year.

WCG: 5. Give me the 30,000 foot picture of what this team is and what they think they could be. Do they believe they’re a playoff team, rebuilding, or comfortable with just rolling with what they have?

CJ: I think this team believes they are a playoff team, or else they would have (finally) moved on from Marvin Lewis. The big question heading into 2018 is going to be the offensive line. The line sunk the offense last year, and the team dumped their long-time line coach. If the line can at least play decently, that would be a huge step forward and could turn a 7 win team into a playoff team.

WCG: Bonus: Prediction time - how many wins will this Bengals squad have this season?

CJ: I’m going to say 10 wins. That may sound homerish for a team coming off a 7-win season. But the biggest holes from squad have been addressed. They traded for Cordy Glenn to replace the much maligned Cedric Ogbuehi at left tackle, and center Russell Bodine has been replaced by first round pick Billy Price. They also added an offensive line coach who seems to know what he is doing. I’d say with Marvin Lewis, and the lack of an elite QB, the win total probably won’t get much higher than that, but I think the roster overall is too good to get worse than what we saw last season.

Thanks Scott and Cincy Jungle!