In preparation for the Colts’ season opener against the Bengals, I got a chance to chat with Scott Schulze of SB Nation’s Bengals website Cincy Jungle and ask him a few questions heading into the Week 1 game.
Here they are:
Colts fans know a little about their team hanging on to a coach long past the point where evidence indicates they should. Is that how Bengals fans feel about Marvin Lewis, or is it more complicated than that?
The NFL tends to be a performance-driven league, where coaches have a very limited window to win or be replaced. But from an outsider’s perspective, that reality doesn’t seem to exist inside of the Cincinnati 513 area code, based on Marvin Lewis entering his 16th season with the Bengals despite zero playoff wins. So what gives?
The Bengals owner, Mike Brown, seems to be happy with Marvin Lewis, based on the 2-year extension he was given after back-to-back losing seasons. My best guess for Lewis’ continued employment with the Bengals begins way back to the 1960’s. Despite much success, Cleveland Browns co-founder Paul Brown was fired from the Browns shortly after the team was bought by Art Modell. That ‘betrayal’ was apparently never forgotten by Brown’s son and Bengals owner, Mike Brown, who has generally been extremely loyal to coaches and players despite failings on and off the field. Another factor seems to be the 1990’s, which was a horrible decade for the Bengals, and coincided with Mike Brown taking over the team when his father passed away unexpectedly. Compared to the awful string of coaches, drafts, and results from the 1990’s, Lewis has been a very successful coach by comparison. That leads you to 2018 with Mike Brown being loyal to his head coach Marvin Lewis, whose career 0.500 record is fairly successful, compared to what Mike Brown accomplished before Lewis was hired in 2003.
In 2015, the Bengals had Tyler Eiffert healthy for most of the season and the offense was explosive. Is his health a key to this season for the Bengals’ offense? How has he looked in the preseason and can is there any thought that he can stay healthy?
As long as Eifert is healthy, his numbers on a per-game basis easily put him in the Gronk / Kelce / Ertz category of elite tight ends. Unfortunately, he’s only played 10 games over the past 2 seasons, and less than half of the possible games in his 5-year career.
So far in the pre-season he has been healthy, so that’s pretty exciting. The team has been very cautious with his usage leading up to Week 1, so we really haven’t gotten much of a chance to see him play, but what we have seen has been promising. The expectation is that Eifert will resume his role as a great tight end now that he is healthy (at the moment).
Eifert will be an important key for this team in 2018, but it remains to be seen in what capacity, as there have been some rumors of limiting his workload in hopes of limiting his injury chances and stretching his season out. In 2015 he sported an absurd ratio of one touchdown every four receptions, as he scored 13 touchdowns in only 13 games. Even his career ratio of one touchdown per every 6.3 receptions is impressive. For a team who struggled to score last year, the more Eifert can play, the better off the Bengals offense should be, even if his snap count is limited this season.
Like the Colts, the Bengals have struggled along the offensive line. Also like the Colts, they have taken several steps to remedy that issue. How has the line looked so far for the Bengals?
The offensive line looks to have improved, but the big question is whether it has improved enough. The Bengals surprised many fans by only drafting one offensive lineman in the first five rounds, despite having nine picks and a desperate need for a center, guard, and tackle. The currently starting five are a shaky group overall, and the depth is effectively non-existent, so we’ll see how that decision from the draft plays out.
In 2017 left guard Clint Boling was pretty solid, while the other four positions ranged anywhere from bad to awful on any given week (outside of Week 17 when the backup guards Christian Westerman & Alex Redmond finally got to play and played quite well). Based on that low standard set in 2017, the 2018 offensive line is certainly better.
Last season if the Bengals didn’t have the worst center and left tackle in the NFL, they were certainly close. They addressed those positions by trading for left tackle Cordy Glenn from Buffalo, who is pretty good when healthy. And they drafted a center in the first round, Billy Price, who so far looks like he should at least be league-average, which is pretty good, considering the last time the Bengals had a center who was at least league-average was Kyle Cook’s last season in 2013.
