The Cincinnati Bengals have struggled mightily this season. Their 3-5 record speaks for itself as the young team that seemed destined for another playoff run is finding itself below .500.
There's no one person to blame, as LT Andrew Whitworth pointed out earlier this week (via Joe Reedy of Cincinatti.com). Each week there seems to be a different problem.
What will it be this week? Fumbling? Interceptions? Decision-making? Play-calling?
Although you can't pin the bulk of this team's misery on one player or position, there are five areas of the team that really have looked mediocre all year.
The Cincinnati Bengals have eight cornerbacks on the roster this year but like many of the other positions, the depth at cornerback has been spread thin by injuries. Despite the number of new corners on the team (Jason Allen, Dre Kirkpatrick, Terence Newman, Shaun Prater), no one appears to be making a mark and few have been healthy for consecutive weeks.
At the start of the season, the Bengals organization and fans alike sighed in relief as it was announced that shutdown corner Leon Hall would be available for the week one matchup against the Baltimore Ravens. Injuries have still followed Hall though and he has missed two games on the year. The games he has been in he has gone largely unnoticed, not giving up big plays but not being the game changer he has been in the past.
Jason Allen and Terence Newman, both veteran free-agent signings, have also not had the impact fans and coaches would have liked.
Allen has only played in one game and Newman, despite showing glimpses of what once made him a fifth overall pick, has made some seriously boneheaded decisions, most notably the late hit on RG3 in the crucial closing moments of the Redskins game.
Dre Kirkpatrick, the first round pick from the 2012 draft, was finally healthy last Sunday but was entirely ineffective, not recording any statistics. More opportunities will change this, especially as his health improves and he sees more snaps per game.
Some corner needs to step up. This passing defense, ranked 18th on the season, has the potential to be so much better.
Center is another position that has been ravaged by injuries. First-choice center Kyle Cook picked up an ankle injury over of the summer that might leave him sidelined for the whole season. Even healthy, Cook isn't all that good of a center and an improvement could be made, although a replacement for him isn't a dire need.
His backup, veteran free-agent signing Jeff Faine, has been mediocre in his playing time and has recently picked up a hamstring injury that could very will leave him watching for the next few weeks.
Any time a team goes to a third center, you know they are getting desperate. Trevor Robinson went undrafted and was signed in May as a depth signing. Few would have guessed he would see as much playing time as he has, or that he would pick up a start at center. Coming out of Notre Dame, Robinson is very unremarkable and subpar for an NFL center, but beggars can't be choosers.
Robinson, like Faine, also has had hamstring problems this week and has seen limited time in practice. He's questionable for the matchup against the New York Giants.
So where does that leave us?
In practice, LG Clint Boling has been taking snaps at center. He's fourth on the depth chart. Certainly a better athlete than Robinson or Faine, he lacks the experience at center to make him dependable. Also, by sliding Boling from LG to center, a new weakness opens up at back-up Dennis Roland takes over at LG. A second-string player and natural RT, how well can he be expected to play in game-time situations?
The best hope for the Bengals is that Faine and Robinson recover quickly and at least one takes the reins against the Giants this Sunday. Even better would be news that Kyle Cook is on the fast track to recovery and will be back by Week 10.
Can you name the Bengals' starting safeties? That might not be the hardest question in the world but the answer speaks volumes about the quality at safety for Cincinnati.
Reggie Nelson, despite his terrific 2011 season, has taken a step back this year. He's good enough for the team for now, though. The other players are the concerns.
Taylor Mays, the highly touted safety out of USC, was finally given his big chance to shine as the starting safety this season. Coming over from San Francisco, he was largely considered a bust but showed promise last season. He's a very athletic player and a prototype safety standing 6'3, 230 pounds.
What is preventing him from reaching greatness? His head. This season Mays has made numerous horrifyingly-bad decisions. Despite his potential at safety, his mental aptitude for the game has been so weak that the Bengals have been forced to sign ex-Bengal and free agent Chris Crocker.
Crocker is undersized and past his prime, hence why he was not offered a new deal by anyone in the NFL after last season. Given all that stacked against him, he has still been netter across the board than Mays despite fewer starts.
