The Cincinnati Bengals are emerging from their much-needed Week 8 bye with one goal in mind—stop the bleeding. Their first four weeks saw three straight wins, but they followed that up with three losses in a row, with their offense in particular looking deflated and messy.
They come back from their week off with a home game—good news—but it's against the Denver Broncos, who are coming off of back-to-back wins and whose starting quarterback, Peyton Manning, has never fallen to the Bengals.
Bad news, indeed.
At 3-4, the Bengals aren't out of the AFC North hunt. There's still half of a season yet to be played and a number of surprises ahead for all four teams in the division. If Cincinnati wants to get back into contention, here's what they must do to get there in Week 9 and beyond.
Getting Andy Dalton's Mind Right
Second-year Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton started the season off strong, showing no signs of the dreaded (and very real) sophomore slump, but things for him took a turn, which not coincidentally coincided with his team's three-game losing streak.
In that span, Dalton threw six of his total 10 interceptions (he hasn't gone a game this year without a pick). His yards per completion dipped, and, in Week 7 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he connected on only 50 percent of his passes, for 105 yards.
With the Bengals run game getting little traction—they are 23rd in the league in rushing yards per game (96.6) and 21st in rushing touchdowns per game (.6)—they've needed to rely heavily on Dalton's arm. And where it goes, so does the team's chances for victory.
That doesn't appear likely to change any time soon, so Dalton desperately needed to spend his week off breaking the negative patterns he has recently gotten himself into. His receiving corps, beyond A.J. Green, has also lacked consistency, which hasn't helped Dalton's confidence. But ultimately Dalton needs to figure out ways to up his accuracy under pressure—he's 24th in the league in that area—and learn what it takes to outsmart the league's better defenses.
He's yet to beat divisional rivals the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, and he hasn't led a victory over a winning team this season. Dalton doesn't need to morph into Tom Brady overnight, but when the Bengals are counting on him so heavily, he cannot make the kind of mistakes he has in the last three games. A turn toward more high-percentage passing and away from forcing the deep ball is a good way to rebuild his confidence.
The Bengals have an excellent defensive line and an underrated secondary, but right now the focus is squarely on their underachieving group of linebackers. Aside from rookie Vontaze Burfict, no one has been terribly impressive—"mediocre" is the word head coach Marvin Lewis used to describe their play (via NFL.com)—and the linebacking has been a major reason why the Bengals are struggling to stop the run and the short-passing game this season.
No Cincinnati linebacker has been a bigger disappointment this year than Rey Maualuga. He's Pro Football Focus' worst-rated inside backer, with coverage being his biggest weakness. He's given up 28 receptions on 31 targets, for 355 yards, 12.7 yards per catch and 208 yards after the catch. Other linebackers have had to pick up Maualuga's slack, leaving gaps in coverage that have burned the Bengals numerous times.
Without the linebackers holding up their end of the bargain, running backs who break through the defensive line are having a lot of success and opposing quarterbacks are able to target the middle of the field with little resistance. Burfict cannot do the job of all three linebackers himself, and without the team improving the position, opposing offenses are going to take greater advantage.
It's a contract year for Maualuga; if he wants to remain in Cincinnati—or the NFL as a whole—after this season, he'll need to step things up in the Bengals' next nine games. With the offense struggling, even more pressure falls to the Bengal defense to lead the team to wins. If just one of those 11 defenders isn't playing well, it can doom the entire effort. Right now, Maualuga is that one man.
What's Next: The Denver Broncos
The 4-3 Denver Broncos will pose a major test for the Bengals on both sides of the ball this week. They rank 15th or better in both passing and rushing yards, as well as passing and rushing yards allowed. And, of course, they have Peyton Manning as their quarterback. It's therefore not the most pleasant return to the field for the Bengals.
If the Bengals can shut off Denver's passing game, they'll be susceptible to the run. If they can stop the run, that means Manning gets free rein to pass the ball. As such, the Bengals need to prepare themselves for the possibility of a shootout and must therefore limit their mistakes in the passing game. Outscoring Denver might just be their only hope for a win.
Cincinnati will have to lean heavily on defensive tackle Geno Atkins, which shouldn't be so hard considering he's the best in the league at his position presently. Denver's offensive line is good—Manning has been sacked only 10 times this year—but a beast like Atkins can get to practically any passer in the league.
Atkins has seven sacks, three quarterback hits and 17 hurries to his name this season, and will require Manning to adjust and re-adjust his plays nearly every down. Atkins, as such, will be the Bengals' first and biggest line of defense when it comes to containing Manning as well as running backs Willis McGahee and Ronnie Hillman.
Manning has never fallen to the Bengals, but there's a first time for everything. If Atkins and the rest of the defensive line can continue to play strongly and Dalton can turn things around from his disastrous previous three outings, they have more than a mere chance of winning.