Anyone familiar with Doctor Dolittle may remember the ‘pushmi-pullyu’, a sort of llama with a head at each end of its body, facing in opposite directions. That’s how I feel as I contemplate the Bengals’ game with divisional rivals the Baltimore Ravens, and the rest of the season in general. Should I go with Head Coach Zac Taylor’s “we know good things are coming our way” optimism? Or should I expect Cincinnati to edge ever closer to that first overall draft pick in the spring? I’m literally torn over which way to go.
Cincy’s winless season has ebbed and flowed by the week, lurching between narrow, ‘could-have-won’ losses and embarrassing maulings. Guess which week it is this week! We were comprehensively and deservedly dispatched by the 49ers and the Steelers but in Week 1, there was a missed field goal. In Week 3, a dubious holding call nullified a 94-yard kickoff return TD by Darius Phillips. And last week, in our final-second loss to the Arizona Cardinals, Andy Dalton threw the ball just behind tight end Tyler Eifert in the end zone….
You can see my dilemma, right? It’s very fine lines. OK, it’s easy to say with hindsight but if just those three plays – only those three – had gone our way, the Bengals would be 3-2 and sitting alongside the Ravens at the top of the AFC North. And I wouldn’t be writing about tanking.
So where does all this leave us on Sunday? Certainly, Coach Taylor is sticking to his upbeat script. He told the press this week: “If you believe in what you’re doing, stick with it and good things will come your way. And we believe. We just have to keep fighting for it.”
But words are cheap and every loss costs, so something has to give. The offense can’t afford to wait till the second half (Bills) or even the final quarter (Cardinals) to affect the scoreboard; we have to come out of the blocks fast and not go in at half time a score or two behind.
I’d also like to see some offensive creativity. Apart from Week 1 in Seattle, it’s all been so boring and predictable. Where are the screens, fakes, laterals… the trickery it takes to confuddle and confound our opponents like they do to us? I want to see our tight ends getting more involved, both as blockers and receivers, and the offensive line needs to hold out long enough so that Dalton can turn more of those excursions inside the 20 into six points. (Our red-zone efficiency is 28.6%, the league’s second-worst.)
We have invested heavily in the O-line over the last couple of years, but you’d never have known it. We used our last two first-round picks (center Billy Price and left tackle Jonah Williams) and a trade (former Bills left tackle Cordy Glenn) to bolster its ranks but it’s still as weak as any in the NFL. Admittedly, Williams was lost for the season with a training camp shoulder injury, Glenn has been sidelined by a concussion for a couple of months and Price is now just an back-up for everyone, but the rest is down to a dearth of talent. Talking of which, third-choice left tackle Andre Smith is also a doubt, so the return of Alex Redmond from suspension as a potential replacement is at least something positive.
So what else is required to keep at least one of my heads from pondering which future franchise QB we should pick in the 2020 NFL Draft?
Offensively, we need to keep feeding the ball to running back Joe Mixon. He notched 57 yards in the first drive, and 109 in total yards, in the loss to Arizona, so we know it works. We’re without wide receivers AJ Green, John Ross and Alex Erickson, so last week’s TD merchants – Auden Tate and Tyler Boyd – must stand up and be counted again. And if we go for it on 4th and 1 again, pleeeeease just bulldoze the hell out of it. I don’t want to hear any commentator saying “Shotgun… Andy Dalton drops back… runs for the line… and he is smothered!”
As for Baltimore, I’m worried about one of the NFL’s leading running backs, Mark Ingram (372 rushing yards, six TDs) so I’m praying for fewer missed tackles from our secondary and better sideways movement from our struggling linebackers.
More pressure on the Ravens’ mobile quarterback Lamar Jackson would also be welcome. Jackson can be quick and aggressive on the ground: his 308 rushing yards through five games is more than 100 ahead of the next highest, Arizona’s Kyler Murray. But behind an O-line ranked first in pass protection, he’s also able to utilise weapons like WR Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown and TE Mark Andrews.
That said, Jackson can be vulnerable. He’s showed inaccuracy and indecision, and coughed up five picks, over the last two weeks. Having faced the likes of Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson already this season, let’s hope we now know what to expect from – and how to contain – a QB with a decent arm and a sprinter’s quick-twitch speed.
And when attacks do fall short of a TD, they have arguably the best kicker in the league in Justin Tucker to call upon, so that’s all good too.
On the other side of the ball, their defense has fallen from No.1 overall last year to 21st. They no longer have linebackers Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith or safety Eric Weddle in their ranks, and another safety, veteran Tony Jefferson, has been ruled out for the season after injuring his knee in Pittsburgh. But at least in Marlon Humphrey (who punched the ball out of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s hands for a fumble recovery last week), they may have the best cornerback in the league.
Overall, we’ve met twice a year for 23 seasons and share a 23-23 record. The Bengals have won three of the last five meetings, and nine of the last 13, but given how our season is going, I think we can safely ignore historical trends. As much as I’d like to believe that Zac Taylor’s first win as an NFL Head Coach is just around the corner, I just can’t see us overcoming a Baltimore side that beat the Steelers in OT last week (that’s the same Steelers that utterly humiliated us six days before on prime-time).
So after all that, I’m left with one question. Which college quarterback is going to best suit our type of play next season: Tua or Herbert?
Score Prediction: Bengals 20, Baltimore 31
Feature Picture – Credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images North America