At this time in 2015, Andy Dalton was an MVP candidate, if not the front-runner. This year, he's...not. Why is that?
I'm glad to see you recognized Dalton's 2015 efforts, as he really was playing at an MVP level. That said, he really hasn't been much different a player this year. Despite playing for a new offensive coordinator, losing Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu in free agency and even missing Tyler Eifert for the first few weeks of the season, Dalton has still been playing very well. The past two weeks have really hurt him (he's thrown just as many picks -- two -- in the past two weeks as he'd thrown in the previous seven), but even despite tough outings in London and New York, Cincinnati's quarterback still ranks 13th in completion percentage, sixth in yards, fourth in yards per attempt and has thrown fewer picks than 23 quarterbacks.
He's done all of this despite being the second-most sacked quarterback in the NFL (behind only Andrew Luck), getting taken to the ground 28 times in nine games. For reference, he's only been sacked more than 30 times once in his six-year career, back in his sophomore campaign in 2012. Despite facing constant pressure behind an offensive line which has been incapable of giving him time or creating lanes for running backs -- something which would also help to take the pressure off of Dalton -- the quarterback has still managed to create plays. He ranks fifth in passes of 20+ yards and third in passes of 40+ yards. Cincinnati has a top-10 overall offense and passing offense, but offensive line struggles have really been the reason why Dalton hasn't been even better. There's a saying which has been going around the Bengals-related internet: "the only guy who can shut down A.J. Green is (right tackle) Cedric Ogbuehi. After boasting a top-five offensive line last season, the Bengals are now stuck with one of the NFL's worst units despite just losing one player (the inconsistent Andre Smith) and replacing him with Ogbuehi, a first-round pick in 2015.
And ultimately, wins matter. Cincinnati's defense hasn't stepped up to the plate this season, and even the offense has struggled -- especially when it comes to the red zone. The Bengals' players have not been executing like they had been last season, which isn't a simple problem to fix. But Dalton is not the problem.
As a Jeremy Hill fantasy owner, I never know what to expect from him from one game to the next. Do he and Gio Bernard have clearly defined roles, and what should the workload split look like on Sunday?
Hill is a frustrating guy to own in fantasy, but he's always going to get his points. From a pure football perspective, he's still a great back but, as I previously alluded to, has struggled to find space behind an underachieving line. When the line in front of him gives him a lane, Hill is easily a top-10 running back. But when it doesn't help him out -- and that's been the case this season -- the back has a hard time creating plays on his own.
In terms of roles, it's hard to understand what the Bengals' plans are. Hill is the starter, but Bernard has started a few games this season and generally gets more touches per game than Hill. That said, Hill is one of the NFL's best at finding the end zone, so he's a guy you never want to bench in fantasy. On Sunday, I expect Hill to start, but it's possible he doesn't. It appeared as though Bernard ran into him on the sidelines after one particular play, and Hill stood on the sidelines for a while after that play, whether as a result of getting hit or for an undisclosed reason. I really never know what to expect week-to-week, as the Bengals' game plan -- especially in terms of running the ball -- isn't very predictable.
Defensively, the Bengals have tumbled from the seventh-best team against the run in 2015 to the 24th-best so far in 2016. How can they turn that around against Tyrod Taylor, LeSean McCoy, and the league's second-best rushing attack?
I said it earlier -- this team needs to execute. How the Bengals will magically begin to execute is something I honestly don't understand. Cincinnati's biggest defensive problem is that the team doesn't have the athletic linebackers it needs to run its, scheme which is predicated on double A-gap blitzes. Vontaze Burfict is a great player, but even he isn't very quick or anything more than average in coverage. Karlos Dansby was signed to play alongside Burfict in the nickel and to man the SAM position in base packages, but he hasn't played up to expectations. Vincent Rey has been all over the place as a role player, while Rey Maualuga is purely a guy sent onto the field to thump in the run game (think Bills linebacker Brandon Spikes). Because the linebackers aren't quick enough to retreat into coverage, opponents have taken advantage.
And the Bengals' defensive line hasn't executed well, either. Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap are both elite players at their respective positions, but neither player has managed to generate as many pressures, hits or sacks as they did last season. That's a major problem when the other two starters on the defensive line, Michael Johnson and Domata Peko, are not playing well.
Coaches have hinted at giving some of the younger guys a shot at seeing the field -- something which rarely happens and something fans desperately want to see -- but they quickly retracted their statements and continued to trod the veterans onto the field. The bottom line: this is a frustrating defense to watch, and I honestly have no idea how it will stop Taylor, McCoy or even Gillislee.
Marvin Lewis is the NFL's second-longest tenured coach with their current team, behind only Bill Belichick. How has he managed to stick around that long, and what will it take for him to keep that job into 2017?
He turned around the Bengals. Prior to Lewis' arrival, Cincinnati was the laughingstock of the NFL. Under Lewis, the Bengals have seen just about as many playoff appearances and winning records as they'd seen in the entire duration of their franchise prior to his arrival.
Mike Brown and the Bengals ownership highly value continuity, perhaps to a fault. For that reason alone, it's hard to articulate whether or not Lewis even has a remote shot of getting canned after next season, let alone this one.
Yes, the Bengals have yet to generate that elusive playoff win. But, as I'm sure Bills fans know, winning one playoff game (or two, or three games) doesn't matter. Winning a Super Bowl is what matters. If the Bengals truly believe this roster is capable of contending for the Super Bowl in the near future, whether this season or sometime in the next few years (which I do, for the record), it's hard to justify firing Lewis. The majority of the Bengals' playmakers are in their prime, so any coaching change is a gamble, not to mention the fact that these playmakers would more than likely have to learn a new scheme and develop continuity with yet another group of coaches. I really don't know where I stand on this issue, but to answer your question, I think it would take a terrible year for Lewis to get fired. The Bengals aren't a team that makes many snap-judgements, which I tend to appreciate.
What do the Bengals need to do to win this Sunday, and do you think they will?
We've seen what it takes to win in the NFL in 2016: either you have a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback, a defense which can take over games or you control the line of scrimmage. Most of the up-and-coming teams in the NFL (think Cowboys, Falcons, Raiders and even Titans) have seen tremendous improvements in the caliber of the play of their offensive lines this year, and as a result, their respective records have drastically improved.
So to answer your question, I think it takes a good game from the offensive line. Obviously a solid outing from the defense in general also wouldn't hurt, but the Bengals have one of the best offenses in the NFL when their line is just okay or better.
On whether I think they will, I have to say yes. This is a must-win game for both teams, and I just have a good feeling about the Bengals in this one. That said, this is the least confident I've been about picking a game between the Bengals a team with a losing record. Cincinnati hasn't been able to capitalize on opportunities throughout the entire season, which has been a major problem. If they continue to fail in this regard, they'll lose yet again on Sunday. I'll take the Bengals in a close one, 24-21.
BONUS - The Bills are one of 10 teams who haven't been involved in a tie since overtime was put into place in 1974. Do you have any thoughts on ties after the Bengals and Redskins played to one in London earlier this year?
Ties suck. I don't really know exactly what you're asking, but they're never fun -- especially before a bye week. That said, I was ok with the tie this time (the Bengals seem to tie more than any other team in the NFL) simply because Cincinnati didn't deserve to win that game. So in that regard, with a potential playoff run still somewhat within the realm of possibility, I didn't mind it. But as someone who covers the team, having to deal with a tie (and nothing to write about) for two weeks is never fun.