The Cincinnati Bengals' Biggest Early-Season Storylines for Week 3
The Cincinnati Bengals managed to turn things around against the Cleveland Browns last week, but a looming matchup with Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins means there are plenty of important storylines to be monitoring up until kickoff.
While the Bengals have not exactly played up to their full potential yet, things seem to be heading in the right direction. The Redskins are an NFC foe, but it is still a critically important early-season matchup for Cincinnati as they attempt to stay above .500.
Injuries and disappointing play from some have plagued the Bengals to this point, but it could be the team getting off to a slow start more than anything.
Week 3 could be the turning point for Cincinnati, for better or worse. Here are the biggest storylines to watch as the Bengals travel to Washington.
Health of Key Players
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As usual, the injury bug has had a huge impact on the Bengals' young season so far, and it does not appear like that will change for the game against Washington.
The Bengals' injury report was released early this week, and there were some important players listed, such as Carlos Dunlap, Jason Allen, Robert Geathers, Leon Hall and Kevin Zeitler.
Hall and Allen are key players in the secondary; Geathers and Dunlap must play considering the sudden depth at defensive end with Jamaal Anderson lost for the year; and Zeitler has been one of the bright spots on the team at right guard.
Now, this could just be each player receiving more time off, but if any of these players miss time against the Redskins, it is a serious issue for obvious reasons.
Rey Maualuga's Mediocrity
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Rey Maualuga has been mediocre at best as the man in the middle of the Cincinnati defense, and there is simply no denying it now that head coach Marvin Lewis has publicly admitted it.
On Monday, Lewis addressed the media and made it very clear that Maualuga has to play better (via Bengals.com):
He’s got to play in a little better leverage position, understanding where his fit is and where he needs to be. How to play the block, how to shed the block. If the block is up on him, what are we going to turn the football back to? So mechanically, he’s got to play better.
Lewis seems to be seeing the same things as everyone else—Maualuga has been a serious liability in coverage and fails to get off blocks to make plays against the run.
If Maualuga continues to struggle, he could end up losing his job. He's not exactly impressing anyone in the final year of his contract.
Lack of a Consistent Pass Rush
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The Bengals' serious lack of a pass rush through the first two games has had severe implications on how those games have turned out.
For Cincinnati, a lack of a consistent pass rush means the secondary has been suffering; opposing receivers have had more than enough time to get open against a rusty Leon Hall and aging complementary cornerbacks.
Part of the issue is the injured Carlos Dunlap, who has the potential to be one of the best in the league if he could just stay on the field. A serious lack of depth, thanks to offseason losses, certainly has not helped things.
Geno Atkins is the only player on the line with consistent pressure, and we have yet to see exotic secondary blitzes from defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
Something is going to have to change, and fast.
Andy Dalton's Accuracy
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Yes, Andy Dalton went 24-of-31 for 318 yards and a 128.2 rating last week against the Cleveland Browns, but it could have been better.
Dalton's accuracy is fine on short and intermediate routes, but he struggles on any throws past 15 or 20 yards, and it showed against Cleveland.
Whether it is an issue of strength, timing or accuracy, through the first two weeks Dalton has had some horrendous deep passes miss wide-open targets that could have either opened up a game or actually allowed the Bengals to win.
Things have to change from Dalton if the Bengals expect to contend this year. Consistently errant throws down the field will allow opposing defenses to key in on other areas because they won't be concerned about Dalton beating them deep.
The Invisible Jermaine Gresham
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For someone with Jermaine Gresham's special talent and skill set, he sure has been invisible for the Bengals through two games this year.
Gresham has only managed to catch seven passes for 67 yards in two games, and it appears more often than not that he has been asked to stay in on the line and block rather than go out for a reception.
Against the Baltimore Ravens this strategy makes sense. Against the Cleveland Browns, not so much.
Gresham could be an elite player in the NFL, thanks to his skills and the tight end position being so important in a West Coast offense.
Whether the coaches don't trust him or he has not formed enough chemistry with Andy Dalton, Gresham has been a non-factor to this point.
Big Defensive Lineup Changes Imminent?
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The Bengals gave up 439 total yards to the Cleveland Browns—a team led by a rookie quarterback and running back—last week at home.
Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has made it very clear that he is not happy, and many lineup changes could be in store sooner rather than later (via The Cincinnati Enquirer):
There may be more coming. I’m not going to stand pat for this...It’s everything. Technique, discipline, effort, responsibilities, everything. It’s a big problem, we don’t pass rush, pass cover, stop the run, stop the pass. We don’t tackle and play with enough effort.
Zimmer's displeasure has plenty of merit. The defensive unit consistently gave up big plays, and the secondary, pass rush and linebacker play have been mostly atrocious.
With Zimmer furious, and even the leader of the defense, Rey Maualuga, on the hot seat, a drastically different starting lineup against Washington and beyond is not out of the question.
Can Cincinnati Hang with the Washington Redskins This Week?
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On paper, the Bengals seem to be pretty evenly matched with the Washington Redskins.
Washington, like Cleveland, is led by a rookie quarterback, but he's a bit better than the Browns' signal-caller.
Robert Griffin III is the type of player that can beat a team on his own. He could very well do that this week through the air, thanks to a lack of pass rush, and on the ground with his elite speed, thanks to the Bengals' defensive inability to stop the run.
On the offensive side of things, Andy Dalton should have another solid outing thanks to the Redskins missing two of their top defensive players in Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker.
It is going to be a hostile environment for the Bengals in Washington, but it is just one factor on a list of many that the Bengals need to work on in Week 3.
As mentioned earlier, Week 3 could be a turning point for Cincinnati's season—in which direction remains to be seen.