The Cincinnati Bengals will try to avoid their first three-game losing streak since 2013 and first losing September since 2011 on Thursday night when the play host to the Miami Dolphins.
Both teams will be looking to avoid a 1-3 start.
It’s still too early to call it a “must win” for the Bengals, but with road games at Dallas (2-1) and New England (3-0) on the horizon, tonight’s contest has plenty of importance.
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Here are seven things to look for:
Bringing Burfict back
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said Tuesday he would decide Thursday whether Vontaze Burfict would play after returning from a three-game suspension.
That comment shouldn’t be taken with a grain of salt. It should be taken with a slew of skepticism.
The question isn’t whether Burfict will play, it’s how much.
He proved he can come off weeks on inactivity and be “that guy” last year when he returned from the Physically Unable to Perform list on Nov. 1 and played 36 of 75 snaps (48 percent) in a win at Pittsburgh.
“Like he never left. It was amazing,” Lewis gushed Monday.
Burfict said if the game is close he won't want to come out. Most NFL games are close. Expect to see quite a bit of No. 55 tonight.
The Bengals haven’t played the Dolphins since 2013, and only two of the Miami defensive starters in that game are still with the team. But there still will be a strong feeling of familiarity for the Cincinnati offense because the Miami defense is run by coordinator Vance Joseph, who spent the last two seasons as a Bengals defensive backs coach.
“Yes, there’s carryover from some things we do,” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said. “Yes there is.”
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The system is similar to what Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther runs, which is similar to what Mike Zimmer, Guenther’s predecessor, runs in Minnesota.
“The system expands,” Guenther said. “The problem with it is, everybody’s seeing the damn thing now. Vance is a good coach. He’s a good person and a good coach. You hope that you’re successful so guys have opportunities to move on and up. That’s what it’s all about really.”
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The Cincinnati defense has allowed four passes of more than 40 yards in the last two games. The Bengals only allowed five such plays in 2015, none of which came in the final six regular season games and only one in the final 11.
And through three games, the Bengals have allowed nine passing touchdowns after giving up only 18 in 2015.
“You can’t give up those kinds of plays,” Guenther said. “We’ve got to make them earn it down the field. I kept telling the players when you’re playing a team of that caliber, you can’t play 70 out of 76 snaps great and then six bad ones because that’s the difference between winning and losing the game. Those are the plays we’ve got to eliminate.”
Maybe it was the quick turnaround from a Sunday to Thursday game or maybe the trend is so thick everyone has tired of the story line, but the struggles in primetime are real for the Bengals.
They have lost four in a row, including last year’s AFC wild-card game, at night, five of six and nine of 11. Since 2012, the Bengals are 4-13 in primetime for a .236 winning percentage and 39-13-1 (.745) in games played before 8 p.m.
A fast start against the Dolphins certainly would help end the streak, but it’s not a lock. During their current four-game primetime losing streak, the Bengals scored first three times.
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Bright lights Bernard
While the Bengals have struggled to win games in primetime, running back Giovani Bernard has been at his best.
Bernard scored a pair of touchdowns in each of his first two night games and scored at least once in his first and five of his first six.
It began with the second game of his rookie year when he had a rushing and receiving touchdown in a 20-10 win against Pittsburgh on Monday night. Later that year he had two rushing scores – including this incredible one – in a 22-20 overtime loss in his hometown of Miami.
Bernard did not score in any of the four primetime games last year, but he tied his career high with eight catches for a career-high 128 yards in the 34-31 loss at Arizona.
Run game rejuvenation
After struggling to run the ball the first two weeks, the Bengals rushed for 143 yards last week against Denver. They will face a Miami defense that is ranked 31st in the league in run defense.
The Dolphins have given up at least 161 yards in their last two games.
“It comes down to execution,” Miami defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. “Obviously when we do execute, we need to make sure that we are down and dirty and make sure we make the plays and tackle. We’ve had some missed tackles in games past and haven’t always been in the right position, myself included. We want to force them to be a one-dimensional team.”
Color(less) Rush uniforms
While it won't have any affect on how the team plays, the Bengals will sport a new, interesting look tonight when they play in their Color Rush uniforms, which will feature white jerseys and white pants.
Their plain look will be offset by a gaudy all-orange getup the Dolphins players will wear.