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Pre-Game Recon: What Happened To The Bengals?

Despite boasting one of the best talent pools in the NFL, the Cincinnati Bengals have had a nightmarish 2016 season.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

It’s Bengals week, which means it is that special time of the year when we get to watch an entire city in Ohio have their PTSD flashbacks triggered about Texans’ backup quarterbacks in primetime. This is our best annual tradition, to be honest. Houston’s backup signal-caller/tiger slayer this year may well be Tom Savage, who after putting down the other big cats in the AFC last week has earned himself his first career start against Cincy. If history tells us anything, Savage is going to throw for 500 yards and lead Houston to a flawless victory, right? RIGHT?!

Yeah, that’s what I thought. Connor Howe of our sister site, Cincy Jungle, was kind enough to stop by and talk to us about Savage’s first opponent and how their once-promising season was inexplicably derailed along the way.

1. So...what the hell happened this season? The Bengals were a contender for the AFC crown seemingly every year for the past three or four seasons, and then out of nowhere the team could not get out of their own way in 2016. Is there a discernible root cause here?

To many, it may be easy to blame the Bengals' offseason losses -- Hue Jackson and several defensive position coaches left for greener pastures, along with Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Andre Smith, Reggie Nelson, Leon Hall and others -- but to me, I don't think the narrative pumped out by the media accurately depicts what has actually happened to the Bengals this year.

When you're a team in playoff contention, you need your playmakers to step up -- especially in a year where you have a first-year offensive coordinator and first-year starters on both sides of the ball. The Bengals' single-biggest issue in 2016 (and its second-biggest issue) has been something no fan had anticipated: the offensive line has drastically regressed, from what was a top-five unit last season to one of the league's worst this year. (The second-biggest issue has been a lack of a pass rush, which no one seemed to expect considering the Bengals have Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap.)

I'm not going to pretend I'm an insider, or that I know enough enough about offensive line play to determine what exactly has gone wrong for the Bengals' offensive line. All I can say is that virtually every starter, save Russell Bodine, has underachieved this season. Andrew Whitworth has been good -- really good -- but hasn't been the near-flawless stalwart he was last season and in years previous. Guards Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler, like Whitworth, have been pretty good but haven't played close to where their ceiling is, which when healthy, is as one of the NFL's best guard tandems. The right tackle position has been an absolute nightmare, with Cedric Ogbuehi playing so poorly he was benched. (With Boling potentially curbed in Houston, he might get the start at left tackle with Whitworth kicking into guard.)

The defensive line, like I mentioned, has also been an issue. The Bengals' run defense, or lack thereof, is the reason why this team has yet to win a playoff game in the Andy Dalton era, and it hasn't improved as of late. Atkins and Dunlap have been good but not great, while Domata Peko and Michael Johnson are clearly on their last legs. (Andrew Billings' season-ending injury certainly didn't help on that front.) Without a reliable pass rush, the Bengals' weaknesses at linebacker (save Vontaze Burfict) have been exposed. And while the secondary has stepped up in recent weeks, it took some time for the unit to develop early in the season.

What has also killed the Bengals has been an inability to score in the red zone. For as great a receiver Green is, he isn't a red zone superstar like the Dez Bryants and even Tyler Eiferts of the world. And with Eifert out early, in games where the Bengals competed with some of the best defenses on their schedule, the tight end's presence was sorely missed.

Ultimately, things just didn't bounce the Bengals' way this season. They've dealt with injuries since the preseason, losing two rookies to season-ending injuries early and dealing with Eifert's ankle injury sustained in the Pro Bowl. Most of the teams they've faced (Jets, Broncos, Cowboys, Patriots, Bills, Giants, Steelers, etc) were at the pinnacle of their respective seasons -- or hot, at the very least -- when facing Cincinnati. I'm not going to try and convince people the Bengals should have a winning record, though. They're talented, but they just didn't get the job done this season. Hopefully, next year will be better.

