Plenty of teams would be happy to be in the Cincinnati Bengals’ position at the midway point of the season, but the Bengals waver between feeling fortunate and dissatisfied.
At the bye, Cincinnati (5-3) remains right in the mix atop the AFC North, just percentage points behind the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2-1) for first place, despite a slew of injuries, a struggling defense and an inconsistent offense.
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The Bengals begin the second half of the season Nov. 11 at home against the New Orleans Saints.
Here are five things we learned from the first half and how the Bengals look to improve down the stretch:
1. Inconsistency on offense
The Bengals’ offense ranks 10th in points scored (27.6) and Cincinnati has scored touchdowns on 20 of 26 trips to the red zone, good for an NFL-leading 76.9 percent success rate, but they have been inconsistent in the second half of games. Cincinnati has scored just 20 points in the third quarter through Week 8, but Andy Dalton has managed to get the offense moving at the end of games. He led the team down the field for game-winning drives against Atlanta and Tampa Bay. The Bengals have scored points on the last meaningful drive of six games this season.
Cincinnati can handle the lulls, apparently, but the defense sure could use more time off the field. Injuries have especially depleted the back end of the defense.
2. Surprisingly bad defense
The Bengals lost to Pittsburgh on a 31-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds left, then fell 45-10 to the Chiefs in prime time before giving up 500 yards of offense for a second straight game in a 37-34 win over Tampa Bay last week. Those big pass plays make coach Marvin Lewis cringe more than anything, but the defense as a whole has been the biggest disappointment.
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Cincinnati has the worst third-down defense in the league, allowing opponents to convert 56 percent of those plays, and the Bengals have given up the most yards in the NFL (447.8 per game) while allowing the fourth most points in the league (29.6 per game).
Some of it can be attributed to adjusting to new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, and some issues are in the lack of depth on display because of injuries, but NFL teams overcome those things all the time. The Bengals did change things up in having their corners track receivers across the field for the first time under Austin last week, so at least they are trying different ways of correcting problems, but that experiment is still under review.
3. Bright spots in the darkness
The defense has helped bail out the offense at times with turnovers, special teams has improved the past few games and the offensive line has been much better than expected.
Cincinnati has scored four defensive touchdowns, and the Bengals rank fifth with 10 interceptions to go along with three fumble recoveries.
Special teams had some issues early on (including a blocked punt, two missed field goals and some crucial penalties on returns) but have cleaned that up for the most part. Punter Kevin Huber has been outstanding in helping pin opponents inside their own 20-yard line (18 of 33 punts) and he’s had a couple 60-yarders that helped flip field position.
The offensive line has been much improved, despite some struggles on the right side early on. Cincinnati has allowed just 16 sacks (on pace for 32) after giving up 40 total sacks last year, and the group has shown progress throughout the first half of the season to give Dalton more time to work. Trey Hopkins has stepped in for injured center Billy Price and been solid in his first NFL games at the position, and offseason acquisition Cordy Glenn has been about as good of an upgrade as the Bengals could have hoped for at left tackle. Bobby Hart and Alex Redmond have been the weak point, but Redmond didn’t allow a pressure against Tampa Bay after allowing more pressures than any other guard through the first seven games.
4. Open door to the training room
The biggest position group hit by injury has been the tight ends. Cincinnati has lost four tight ends since the preseason, including starter Tyler Eifert to a broken ankle in Game 4 after a strong start in his return from a series of ailments last year.
Price has missed the last six games but returned to practice in limited fashion before the Bucs’ game and appears on track to return after the bye, and the Bengals haven’t had both the best running backs since Week 2, as Joe Mixon missed two games and Giovani Bernard went down as Mixon returned. Wide receiver John Ross has been hampered by a groin injury, and of the injured tight ends, Tyler Kroft (foot) at least is hoping to be back before the end of the season. A.J. Green was in a boot Tuesday but it’s unclear if that is just precautionary or something more serious.
The defense has been hit the most by more serious injuries to starters or key subs. Defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow tore his ACL and has been greatly missed up front, nickel corner Darqueze Dennard has missed two games with a shoulder injury and Nick Vigil is hobbling around on crutches with a bad knee. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict sat last week with a hip injury but hasn’t been an impact player in his return from a three-game suspension to open the season anyway.
5. Push for the playoffs
After missing the playoffs the last two seasons, the Bengals appear on track to return. They would be the sixth seed in the AFC after Week 8.
Cincinnati should be getting some of its players back from injury after the bye or soon after, and although the schedule still has plenty of challenges, there are also a lot of winnable games. New Orleans will be a tough opponent, but at least it’s a home game, and then the Bengals head to Baltimore, which boasts the league’s best defense right now. Two games against unpredictable Cleveland remain, and games against Oakland (1-6) and Denver (3-5) at home should be favorable matchups. However, perhaps most concerning are two late games at the L.A. Chargers, who have won four straight and sit at 5-2, and at Pittsburgh for the finale. The season could come down to that last game.
Saints at Bengals, 1 p.m., Fox, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7