The Redskins travel to London this week to face the Cincinnati Bengals. The Redskins will be looking to push their record to 5-2 while the Bengals are hoping to get back to .500. We recently spoke with Connor Howe of Cincy Jungle about his team and the path that has brought them to London.
Aside from A.J. Green, who is the most valuable player on the Bengals offense? Who's the biggest contributor? A step further, what's the team's offensive identity?
I think the easy answer to this question for fans outside of Cincinnati would be either Tyler Eifert or perennially underrated offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, though the correct answer is Andy Dalton. I'll get to him in just a second. In terms of biggest contributor, Brandon LaFell, Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard and now, hopefully, Eifert can all make major contributions. LaFell aside, any of these four players can completely take over a game, as evidenced by Hill (and Green, of course) last week. The team's offensive line struggled mightily through six weeks but finally showed signs of improvement against the Browns. Granted it's the Browns, but the offense relies on the offensive line to effectively block for the running game and keep Dalton upright. In the one or two games where the offensive line has done that, the Bengals have won. So to fully answer, I really don't know what this team's offensive identity is. Cincinnati has the personnel on offense to be a contender, but it's a matter of those pieces working together to formulate an offensive identity.
Where do you stand on Andy Dalton right now? He seems to be a middle-of-the-pack type QB who has some incredible games and then has some terrible games. Is the fan-base satisfied with the play of their QB?
Every time I get asked this question, I go on a rant so I apologize in advance. That being said, the statement constantly being made about Dalton is a complete misperception. The media doesn't want to accept it (because it still wants to push the Dalton can't get the job done when it matters, whether in prime time, the playoffs, etc narrative), but Dalton has been a top-10 quarterback over the past couple of seasons. Last year, Dalton was a legitimate MVP candidate before his thumb injury, ranking eighth in completion percentage, second in yards per attempt and second in passer rating. He threw 25 touchdowns (good for 14th in the NFL despite missing four games, minus one drive) to only seven interceptions.
In 2016, he's been just as good. Dalton currently ranks seventh in completion percentage, fourth in yards, third in yards per attempt and seventh in passer rating. He's thrown eight touchdowns to two interceptions despite playing with a new offensive coordinator and only one returning starting pass-catcher (Green). That's not even considering the play of the offensive line, which has drastically fallen after ranking as a top-five unit last year.
And in terms of the "incredible games and terrible games," he's posted 13 games with a passer rating above 100 (in seven of those games, his passer rating exceeded 120) compared to just five games under Kirk Cousins' career passer rating of 91.5. Dalton is consistently great, and the narrative that he's an average quarterback needs to get scrapped at this point.
That said, many Bengals fans (though a major minority compared to the majority of the fanbase) still want to see AJ McCarron play. The backup quarterback benefitted from arguably the best defensive outing in Bengals playoff history (or at the very least, the definitive best since Dalton entered the league in 2011 -- it was the only positively graded performance, per Pro Football Reference's approximate value metric) yet still lost to the Steelers, but many people argue he essentially won the game for Cincinnati (though he posted a passer rating of 68.3). I'm not a McCarron hater -- I think he's one of the best backups in the NFL -- but there's no reason why he should start over Dalton, or even a guy like Cousins for that matter. That said, he could start on a few teams.
It seems Cincy's run defense has been the team's primary weakness this year. What's the reason?
You hit the nail on the head. The Bengals' run defense hasn't just been the team's primary weakness this year; it's been the team's primary weakness since Andy Dalton came into the league. This is a team which allowed Arian Foster to rush for 293 yards and three touchdowns in two playoff games, surrendered 50+ rushing yards to three Chargers running backs in the 2013 playoff loss, surrendered 50+ rushing yards both Jordan Todman and Fitzgerald Toussaint in January's playoff loss to the Steelers and, most recently, just allowed a fourth-string quarterback in the Browns' Kevin Hogan to rush for 100 yards last week on just seven carries.
I still don't know the reasoning as to why Cincinnati's run defense has consistently been one of the team's Achilles heels. Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap are both elite defensive linemen, Vontaze Burfict is one of the most instinctive linebackers in the NFL -- essentially, the personnel checks out as a unit which should be able to stop opposing running backs (and quarterbacks, I guess). And we've seen coaching changes nearly every season, because NFL teams love to poach Bengals coaches, so it's probably not just a coaching issue. I honestly don't know how the team can address the problem aside from the cliché saying of stepping up when the team needs to do so.
What kind of pass rush does Cincy employ this year? The Redskins OL had been playing really well up until last week when Detroit was somehow able to get a ton of pressure on Kirk Cousins. What's Kirk in for on Sunday?
As I mentioned with Atkins and Dunlap, these two defensive linemen are elite players at their respective positions. Aaron Donald and J.J. Watt (who we all know is not currently playing) are the only two interior defensive linemen who can boast about being better than Atkins, while Dunlap has emerged as one of the NFL's premier edge rushers over the past two seasons. He currently leads all NFL edge rushers with 13 quarterback hits, and he's managed to sack opposing quarterbacks five times.
That said, the Bengals haven't been great at converting hurries and hits into sacks. Cousins will need to get the ball out quickly, but if he can do so, there's a chance the Bengals' pass rush fails to sack him at all, let alone once or twice. Cincinnati also ran a couple of linebacker + safety blitzes at the left side of the Browns' defensive line last week, and safety Shawn Williams capitalized, tallying a sack. (Props to Andy Benoit for pointing this out.) The Bengals don't run blitzes all too often, so I don't expect many of these kinds of plays. Bengals fans will hope the four-man rush can get to Cousins without any blitzing help.
The Bengals are 3-4. Is that what you expected after seven games? Why or why not?
With how things have gone for the past few seasons -- especially after last year's 8-0 start -- it was hard to imagine that the Bengals would've started out 2-4. But I think anyone who took a step back and looked at the Bengals' initial schedule to open the season anticipated a slow start. With all of the turnover on the roster and in the coaching staff, a slow start was expected. Tack on the fact that the Bengals' four losses came to teams which currently lead their division, and it's easy to understand why a slow start was possible.
Fortunately for Bengals fans, Cincinnati's team is one of the streakiest in the NFL. The second half of the Bengals' schedule has a ton of winnable games, so it's not too late for this team to turn the ship around.
Bonus: Who wins and why? What's your score prediction?
I have to roll with the Bengals here. I'll go 27-20. I have an eerie feeling DeSean Jackson will burn the Bengals' defense for a long touchdown, but I also have an eerie feeling Eifert will catch two touchdown passes. I really don't know what to make of this game, but part of me wants to think it will be a shootout because the two teams have better offenses than defenses while part of me thinks it will be a snooze-fest because it's a London game. Who knows? But I think the Bengals will pull this one out.