The Cincinnati Bengals had a late bye week this season, and I think that is the best thing they could’ve asked for at this point. Sitting at 7-4 and atop the AFC North with five games left, the Bengals are in the best position they could ask for. However, injuries have been adding up on defense and the bye could not have come at a better time for them.
After winning four in a row from weeks five through eight, the Bengals lost two straight overtime games to the Dolphins and the Ravens. In the loss to the Dolphins, the Bengals lost more than just the game. They lost their best defensive lineman, Geno Atkins, to a torn ACL. The week before that, they lost linebacker Rey Maualuga to a MCL injury. It looked bleak for the Bengals on defense, as two of their top run stoppers were gone. Fortunately Maualuga’s injury was not as bad as it initially was perceived to be and he will be back next week when the Bengals travel to San Diego.
Getting Maualuga back will boost this defense. Maualuga was a big part in stopping the run in the middle of the field, especially with Atkins out. Vontaze Burfict has been a tackling machine all season, and with Maualuga back out there they will challenge each other to have the best game they can and I think that friendly competition will help this defense get even better than it has been.
The defense is what has carried this team all season. Andy Dalton was on fire in the month of October and even won AFC offensive player of the month for October but so far November has not been so friendly to him. In his past three games, he has thrown five touchdowns and seven interceptions. Dalton’s inconsistent play has plagued him his whole career, and if the Bengals want to take the next step, Dalton also needs to take the next step in his own game.
Although some of his interceptions can be blamed on the receivers, some of them also were just very dumb mistakes by Dalton. Dalton has proven that he can play well against good defenses but he also has had some of his worst games against good defenses. He needs to get better at not looking directly at his target, giving defenses the easy read on where he is going.
Another thing that needs to be improved on the offensive side of things is the run blocking. Rookie tight end Tyler Eifert has been effective in run blocking, but the offensive line has struggled to open up big holes for Giovani Bernard and Benjarvus Green Ellis. This has caused the Bengals to come up short on some third and short or fourth and short situations, giving the other team good field position and switching the momentum of some games.
Going forward, offensive consistency and continued dominance on defense are what will help this Bengals team win the AFC North for the first time since 2009. They still have one game left against the Steelers and Ravens, and after both those teams won today, those games could decide the division winner.