The Bengals had a bit of good fortune last weekend, as they not only got the “W” in St. Louis, but came home to find that the Jets, Titans, and Raiders all lost. The scenario was exactly what was needed to help the Bengals playoff hopes. And for the cherry on top, the Niners beat up the Steelers on Monday night. Pittsburgh already has their postseason invite, but it was nice to see them get beat just the same.
Now comes the next hurdle to cross. The Bengals must beat a pretty hot Cardinals team at home on Saturday. Meanwhile, the Jets host the Giants with both teams desperate for a win to stay alive. The Jets will have their hands full with the G-men, who were embarrassed by the Redskins but still have a chance to win the NFC East. The 7-7 Titans host the Jags and the 7-7 Raiders visit the Chiefs in other games of immediate interest. If the Jets fall to the Giants and the Bengals beat the Cards, Cincinnati will reclaim the last wildcard spot in the AFC with one week to go.
But make no mistake: The game Saturday will be tough. Division game tough. The Cards have a pretty diverse offense with Beanie Wells at tailback and Larry Fitzgerald at WR. Their QB play has been spotty, but both Kevin Kolb and John Skelton have talent, and the Bengals like making second-tier signal callers look like Joe Montana. The Redbirds also sport a solid special teams that has four touchdowns on returns this year, and four blocked kicks.
If the Bengals play this Saturday the way they played last Sunday, there is no question in my mind that they will lose. The last month has seen the Bengals regress in several key areas, and this needs immediate correction if they are to beat Arizona and Baltimore. They must recapture the magic they had during the second quarter of the season in which they were opportunistic on offense, stubborn on defense, and regularly won the special teams battles.
So it’s time for the Marvin Lewis to pull out his toolbox of tricks and work on these DIY’s this week:
- Penalties: The Bengals continue to commit foolish penalties. The false starts in particular are disturbing and can’t happen. They simply kill drives.
- Ball Security: No one has talked about it much, but Cedric Benson nearly lost THREE fumbles on Sunday. He’s quite lucky he didn’t. The Texans game was influenced by a fumble by Andy Dalton and Brandon Tate’s fumbled kick-off turned a competitive game in Pittsburgh into a rout.
- Blocking on kicks: The Bengals had a field goal blocked in Pittsburgh, and a punt blocked in St. Louis. The Rams came very close to two other blocks on punts as well.
- Tackling: It seems to me that this was a strength early in the year, but since the Pittsburgh game has become real issue. Backs and receivers are getting out of initial tackles and getting too many yards after contact. Several times the defense has had a stop on 3rd down only to see the offensive player squirm out of a tackle to pick up the necessary yardage.
- Interior Offensive Line: Bobbie Williams is out and I have never understood the cred Nate Livings gets. Many of the woes in the running game relate directly to guards getting blown up. It’s a problem.
- Consistency at WR: Aside from A.J. Green, there hasn’t been a consistent threat at the receiver position in weeks. Jermaine Gresham provides help from the TE spot, but Jerome Simpson is unreliable. Sunday was another no-show from 89. He had a whopping two catches for 14 yards. Despite that, he still made sure to do his ridiculous “first down” celebration. His act is tiresome to me. He had 100+ yard games at Denver, versus Indy, and at Baltimore but has been held to less than 50 in the others. With Andre Caldwell down, perhaps we can finally see some more use of Andrew Hawkins, who is grossly underutilized at this point, and rookie Ryan Whalen. I have been looking from Brandon Tate to contribute as a WR all year to no avail. He doesn’t have a single catch on offense. Perhaps now’s the time. A.J. Green is phenomenal, but smart teams like the Patriots and Steelers will do all they can to shut him down. Another threat must develop at split end.
- Pass Rush: The Bengals were dynamic early in the year with their pass rush. Their ability to cycle through linemen made the front four a real strength. With Pat Sims down and Carlos Dunlap ailing, the rush hasn’t been the same. This has resulted in quarterbacks having too much time to throw against a weakened secondary. The Bengals need for Dunlap to return to early season form, for Geno Atkins to continue to bring pressure up the middle, and for Michael Johnson to bring big plays off the edge.
- Rush offense: Everyone knows the short yardage was putrid against St. Louis. When it’s 3rd-and-two or less the Bengals simply look bad. They must be able to convert these to keep drives going. And may I say again: Please give Bernard Scott more carries! I know some feel Benson is the bell cow back here, but he just doesn’t have the vision or the speed Scott has.
If the Bengals can improve in these areas they should be able to win on third downs more than they have in weeks past. Getting off the field on defense and sustaining drives on offense are key to winning out and making a push in the playoffs.