In five games Crocker has recorded more tackles and interceptions than Mays has in eight games. That's not me telling you how good Crocker is, that's me telling you how bad Mays has been.
And who else is there? Jeremy Miles, the third year player out of Massachusetts and backup to even Chris Crocker. Miles has been nothing spectacular but might very well see starting action in the weeks ahead considering his competition for the spot.
That just leaves the 2012 fifth-round pick out of Boise State, George Iloka, who, like so many of the Bengals' draft picks, has struggled with injuries and has been limited to almost exclusively special teams. Iloka was praised as a steal of a pick in the fifth round, but until he gets real time at safety in the NFL, it's hard to judge what Cincinnati has.
Expect the Bengals to draft a safety within the first two rounds next season or make a good free agent signing in the offseason.
Unlike the other positions, the Cincinnati wide receiver core, when healthy, might be the best in the league. Spearheaded by wonder-kid A.J. Green, there are a plethora of young talents who could step up and make this team a huge passing threat. The problem is, no one is stepping up.
I don't need to talk about Green. No. 18 picked up where 2011 left off, and aside from a few off games, is doing incredibly well with eight TDs and over 700 yards. He's is perfect.
The depth behind Green is far too suspect, though. For the first time in many years, the Bengals elected to have seven wideouts on the team: A.J. Green, Andrew Hawkins, Armon Binns, Brandon Tate, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Ryan Whalen. On paper, these receivers, although young, have the talent to take the league by storm. But they don't.
Hawkins is a very surprising player. He's 5'7", one of the smallest receivers in the league, and has seen his time come and go with several NFL teams. He was playing in Canada when the Bengals picked him up.
Hawkins is a gadget receiver normally, able to turn short passes into big yards. He's very quick and makes cuts like LeSean McCoy. The weeks he's on, he's on. He has two scores for over 50 yards on the year. He's 13th in the NFL in YAC.
But the weeks Hawkins is off? Against Denver, 32 yards. Pittsburgh, 17 yards. Cleveland, 35 yards. He can disappear entirely from games against some of the weakest passing defenses in the NFL. He lacks consistency.
Armon Binns out of the University of Cincinnati made the roster the hard way, through the practice squad. He has the size, strength, and hands of a pro-caliber receiver. In games you'll see him make some fantastic catches. He easily has the talent to be the second best receiver on the team. But he averages just 30 yards a game. He has just one TD on the year. He's a complete enigma.
And the other receivers? Tate, Sanu, Jones and Whalen all have less than 150 yards on the year with one TD between them.
Tate can get a pass considering his main role is special teams. Sanu and Jones have—like the rest of the team it seems—been injured. Injuries aside, though, in their opportunities, they've hardly shined, excluding the Wildcat pass from Sanu.
And Whalen? Decent in his one game, bringing in four receptions. His limited playing time despite the last of standout receivers speaks for itself.
Don't be surprised if the Bengals take a wide receiver in the first or second round next year. Sanu, Jones, and Binns are the real deal if they can step up and be healthy, but this team has playoff potential now and needs to bring in reliable targets for Andy Dalton.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis was supposed to be a fresh face in Cincinnati who would help turn the running game around. His impressive numbers for New England were thrown in fans' faces. Twenty-four TDs over two seasons. No fumbles in his four pro-years in over 500 carries. A running back who could also catch the ball. I, personally, was excited.
What has Green-Ellis become? After eight games he has just 487 yards and has yet to break 100 yards in a game. His TD against Denver last week, just his third on the year, was his first since Week 3. He fumbled in just his third game with the team and now is tied for first in the NFL among running backs for fumbles. His reliability was his only clear cut strength and now it seems he has lost that.
But there really aren't other options. Bernard Scott, in his debut, looked unstoppable. That is, until after just eight carries, he suffered a season ending injury.
Brian Leonard can't be expected to do much as he's really just a third-down back. He has had just 10 carries on the year.
That just leaves Cedric Peerman who is actually averaging over 10 yards per carry. That's a limited number of carries though and if they were really that significant, you'd have to think he'd be getting more snaps.
The Bengals probably won't draft a new running back, at least not in the earlier rounds. Green-Ellis still has two years on his contract and Cincinnati will allow the BenJarvus experiment to continue. The return of Bernard Scott will also make the coaching staff hopeful.