Now that the NFL season is here, I’m putting a twist on my weekly Blogger on Blogger series. Each week, I will enlist a blogger who regularly writes about the Ravens’ opponent to help me break down the game. This week, I exchanged emails with Josh Kirkendall, who blogs about the Bengals for Cincy Jungle.
MV: The Bengals are no longer the Bungles, having gone to the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in decades. With a big cushion in the AFC North, they are poised to make it three in a row this season. How have Marvin Lewis and the front office constructed a perennial contender?
JK: Over the past five years, they’ve started nailing picks in the NFL draft, especially outside of the first round. Guys like Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson and Geno Atkins, all starters and significant contributors on the defensive line, were selected in the second, third and fourth rounds in their respective drafts. Wide receiver A.J Green is complimented by Marvin Jones, a fifth-rounder in the 2012 NFL draft who snagged four touchdown receptions against the New York Jets Jets, and Mohamed Sanu, a third-rounder last year. Along with smart free-agent additions who were acquired as contributors, the team is keeping those core players that they’re drafting, establishing a long-term foundation.
MV: Andy Dalton had a rough game last week with four turnovers, but the third-year quarterback had been playing very well in recent weeks. Where have you seen progress this season and do you think he is capable of getting the Bengals over the hump and winning the big one?
JK: He has the ability to win any game. He’s 25-18 as a starter and has already accumulated five fourth-quarter comebacks and seven game-winning drives in his career. Yet, it’s always a matter of consistency and distribution. Will he inspire to make those around him play better, like a Peyton Manning? No. It may sound strange but when he focuses entirely on A.J. Green, that’s when he struggles. During the first four games, Dalton targeted Green on nearly 35 percent of his throws -- and the Bengals were 2-2. In the next four, he targeted Green nearly 10 percent less and increased his targets to Marvin Jones (three straight games with a touchdown), Jermaine Gresham, Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard. He was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Month (before Thursday’s game).
MV: The Bengals, who were already without cornerback Leon Hall and linebacker Rey Maualuga, lost defensive tackle Geno Atkins to a torn ACL last week. Who will be asked to replace Atkins at defensive tackle and do the Bengals have enough talent and depth on defense to survive the season-ending injuries to Atkins and Hall?
JK: Eventually season-ending injuries tend to accumulate. Hall’s torn Achilles was a significant blow to the secondary, but it wasn’t critical. Adam Jones, who is as inconsistent as Dalton, is very good when he’s playing well. Veteran Chris Crocker has stepped in as the fifth defensive back. And though Dre Kirkpatrick is a former first-round pick with extremely limited playing time, the door is finally opening for him. Yet, Atkins’ injury could have a crippling affect. His interior rush was so effective that he forced opposing quarterbacks into a scramble, with Carlos Dunlap or Michael Johnson arriving from the edges. Both of them benefited with man-on-man blocking schemes. Now we figure they’ll be doubled more often. Second-year defensive tackle Brandon Thompson will start for Atkins, but he’s more of a one-technique whereas Atkins was a three-technique (outside of the offensive guard). Second-rounder Margus Hunt has been taking some snaps at defensive tackle this week as a projected pass rusher. That will be interesting.
MV: The Bengals used their top two draft picks last April on a talented pair of offensive skill players in tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard. What have you seen from them and do you think they are in line for larger roles going forward, particularly Bernard?
JK: Giovani Bernard entered the league this year as advertised. Calling him a change-of-pace back, which many try to define him as, would be an understatement. He’s a legitimate offensive weapon that can threaten from anywhere on the field as a runner or a receiver. His body control is an art form. Against the Dolphins, two (much bigger) defenders knocked him into the backfield for what should have been a three-yard loss. Instead, he spun out of it, changed directions, and eventually scored a 35-yard touchdown. Tyler Eifert presents a nightmare matchup. He is usually faster than the slow-footed linebacker with a power forward’s mentality against defensive backs. With Jermaine Gresham as the team’s starter, Eifert is typically the second tight-end in single-back formation -- which the Bengals use over 40 percent of the time.
MV: Heading into Sunday’s critical AFC North showdown, what is one thing about this matchup that gives you pause and what is one thing that makes you believe the Bengals will be able to beat the Ravens and move closer to the AFC North title?
JK: AFC North division games are always tough. Sometimes what we think we know doesn’t usually apply into the game itself. We’re still believers in the Bengals defense and, injury-ridden as they are, they’ll keep Cincinnati in the game long enough for the offense to break out. But the greatest confidence in Cincinnati continues to be their coordinators. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has significantly improved as a play-caller and designer and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer will find a way to get around the team’s injuries.
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