Through two games, the Bengals have given up 789 net passing and rushing yards—617 passing, representing the worst two-game stretch since 1991, and 252 on the ground. They're allowing an average of 35.5 points per game, and opposing quarterbacks are completing 71 percent of their passes against them.
Clearly, this is not what the Bengals had in mind for the start of their season. Considering the amount of first-round talent populating their secondary and a strong group of defensive linemen and linebackers, the Bengals should have a defense to contend with the best in the league.
But with numbers like these, it looks as though it will be an uphill battle to contain the newly-explosive Washington Redskins offense this Sunday, especially considering the way their rookie quarterback, Robert Griffin III, has performed thus far.
Though the Bengals run defense is obviously hurting, what could burn the team the most on Sunday is Griffin's arm.
The Bengals have the 29th-ranked pass defense in the league heading into Week 3 and have given up 11 pass plays of 20 or more yards. At the same time, the Redskins have 503 total passing yards through two games and have had nine plays go for 20-plus yards.
Not to be outdone in the air, Washington is also averaging 164.5 yards per game on the ground, ranking it fourth overall in the league in rushing yardage. The Bengals are currently 19th against the run, allowing 126 rushing yards per game on average.
It appears as though a perfect storm is brewing for the Bengals to give up a glut of yards, and potentially touchdowns, to the upstart Redskins on Sunday if improvements aren't made quickly.
But where to start? Zimmer said of his defense's flaws, “We don’t pass rush, pass cover, stop the run, stop the pass. We don’t tackle and play with enough effort.”
Considering he basically described ever facet of defensive play, clearly, some areas will have to take priority over others.
Improving the defense will be a longer-term project, but they'll need to employ some quick fixes if they are to hold Griffin and the Redskins offense at bay on Sunday.
The first fix Zimmer attempted came last week against the Cleveland Browns, benching strong safety Taylor Mays and starting Jeromy Miles in his stead. Through two games, however, Miles has the second-worst overall rating of any Bengals defender, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), with two missed tackles to his name and a negative rating in both run defense and pass coverage.
The worst offender for the Bengals has been middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. It was his error in coverage that allowed Browns running back Trent Richardson a 23-yard touchdown on a Brandon Weeden screen pass, and he's already amassed four missed tackles on the year.
Injuries haven't helped matters much. In their defensive front seven alone, the Bengals are in questionable shape. Linebacker Thomas Howard is out for the year with a torn ACL and is being replaced rotationally by Vincent Rey and Vontaze Burfict.
Rey has proven a bit better at the pass rush and in coverage than Burfict, but the undrafted rookie is stronger against the run. This signals that the Bengals need to have a rotational approach at linebacker similar to the one they employ in the defensive line if they are to field the right combination of players at any given time.
Defensive end Jamaal Anderson, who suffered a torn quad against the Browns last week, is also likely headed to injured reserve, which means they'll either need to sign a street free agent or promote DeQuin Evans from the practice squad.
Howard was the Bengals' best coverage linebacker last season and played more snaps than any other member of that unit; his loss is a major blow to a team that needs serious help defending the pass, while Anderson's injury depletes some much-needed defensive line depth. This is not a way for a struggling defense to begin their season and further harms their efforts to improve.
Griffin's biggest strength is throwing deep over the middle. In 11 pass attempts in that area of the field going for 10 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage, he's had nine completions for 280 yards and two touchdowns.
That, combined with Griffin's near-flawless performance when facing blitzes (13-of-15 for 316 yards and three touchdowns), means that the only way the Bengals are going to be able to stop him is via a traditional pass rush or by strong secondary play, specifically from their safeties and nickel corner Terence Newman.
The issue with Griffin is that he's a mobile threat. Under pressure, Griffin could easily roll out and make a completion or run the ball himself, and it's hard to predict what he'll do. He's more dangerous than even second-year Panthers passer Cam Newton in that Griffin's arm is bigger and more accurate, thus presenting the Bengals with one of their toughest challenges of the season thus far.
An unpredictable offense is the bane of an inconsistent defense's existence, but like it or not, the Bengals are tasked with stopping the Redskins offensive juggernaut this week. Clearly, Zimmer is going to tweak his approach, fiddle with the snap counts of certain defenders and hope to find a way to field his strongest group of talent at any given moment.
The degree of success the Bengals do or do not have in stopping Griffin this Sunday will illustrate just how much we can expect from this defense this year. So far, it's been disappointing, but it's fixable. The hope is that the Redskins' offensive weapons don't spread Cincinnati too thin and further expose the very real holes in their defensive unit.