The Buffalo Bills will be in southern Ohio on Sunday to take on the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 5 of the 2017 NFL season. It’s the third straight season (and the sixth time since 2010) that the Bills and Bengals are playing, as the Bills ended Cincy’s three-game winning streak in the series with a 16-12 victory in Week 11 last season.
We had the opportunity to glen some insight from Scott Schulze of Cincy Jungle, our Bengals site on SB Nation. He touched on big changes on both sides of the ball before offering a final score prediction that I’d be fine with.
The Bengals' offense was a train wreck for the first two games before Marvin Lewis swapped out offensive coordinators. What has been different over the last two games that's actually allowed the Bengals to start scoring a bit?
Well, getting to play the Browns helped a lot last week. Dalton probably left one or two touchdowns on the field last week with errant passes. The Biggest difference is that the latest offensive coordinator seems intent on playing the best players. A.J. Green is getting targeted more in the passing game, and Joe Mixon has seemingly secured the primary role as the team’s running back. Also, the struggling offensive tackles are seeing less playing time.
I’m not ready to call the offensive coordinator swap as a total success just yet. After two weeks of no touchdowns, the Bengals offense scored a pair of them In Week 3, but both touchdowns came early, and they were shut down in the final 40+ minutes of that game after the Packers defense adjusted. In Week 4 we played the Browns, so I don’t want to draw any conclusions from that game. This week against the Bills defense will be a real test for if the Bengals offense.
On the other hand, the Bengals are currently third in the NFL in defense by both scoring and yardage, but unlike the Bills they haven't been generating a lot of turnovers (three through the first four games). What's the key to the defensive success?
The Bengals defense is probably a bit underrated nationally. They have finished in the top 10 in scoring defense in 6 of the last 7 seasons, including finishes of 3rd, 8th, and 2nd over the past 3 seasons. This year the defense looks like it could be the best one they have had over that span.
If I had to pick a key to their success, I wouldn’t attribute it to any specific alignment or scheming, as they just run a 4-3 that they like to play nickel out of frequently, and will occasionally use the A-gap blitz with nominal success. But the biggest attribute is just a collection of very good players all playing together in a defense they know well and have played in for years. Guys like Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, and Vontaze Burfict are all great players, and the team upgraded their biggest issue last year which was getting a pass rush from the right side of the defense. They also upgraded the nose tackle and middle linebacker spots this year, replacing long-time, underperforming starters with more productive players on the field.
Joe Mixon currently leads the Bengals with 136 yards rushing, but he's only averaging 2.6 yards a carry. Is there a reason that he's been more involved with the offense (at least from a volume standpoint) than Jeremy Hill or Giovani Bernard?
Most close observers of the Bengals will acknowledge that of the three running backs on their roster, Mixon is the most talented all-around running back. He’s a very natural runner with great vision and can easily make defenders miss. The new offensive coordinator has been giving Mixon the ball more, which is a good thing for the offense.
Unfortunately for Mixon, 24% of his rushing attempts have gone for negative yardage, mostly due to a lack of blocking by the offensive line. For example, he ended the game last week with three consecutive rushes of -4, -5, and -5 yards. That disproportionate number of negative rushes has really diminished his yards per carry average.
It's not often that the departure of an offensive lineman is noticeable as Andrew Whitworth's has been. Did he really mean that much to the offense, and why haven't the Bengals been able to replace him?
Outside of Cincinnati folks probably don’t recognize how good Andrew Whitworth was as a left tackle. His lack of Pro Bowl recognition was truly appalling when you looked at how dominant he was as a pass protector. His numbers of sacks and pressures allowed over the last 5~10 years are among the NFL’s best over that span. In 2015 the Bengals used a first round pick to draft Whitworth’s future replacement in Cedric Ogbuehi, who was pretty top-notch as far as athleticism goes for an offensive lineman, but gave up a lot of sacks in college because he lacked in some major areas like core strength, technique, and any sense of a feel for the position.
The general impression is that the Bengals wanted to keep Whitworth this year, and that he would have preferred to stay, but the Bengals apparently offered a lower, team-friendly deal, so he took the much more lucrative contract from the Rams. After a couple years, those issues that plagued Ogbuehi as a prospect still exist. He was our starting RT last season before getting benched mid-season, and he began 2017 as our LT but is slowly being replaced by free agent Andre Smith. It’s unfortunate that Ogbuehi has struggled so much this year, because our RT Jake Fisher (also drafted in 2015) has probably been even worse. Ultimately the Bengals spent their top 2 picks on tackles in the 2015 draft to be the tackles of the future for them, and both picks have failed to fulfill that role.
The Bills beat the Bengals last year, 16-12, after A.J. Green went down on the third play and missed the rest of the year. What's your call for the final score this time around?
I think the game this week will be another low scoring affair, and will show us if the Bengals offense is really improved with the new offensive coordinator. Unless he can play either of the tackle positions, or center, we probably struggle to protect Andy Dalton and create running lanes for our running backs. Marvin Lewis struggles against good teams with poor in-game coaching, and I don’t trust our kicker’s ability to make a game winning kick, so I’ll go 14-13 with the Bills victorious. It’s not the outcome I’d prefer, but if I had to side with my head over my heart, I’d go with that score.