The Cincinnati Bengals dropped their Week 7 contest to the Pittsburgh Steelers and are now 3-4 on the season and in third place in the AFC North. The loss, a 24-17 affair that was more lopsided on the field than in the final score, highlighted a number of areas on which the Bengals need to improve.
It was their third loss in as many weeks and demonstrated just how troubled the Bengals have become. They were winless in the month of October and went from averaging 28 points per game in September to 18 points per game in the three games this month.
Luckily for the Bengals, they have a week to regroup with no game to play—it's their bye week. So let's take a look at what the team needs to prioritize in its week off.
Offensive Priority: Help Andy Dalton
Opposing defenses have found ways to stop and stop again Bengals second-year quarterback Andy Dalton over the past three weeks. Pressure, excellent coverage on his receivers and shutting down the run game has successfully resulted in three straight losses that in many ways can be ascribed to Dalton's shortcomings.
The worst performance of the three, in terms of yards, came in Week 7 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Dalton completed just 14 of his 28 pass attempts, for 105 yards, a touchdown and an interception. In the past three games, however, Dalton has been slumping, regardless of the yards he's put up.
Six of his 10 interceptions came in the month of October, and those 10 interceptions also has him tied with Cleveland Browns rookie Brandon Weeden for the most in the league.
It's not all bad for Dalton, however. He still ranks 12th in completions, 10th in gross passing yards, sixth in passing touchdowns, ninth in completion percentage and third in yards per pass attempt. That is thanks in part to having such an excellent target in wide receiver A.J. Green, but it also speaks to his own inherent abilities.
Dalton's issues are with pressure and his reaction to it. Just even the semblance of pressure seems to have Dalton flustered (see Dalton's interception to LaMarr Woodley on Sunday night). Wherein a more experienced quarterback may throw an interception when under pressure, Dalton's game falters long after the pick—his accuracy is shaken.
Of his 269 drop-backs, Dalton has been under no pressure for 205 of them, with a completion percentage of 66.5 with 11 touchdowns and six interceptions. When facing pressure via the pass rush, his completion percentage dips to 52.5 percent, with two touchdowns and four interceptions. Eighty-three of his drop-backs have been against the blitz, and again, his numbers dip: He has a 54.8 completion percentage five touchdowns and has thrown five of his 10 total interceptions.
His non-pressured interceptions are something he will have to grow out of. They are a result of poorly-thrown passes into dangerous coverage or come from his frustration in not being able to throw well when pressured. Those are mental improvements he must make, things that come in time. Despite having helped the Bengals along to the playoffs last season, he's still just in his second year and is not a fully-developed quarterback.
But under pressure, the rest of the Bengals offense and coordinator Jay Gruden can offer Dalton immediate help. One is by revitalizing the run game. With BenJarvus Green-Ellis the team's biggest rushing contributor, they average just 96.6 rushing yards per game on 25 attempts, an average of 3.9 yards per rush attempt.
With more rushes and a better result from them, it will alleviate the pressure on Dalton to be the team's sole offensive hope. It also will help him buy time—a better run game means more opportunities for play-action passing.
The Bengals must spend this bye week taking a look at free-agent running backs as well as evaluating their trade options before the October 30 deadline. Free agent Deji Karim tried out on Monday, and more players should file into the Bengals' facilities in the coming days. More, and better, running can only help Dalton have more success and not allow defenses to pressure him in the same ways.
The other thing Cincinnati can do for Dalton is assist him when facing the blitz. The new running back could be part of that equation, as can the backs it already has on the roster. If it can succeed against the blitz, it gives Dalton advantageous matchups downfield—single coverage, for example, on a receiver as talented as Green.
If the Bengals can become one of the better offensive lines against the blitz, Dalton immediately becomes a far more dangerous quarterback and could also drastically alter the plans of opposing defenses.
Defensive Priority: Decisions to Make at Linebacker
For as good as the Bengals defensive line has been this season, their linebacking corps has been, for the most part, almost as bad. Beyond the impressive play of undrafted rookie Vontaze Burfict, who had 15 tackles—the most of any Bengals defender—against the Steelers on Sunday (and the third-most on the year, with 31), there is a lot of room for improvement in the group.
Of the Bengals' 23 (or 24, if you're going on Pro Football Focus' metrics) sacks, just four have come from the linebackers, with one apiece for Burfict, Manny Lawson, Vincent Rey and the now-IR'd Thomas Howard. And most notably, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga has been struggling.
He leads the defense in missed tackles with nine as well as in penalties, with three. When in coverage, he's allowed 28 of 31 passes thrown in his direction to be caught for a total of 355 yards and 208 yards after the catch. Considering 239 of his 465 snaps have been in coverage, that's a wholly unacceptable set of statistics.
This makes the Bengals vulnerable in the short passing game, and running backs who break through the front four have a lot of success against the linebackers. Steelers running back Jonathan Dwyer put up 122 yards on 17 carries against the Bengals on Sunday night, mainly because the linebackers—especially Maualuga—couldn't abide by their assignments nor make tackles.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has already said that making a change at middle linebacker isn't something they're going to do over the bye week, but conceded that Maualuga has been particularly error-prone this season.
The Bengals do, however, need to find a way to get better, more consistent performance out of their linebackers, Burfict mostly excepted. The defensive line as well as the secondary have been sharp so far this season, with the linebackers the only liability.
Whether that means moving players inside or outside, rotating more linebackers than they do now or bringing someone new onto the active roster, something clearly needs to change. A good start is to emphasize the fundamentals of the position over the bye week, spending extra time in evaluations and making improvements and hoping they take hold and pay off in the second half of the season.