2. Is Marvin Lewis' job safe?

Someone asks me both of these two questions every week, and every week, I give the same two answers. In regards to Lewis' job, I think he's safe. Whether or not Lewis coaches the Bengals next season is a choice he will ultimately have to make -- and I really do believe he'll weigh his options this offseason. But don't believe the guy will be out of a job just because guys like Stephen A. Smith spew out nonsense about playoff wins. Lewis certainly hasn't met expectations, but Bengals’ management values continuity and seems to believe Lewis is still the right guy for the job. Until that mentality changes, he's in Cincinnati to stay -- at least until the end of his contract following the 2017 season.

3. What would you say are the strengths of the Bengalsoffense and defense?

I think the Bengals have a great offense on paper, and it generally shows in the first halves of games. But with a first-year offensive coordinator in Ken Zampese, whose offense has struggled executing unscripted plays (especially in the second half), there are going to be some struggles. So to answer your question, I'll give you this. In Green, the Bengals have a guy who is easily a top-three wide receiver in the NFL, if not the best. They have three above-average offensive linemen and running backs who can make plays when the line can prevent them from getting hit behind the line of scrimmage. They have maybe the NFL's best red zone threat in Eifert. The franchise has its quarterback, to go with a backup quarterback whose trade value is higher than that of many starting quarterbacks, Brock Osweiler included. But for whatever reason, the offense hasn't been able to get things done.

On defense, the Bengals have three players who are elite for their respective positions in Atkins, Dunlap and Burfict (like him or not, he's been the best inside linebacker in the NFL since Luke Kuechly's injury). They also have ascending talents in the secondary with George Iloka, Shawn Williams and Dre Kirkpatrick. They have a quality number two corner in Adam Jones and promising youngsters in Josh Shaw and Darqueze Dennard, who have each seen time in the slot and even on the outside. Cincinnati also has two early 2016 Draftees William Jackson (first round) and KeiVarae Russell (third rounder claimed off waivers from the Chiefs).

But aside from these aforementioned playmakers on defense, no one has stepped up. And even the performances of many starters haven't met what the expectations were heading into the season. Rey Maualuga, Karlos Dansby and Vincent Rey are all limited linebackers, while rookie third-rounder Nick Vigil isn't polished enough for a major role alongside Burfict in the nickel (though he's taken some snaps there due to injuries). Peko and Johnson need to be replaced, but there's no one to replace them with -- at least no one who is healthy enough to take the field.

With both the offense and defense loaded with playmakers, it's easy to understand how frustrating this season has been for Bengals fans. The team is solid at almost every position in the lineup, save defensive end and linebacker (many fans will argue the team needs better receiver depth behind Green, but the team has Green, Eifert and Giovani Bernard on the roster, all capable of playing significant roles in the passing game, nonetheless).

4. What would you say are Cincy's biggest needs in the 2017 NFL Draft? Are you keeping your eye on any college players in particular as the NFL regular season winds down?

As I alluded to, there are -- at least in my mind -- only two true positions of need for the Bengals. With Green and rookie second-rounder Tyler Boyd the team's receivers of the future, the team probably won't take a receiver high (though there's an argument to make that it should). Brandon LaFell, who has surpassed fans' expectations, is probably going to re-sign for a short-term deal while youngsters Cody Core, James Wright and Alex Erickson develop.

This leaves defensive end as the Bengals' most glaring need. Johnson is still a decent run defender, but he hasn't been able to generate much of a pass rush for quite some time. An edge player like Myles Garrett or Jonathan Allen would be a no-brainer if available, but guys like Derek Barnett or Carl Lawson could also make sense.

And even if Vigil pans out, the team needs more speed at linebacker to implement defensive coordinator Paul Guenther's scheme which predicates on linebackers retreating into coverage from the line of scrimmage. I would go head over heels for either Zach Cunningham or Reuben Foster if the Bengals take one of those guys in the first round.

5. What is your outlook for next season? Do the Bengals need to go through any sort of "soft rebuild," or are they ready to contend again with the best teams in the AFC as early as next fall?

Personally, I don't think a rebuild is necessary, and I think that's why the Bengals are going to keep Lewis around. (I'd love a new coach, but I think it's safe to assume there would be a year or two more of expected transition after this has already been a transition year for the team.) The Bengals have talent at virtually every position on offense and defense, so I expect the team to come out hot next season.

A big thank you to Connor for answering all of our questions. You can read more of his (and others’) excellent work on all things Bengals over at Cincy Jungle.