They still have a huge hole at right guard and right tackle. Most fans feel that Christian Westerman should be starting at right guard based on how he played last season, and this year in preseason. But the coaches don’t seem to be too keen on playing him, instead placing him behind both Trey Hopkins and Alex Redmond in the pecking order for the starting right guard role. Right tackle looks to be Bobby Hart, starting over Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbuehi. Based on what we’ve seen in preseason, it’s probably a toss up as to who is the least worst, but none of the three seems to be NFL starting caliber.
So far in the preseason, the pass blocking has looked better with the first team, while the run blocking hasn’t been any better than what we saw last season. Since both the run blocking and pass blocking were abysmal last year, I guess that’s progress, right?
Entering his second season, Bengals running back Joe Mixon is an interesting player to consider. How has he looked this offseason and what are the expectations for him in the coming season?
Watching Mixon with the ball in his hand, it’s easy to see that the kid is immensely talented with great vision and an innate ability to make defenders miss. We got to see that in the first preseason game when he took broke a pair of tackles and turned a little dump off pass for a touchdown. With the slower, plodding Jeremy Hill out of the picture, Mixon should see an increase in carries this year. With Giovani Bernard on the roster, Mixon will likely only get to play on 1st and 2nd down, although he’s a very good receiver.
The biggest challenge Mixon will face this year is what kind of run blocking he gets in front of him. Last season, the blocking was rather abysmal, and his yards per carry average suffered as a result. Unlike guys like Ezekiel Elliot who get 5 yards downfield before being touched, Mixon was often getting touched 5 yards in the backfield, and he had a number of great runs last year turning those 5 yard losses into zero yard gains, which look great on film, but don’t look too impressive in the gameday statistics.
We want to think that the additions of Glenn at left tackle and Price at center will improve the running game, although the limited sample we’ve seen from the preseason games tends to say otherwise. I’d like to pencil him in for 1,100 to 1,500 total yards with about eight touchdowns, but much of that will depend on how much of a share Bernard takes away, and if the run blocking is better in 2018.
What do you consider to be the greatest strength of this Bengals team and what is its greatest weakness?
The greatest weakness is by far, the offensive line. That was covered pretty thoroughly above, so I’ll focus on the greatest strength here.
At this point in time I’m going to say the greatest strength is the defensive line, although that may change to the receiving group, if John Ross and/or Tyler Boyd can break out, and if Tyler Eifert can stay healthy. But as it stands now, the D-Line looks to be a very formidable force. Geno Atkins is a perennial All-Pro at the 3-technique DT position and frequently causes havoc when teams refuse to double team him – although double teams don’t always stop him either. Andrew Billings has been turning heads all pre-season and has looked like an absolute stud this summer. He is very young and very powerful, and seems to be coming into his own as a very good NFL player. LDE Carlos Dunlap is good for 8 to 13 sacks annually and was just re-signed to a 3-year extension, while Carl Lawson racked up 8.5 sacks in his rookie season last year in very limited playing time. The rotational depth has looked very good in the preseason, especially rookie DE Sam Hubbard and second year DE Jordan Willis.
Based on what we have seen in preseason, it appears that the defensive line should cause a lot of problems for opposing lines, and is bolstered by a good rotation of depth. This will be important, because the linebackers are something of a question, and the safety group consists of one veteran, one rookie, and not a lot of exciting depth behind them.
Bonus – What is your prediction for the game on Sunday?
With the return of Andrew Luck, I’m expecting the Colts to rebound from last season’s losing record and have a good offense this year. In that regard, I think the Bengals are hitting the Colts at the right time, with Luck taking his first real snaps in over a year. I’m expecting the Bengals defensive line to provide constant pressure on a rusty Andrew Luck, keeping the Colts from scoring too frequently.
Until we see if the Bengals offensive line can run block, I’m going to guess the Bengals may struggle to consistently move the ball, and we’ll probably end up with a low-scoring game from both sides. I’m obviously going to pick the Bengals (until they prove me wrong) and will guess something like 17-13 Bengals.