The Eagles head to Cincinnati to face the Bengals on Sunday afternoon. We chatted up the man Connor Howe over at Cincy Jungle, SB Nation’s elite Bengals blog, to get a well-rounded picture of what to expect this weekend.
Here’s what we talked about!
1. A combined 43 wins in the last four years for the Bengals, and now they're sitting at 3-7-1. For those of us who haven't kept close enough tabs on the situation, what's gone wrong?
That's an easier question to ask than answer, and I feel like I get it every week at this point. The one main issue with Cincinnati is a lack of execution. Who to blame for the lack of execution is a different question entirely (and is an endless debate), so I won't get into that aspect. However, there are two areas where the Bengals have significantly regressed.
While the team has regressed in several areas, there's no doubt the two positions that have underperformed the worst have been in the trenches -- both the offensive line and defensive line have been incredibly disappointing. The offensive line, a top-five unit last year, is now one of the league's worst -- not only at protecting Andy Dalton but even at creating holes for running backs.
And while advanced metrics still say that Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap are great players, the tandem hasn't been nearly what it was last year. Despite boasting two superstars in Atkins and Dunlap, who have a combined 11 sacks this season after totaling double-digits on their own last year, the Bengals have one of the NFL's worst pass rushes. And Cincinnati has only forced five fumbles this year, which certainly correlates to the team's lack of sacks. In fact, only one team in the NFL -- the Titans, who have somehow not forced a fumble this season -- has fewer.
2. The Bengals' rush defense is among the worst in the league. Why is that? If you were attacking the Cincinnati defense, would you start on the ground and build out from there?
Absolutely, I'd do that. As I mentioned, the defensive line has not played to its talent level this season, which remains a significant issue. (And for those who think the Bengals' playoff struggles have been all on Dalton or Marvin Lewis, check out their opponents' playoff rushing totals -- even backups have managed to carve through the Bengals' playoff run defense.)
The Bengals simply don't have the personnel to run the simple defense they've run for so many years. Aside from Vontaze Burfict, the best linebacker on the team and one of the best in the NFL, Cincinnati's linebackers are all incredibly one-dimensional. Rey Maualuga is a thumper in the run game, but he can be easily exposed in coverage. Karlos Dansby and Vincent Rey are a bit more versatile, but they've both been exposed against the pass and the run. Rookie linebacker Nick Vigil still needs time to develop.
Because of the Bengals' defense is so one-dimensional in its personnel, opposing teams have had a pretty good understanding of how to attack the Bengals' defense, and they've done it all season long.
3. One thing the Bengals' defense has been really good at this year: interceptions. Carson Wentz has five INTs in his last four games. What looks should he expect from Paul Guenther's secondary?
Dre Kirkpatrick, who was once highly criticized and labeled by many Bengals fans as a first-round draft bust, has emerged as the team's best member of the secondary. He's been getting better and better in coverage and is playing for a huge contract in the upcoming offseason.
Despite a down year, Adam Jones has been fairly reliable though he hasn't been a turnover-forcing machine. Safeties George Iloka and Shawn Williams struggled early on but have slowly been coming together after both signing extensions in the offseason. With nothing to lose, I expect Guenther's defense to play aggressively and take some chances. They've done so in recent weeks, forcing eight turnovers in the past five games.
4. With A.J. Green likely sidelined this weekend, where does Andy Dalton turn in the passing game?
Fortunately for Dalton, he still has superstar tight end Tyler Eifert, though the tight end hasn't seen as many targets as you would think with Green out of the picture. Rookie receiver Tyler Boyd has made a few plays in the slot, and Brandon LaFell has had his moments outside. Look for youngsters James Wright and rookie Cody Core to play in rotation on the outside, as they're the only speedy receivers who will be on Sunday's active roster.
5. Six years in, Andy Dalton certainly seems capable, if not exceptional. How do you, and Bengals fans writ large, evaluate his progression over the first six years?
Dalton has certainly come into his own, especially in the past two seasons. Despite losing Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, getting protection from what has been one of the NFL's worst offensive lines this season and playing for his third offensive coordinator in six years, the now-veteran quarterback has been up and down this season, though I think he deserves a bit of a pass.
Dalton excels in a few areas; he's one of the NFL's best at recognizing opposing defenses and changing the play at the line of scrimmage and is easily, at least in my mind, the NFL's most underrated runner at the quarterback position. Dalton has often been forced to flush out of the pocket and try to gain yards on the ground this season, and he's one of the NFL's best -- if not the best -- at sneaking for first downs. Dalton has rushed for 10 touchdowns from 2014-16, despite missing a few games last year and this season not yet being over. He also caught a touchdown pass in 2014, well before Russell Wilson's well-documented touchdown grab against Philly.
He's been good as a passer, too. Dalton has come a long way in his mechanics and footwork, developing his arm strength despite criticisms that he'd never have an NFL-caliber arm. He's also learned to spread the ball around the offense -- even with limited weapons -- after forcing passes to Green too often early in his career.
BONUS! Who wins, and what's the score?
I've picked the Bengals in every game this season, and I'll continue tradition though I'm not so confident about the team's chances at winning on Sunday. 17-14, Bengals come out on top.