Today, I had the pleasure of speaking with Scott Schulze of Cincy Jungle in anticipation of the Week 17 matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals.
1. One final game before the end of the Bengals 2017-2018 season. Do you expect this team to come out with a fire, or are they burnt out and ready to end scene?
The way the Bengals looked against the Bears and Vikings in Weeks 14 and 15, it appeared that they were a listless group just going thru the motions. But then Week 16 happened. In Week 16 they came out and beat a Lions team who was desperately trying to hold onto a playoff dream. In that Week 16 game the Bengals broke a lot of negative 2017 trends such as winning the time of possession, providing running lanes, and actually scoring well in the second half. What made the win even more amazing was that it came with a large number of starters out with injuries, and the blocking held up despite the absence of their top 3 offensive tackles.
This will be the second consecutive week that the Bengals are playing with many players out due to injuries, and facing a team who needs a victory for the playoffs. That formula doesn’t seem like it should bode well for the Bengals, but it did last week. Marvin Lewis’ teams are very good at winning games which don’t matter (for them), and this game against the Ravens falls into that category. I’d expect the Bengals to start the game with the intent of beating Baltimore, but with all of the injuries, we’ll see if they can sustain it for 4 quarters (specifically on offense). I’d guess it will be a close, well fought game in the first half, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Ravens pull away in the second half against a makeshift offensive line comprised on inexperienced guys from the practice squad and deepest corners of the roster.
2. While the season was unsuccessful, what are some exciting things that lie ahead for the Bengals future?
Perhaps the most exciting thing is the expected replacement of Marvin Lewis as head coach. After 15 seasons with zero playoff victories, and an abysmal record against teams with winning records, it’s well past time for the Bengals to look for somebody who can exceed what Lewis did. I’m not complaining about the 5 playoff trips in the last 7 years, or the career mark above 0.500, but every now and then it would be nice to step beyond “good”, and have a “great” season that makes some postseason noise.
Another positive in the future is the running game. Even though their numbers weren’t all that special this season, thanks to an offensive line that ranked anywhere from bad to horribly awful for much of the season, both Giovani Bernard and Joe Mixon looked dynamic and elusive.
Another exciting aspect for the future is the pass rush. Despite often trailing, and not putting the opposition in too many passing situations, the Bengals pass rush was much improved from 2016. A big part of that was rookie 4th round pick Carl Lawson, who has 8.0 sacks so far this season, despite the Bengals significantly curtailing his playing time (something Marvin Lewis likes to do to rookies).
3. What two players should Ravens fans take note of now, in expectations of these players to produce against Baltimore in the future?
I suppose I could take the easy way out and just point to Mixon and Lawson, who I highlighted in the previous question. But I’ll offer some additional names. On defense, cornerback William Jackson III looks legit. He was the team’s first round pick in 2016, but missed all season on IR. After being used sparingly for the first part of the season, an injury to Adam Jones opened the door for him to get playing time, and he has been awesome. I saw a stat recently that he was leading all NFL cornerbacks in lowest completion percentage or lowest passer rating on balls thrown his way – something to that effect. Unfortunately the exact details of that stat escape me at the moment.
Ok, I’ll take the easy way out and go back to Joe Mixon, who I mentioned in the previous question. This spring when I was reviewing all the game videos of the running backs for the 2017 draft, Mixon stood out as my clear favorite. The things I liked about him then were his vision for finding running lanes, great hands in the passing game, and his innate ability to make people miss. As a Bengal he has displayed all of those traits, and if the Bengals can get their offensive line issues fixed, he is somebody who could become the focal point of the Ravens game planning for years to come.
4. What was the biggest surprise this season for the Cincinnati Bengals?
I think the biggest surprise this season (besides the underperforming 6-9 record), was just how awful the offensive line was. When the Bengals let a good RG Kevin Zeitler go (expected) and a great LT Andrew Whitworth go (unexpected), we knew the offensive line would have some struggles. But we didn’t know just how bad those struggles would be. Andy Dalton has been sacked on just under 8 percent of the time, which is a horrible mark for any quarterback, and something that only David Carr can probably relate to. Routinely the running backs were running into a brick wall as soon as they took handoffs, and the offense just struggled to do anything for much of the season. Even attempts to run quick passing offense, to ease the pressure on Dalton, did little to give him time to throw the ball.
5. Why was this season so unsuccessful for the Cincinnati Bengals? Coaching, players, front office, everything?
Let’s say you get a craving for ice cream. You could head over to Safeway and get a box of vanilla ice cream. Yes, it’s ice cream, but it’s only good and not great. It leaves a little to be desired. It’s not exactly a DQ blizzard or a Culvers concrete mixer. But if you flood that grocery store vanilla ice cream with some crumbled Oreos, some chocolate chips or M&M’s, and douse it in chocolate syrup – now we’re making something pretty good.
Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton are that box of Safeway vanilla ice cream. They aren’t bad, but aren’t going to do the job on their own, and need a lot of good things around them to make them great. That vanilla ice cream needs all those toppings just like how Lewis and Dalton need A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Geno Atkins, Vontaze Burfict, etc…, etc… to go from good to great. In 2017 the Bengals were serving that Safeway vanilla ice cream without all of those toppings and, well, it just wasn’t very appealing.
So, why did the Bengals season resemble a box of vanilla ice cream from Safeway? It starts at the top. The Bengals philosophy is to build thru the draft, and avoid adding high quality free agents. Unfortunately, when you don’t draft well, and let some of your best draft picks escape via free agency, your roster is going to bear that out in a negative way. That paved the way for the offensive line to be gutted, and other key players to leave without being adequately back-filled. That diminished the roster to a degree.
Another problem was the Marvin Lewis factor, where he is afraid of playing rookies (at least per a press conference answer he gave last year), which meant that his best running back Joe Mixon had minimal touches early in the season when the offense was struggling. It also meant great defensive players like Carl Lawson and William Jackson sat on the sidelines, being criminally underused. Lewis also dismisses halftime adjustments as something invented by the media. Which means that adapting your game plan by anticipating and countering what your opponent does is not something that the Bengals typically do. In previous seasons, the roster was strong enough to counter these aspects – this year, not so much.