Inept. Embarrassing. Woeful. Just some of the words used to describe the Cincinnati Bengals’ Monday night capitulation in Pittsburgh, helpfully beamed live into the homes of an entire nation. One Bengals podcast I listen to even replaced its intro music with a minute’s silence in honour of the shambolic 27-3 reverse. It came at the hands of a then-winless team so can we fair any better at home to another, the 0-3-1 Arizona Cardinals? I may regret saying this but surely, we can’t get any worse…
The recovery and the redemption from that prime-time blowout can start on Sunday evening, when the stoppable force comes up against the moveable object. Either Bengals Head Coach Zac Taylor or his opposite number, Kliff Kingsbury, will stick their first win on the board, bouncing back from losses in which they conceded 27 points (to Seattle in the Cardinals’ case).
Something’s gotta change
Regardless of which team prevails, both need better variation and greater consistency all over the field. Secondaries in particular need to get a grip on coverage, especially on perimeter running tight ends. The likes of Jessie Bates and Shawn Williams were mauled and manhandled by the Buffalo Bills’ Dawson Knox a fortnight ago, while a TE has scored against the Cards in every game this season. What price Tyler Eifert catching two TDs like he did in 2015 when we last met? 2015, oh those were the days!
Arizona have allowed 1,640 yards this season – only the Miami Dolphins have shipped more – so they need to stop the rot. Will Cincy running back Joe Mixon, who has started 2019 way off the pace of last season, make serious strides to bolster his 149 rushing yards to date? Or can Giovanni Bernard replicate his career-high 128 yards from our last meeting? (No, he can’t but it’s nice to dream…)
From a Bengals point of view, we can’t keep making the same mistakes in all three phases. Three scores from 11 red zone excursions this season isn’t acceptable. And then there’s the under-throws, the fumbles and turnovers, the sacks, the miscommunication and the missed tackles, from sideline to sideline. We’re guilty of the lot. So someone, anyone, needs to take this game by the scruff of the neck and boss it.
Alas, it won’t be third-year receiver John Ross, who could miss a month or two after injuring his shoulder at Pittsburgh. Our most productive WR (16 receptions, 328 yards, three TDs) has now been placed on injured reserve, with undrafted free agent Stanley Morgan moving up from the practice squad.
More likely, it’ll be his AZ equivalent, the evergreen Larry Fitzgerald, who shines. He has a round 300 yards from 23 catches, and lies second in the all-time receptions list after Jerry Rice. That said, with Christian Kirk potentially out with an ankle injury, RB David Johnson is probably their best catcher, with the backfield stud making eight catches for a yard shy of 100 last week.
As well as Ross, Cincinnati will be without offensive tackles Jonah Williams and Cordy Glenn until further notice, but our dreadful offensive line still needs to step up. Cardinals linebackers such as Terrell Suggs (four sacks) and pass rush monster Chandler Jones (three) are gonna feast on Andy Dalton. Our battered, battle-weary quarterback suffered a hideous eight sacks last week for a loss of 69 yards, pretty much nullifying our entire rushing yardage. So the sub-par – I’m being kind – Andre Smith, Bobby Hart and rookie Michael Jordan have to raise their game. I’m not expecting miracles, but competence should be the minimum requirement.
That said, 2019 top draft pick, Arizona QB Kyler Murray, has been sacked 20 times himself so the Cards O-line has a similar challenge. After four games, we know he can throw and he notched his first rushing TD last week. But his team have given up interceptions, missed catches and played with Bengals-like predictability too, so it’s not all coming together quite yet.
What are the consequences?
Amid all this doom and gloom, there’s actually something meaningful at stake, whatever the outcome. If the Bengals somehow win to go 1-4 and other results go our way, we could be sitting just one W behind all three of our three divisional rivals. Unbelievable really – and hardly an insurmountable gap to close.
On the flip side, if we’re winless after five games, we’re done for the season. There won’t even be any scraps of pride left to play for… but let’s not marinate in misery. There is the #1 pick in next year’s NFL draft to consider. All we have to do is be worse than the other victory-challenged contenders: the Cardinals themselves, plus the Dolphins, the New York Jets, the Washington Redskins and the Denver Broncos.
Given the level of competition (check out how bad everyone else in our Dolphins bye week opinion article), we will need to be really, really bad… as in two wins at most bad. But to be honest, that’s looking well within our reach at the moment. If ever a team needed that big-name shot in the arm that an early first-round pick can provide, it’s this current Bengals pack, so losing may yet be better for us in the long term.
How will it pan out?
Our overall record against the Cards is fairly even (6-5 to Cincinnati) but three of the last four have gone Arizona’s way, including our last meeting, which the Red Sea sneaked 34-31 in Phoenix. I sincerely hope the truly abject nature of Monday’s performance is the catalyst Zac Taylor needs to get everyone – on both sides of the ball – to at least play 60 minutes of half-decent football.
But I fear that with Ross joining fellow wideout AJ Green on the treatment table, our remaining receivers (mainly Tyler Boyd and Auden Tate) won’t be enough, and our O-line will be too feeble to keep the all-but-broken Dalton safe long enough to throw the ball anyway. Couple that with some decent pass rushing and Kyler Murray starting to show flashes of promise, and I think we could well go 0-5.
Prediction: Cardinals 23, Bengals 13
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Condolences to family, friends, colleagues and all who knew Arizona Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill, who passed away this week aged 88.
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Feature Picture – Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America