After a frustrating loss to their divisional rival Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday Night Football, the Cincinnati Bengals head to their bye week with a 3-4 record after another winless October under head coach Marvin Lewis.
After their Week 1 drubbing at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati seemed to right the ship with three consecutive wins to finish out September at 3-1.
Now, after a winless October and three straight losses, there are glaring issues within the Bengals franchise that need to be fixed immediately for this team to have any hopes of consecutive playoff berths.
The bye week certainly came at an opportune time for the Bengals as they have seemingly fallen apart offensively and defensively over the past month. It is now time for the coaching staff to take a strong look at schemes and personnel and devise a plan going forward.
Let’s take a look at five adjustments the Bengals should highly consider over the course of the next week.
At this time, any Bengals fan will not hesitate to express their displeasure with the Bengals running game and the ineptitude of BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Green-Ellis has yet to eclipse the 100-yard rushing mark in any game this season and simply does not have the burst to pull off any explosive runs.
In Green-Ellis’ defense, he has been a solid workhorse and has proven capable of getting the tough yards in short-yardage situations. This is not enough to have a balance rushing attack on any NFL team.
The loss of Bernard Scott hurt the Bengals backfield as he was supposed to be the speedy change-of-pace back to compliment Green-Ellis in a running back by committee approach. Currently, Cedric Peerman is the Bengals best option going forward as an addition to Green-Ellis in the backfield.
Peerman has made the most of his carries this season as he has rushed seven times for 83 yards and a touchdown for an 11.9 yard per carry average. One of those rushes was on a fake punt that gained a total of 48 yards, but that only shows his explosiveness when given the opportunity to carry the ball in space.
By installing Peerman in the backfield along with Green-Ellis, the Bengals now have two very different dynamics for opposing defenses to deal with which will help keep them honest.
Providing a versatile rushing attack will not only help the Bengals woes in their running game, but will help open up the passing game for Andy Dalton and company by utilizing play-action passing more effectively.
It is no secret that the Bengals offense has fallen flat over the past three games of the season. Each game seems to have gotten worse instead of better for this team. It is time for offensive coordinator Jay Gruden to sit down and rework his West-coast style that he has brought to Cincinnati.
In last Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh, Dalton threw the ball 28 times. Only four of those throws were beyond 10 yards from the line of scrimmage.
It seems that Gruden is trying to utilize the quick, short-passing game far too much which makes the Bengals aerial attack one-dimensional.
Defenses have been bringing their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage while waiting for these quick routes and linebackers have been dropping back over the middle of the field while salivating for a Dalton-pass to come their way.
If Gruden is willing to open up the playbook and attempt some passes deep down the field, it will keep defenses honest and will allow better separation for receivers on the short, underneath routes.
Cincinnati has one of the most talented wide receivers in the game in A.J. Green. Gruden and Dalton need to show faith that they can deliver a deep ball to Green and allow him to make a play on it. He did this so many times in the 2011 season as a rookie and has more experience than ever with this type of play.
Another thing that Gruden should consider is to bring the no-huddle offense to Cincinnati’s scheme. This pairs very well with the West-coast offense and will not allow defenses to get out of their base units as they will not have time for substitutions.
Dalton has the football I.Q. to make this work and Gruden needs to put faith in his young quarterback and allow him to run this scheme a few times per game.
Sanu has proven himself as a very durable and strong target that is willing to make tough plays over the middle of the field. He is strong enough to drag defenders for extra yards and has good enough hands to make catches in traffic.
Sanu seems to be the closest thing that the Bengals have had to T.J. Houshmandzadeh since his departure from the team. The Bengals have been lacking a tough presence at wide receiver over the middle for the last couple of years and Sanu looks to be that guy.
With Sanu more involved, he will also force safeties and linebackers to flow his way, which will open up the other big target for Dalton over the middle—tight end Jermaine Gresham.
Bengals fans have been wondering why Gresham has not been utilized much this season and this is a big reason why. With Cincinnati sticking out outside routes with their receivers, Gresham is left alone in the middle in tight coverage.
With two big targets that are capable of pulling in those tough passes on the field together, this will certainly open things up for the rest of the receiving corps and once again revitalize the Bengals aerial attack.
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Rey Maualuga is struggling mightily this season. As a middle linebacker, Maualuga simply does not have what it takes to be a solid starter in the NFL.
Maualuga is constantly seen over pursuing the running game while leaving gaping holes up the middle of the field. He constantly struggles to get off his blocks, and when he does, he is not a sure tackler in space.
Rookie Vontaze Burfict is proving himself to be one of the best players on the Bengals defense and has recorded double-digit tackles in three of the five starts that he has been given this season.
Burfict is not in his natural position at middle linebacker, instead he is playing the WILL position. Even with little experience at the position, Burfict seems to be everywhere on the field making plays and is a very sure tackler.
This being said, there is one thing the Bengals should strongly consider: benching Maualuga.
If they do this, they can move Burfict back to his natural position in the middle where he potentially can be even more dominant than he has been on the weak side. Manny Lawson is a stable player on the strong side and will keep getting starts in that position.
This will now leave a hole on the weak side and there are a number of ways to fix that with current personnel. Vincent Rey is the backup behind Burfict currently on the weak side. He is still learning and can provide a limited number of snaps per game to spell the starter at the position.
So, who is the starter on the weak side? Dan Skuta. Skuta has been very versatile at linebacker during his days as a Bengal. He specializes on the strong side, but has played at middle linebacker in a pinch.
If Skuta can be versatile enough to play the middle linebacker position, there would be plenty of time to learn the weak side over the course of the bye week.
Skuta would not have to play every snap in the game as he can be spelled by the aforementioned Rey. Also, pass rush specialist Dontay Moch can also be brought in on passing downs.
There is no chance to trade Maualuga based on his play thus far and the fact that he is in a contract year. The Bengals can also not afford to cut him because of the lack of depth at the position. Benching him should be the way to go and, who knows, it may just ignite the fire that has been missing in him since his rookie season.
Andrew Hawkins has easily been the most explosive Bengal to touch the ball this season. He tends to always make something out of nothing as he has converted two short passes this season into touchdowns of over 50 yards.
First, Hawkins should get more reps in the slot along with Sanu. If the Bengals do indeed open up their passing attack, this could leave very favorable matchups for the explosive Hawkins.
The Bengals have lacked the big-play ability over the past few weeks, and Hawkins is just what the doctor ordered to remedy this.
Having Hawkins on the field is also some insurance for Green. Defenses know how explosive Hawkins is and need to keep a keen eye on him at all times. This could potentially take some pressure off of Green and allow for some deep shots down the field.
Aside from getting reps at the receiver position, Hawkins should also become the exclusive punt and kick returner.
There are no other Bengals that have the speed, vision and explosiveness that Hawkins has when in space. Brandon Tate has done a sub-par job with his return duties and Hawkins would be the fix to put in his place.
If the Bengals can get Hawkins to touch the ball 10-15 times a game between receptions, end-around runs and returns they will immediately see an increase in offensive production.
It is uncertain at this point to speculate on what the Bengals coaching staff in considering over the bye week to improve the performance of this team. However, if they utilize any of the options that have been considered here, with the talent they have on the roster, we may still see a Bengals unit that can be a force for the duration of the season.