The Cincinnati Bengals face another winless opponent this week, as they host the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, and it’s a game they can’t afford to lose.
They missed out on a big opportunity to make a statement Monday when they suffered a lopsided loss to the AFC North rival Steelers on national television to account for Pittsburgh’s first win.
This time, the Cardinals come to town at 0-3-1 and it feels like a game Cincinnati (0-4) has to win to have any hope of regaining the fan base’s interest. Many fans already have jumped ship this season after seeing basically the same lineups from last year putting up the same disappointing performances under a new staff.
Here are five storylines to watch Sunday:
1. Who’s stepping up?
The Bengals took a big hit this week when they had to put John Ross on injured reserve. Ross had stepped up as the team’s top receiver in A.J. Green’s absence and accounted for half the team’s touchdowns and 26 percent of the total yards of offense through four games but suffered a sternoclavicular injury Monday night against the Steelers.
Cincinnati signed undrafted rookie Stanley Morgan from the practice squad and will be counting on Tyler Boyd, Auden Tate, Alex Erickson and Damion Willis at the receiver position, as well as possibly more reliance on the tight ends and running backs as targets. Giovani Bernard has been limited in his snaps so far and especially could fill a void in the passing game if called upon.
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“I certainly believe we have players that we believe in on offense at all the skill positions – running back, tight end, and receiver,” Taylor said. “We have to continue to find ways to maximize their abilities and put them in position. We’ll look at the full scope of it, and figure out how to put the best five eligible (players) out there that give us our best chance.”
2. Protecting Dalton
The Bengals did very little to help Dalton last week, as he took eight sacks and another four pressures and never had time to adjust. He was getting the ball out of his hands much faster at the start of the season, and coach Zac Taylor said he is to blame for some of the lack of quick passing in recent weeks.
“Last week, I didn’t do a good enough job with the calls that would give us the best opportunity,” Taylor said. “Once they got the lead, they had some good (pass) rush, and they put some pressure on us. Ultimately, we didn’t get the job done. The big thing for us is when we cross the 40 (yard line), we have to take advantage and capitalize. Overall, in the scope of our drives over the last four weeks – when we’ve gotten across that threshold – we haven’t scored enough points. We’ve left too many on the field, and that’s an area we have to improve on.”
»ARCHDEACON: Winless Bengals a team in real trouble
Left tackle Cordy Glenn is still out and Andre Smith remains in that spot. Mike Jordan is expected to remain the starter at left guard, despite being replaced by Billy Price late in the game Monday.
With Ross out and the offensive line struggling, Taylor is going to have to get extra creative with his play calling to get the offense moving. Arizona brings a strong pass rush out a 3-4 defense, especially from linebackers Terrell Suggs and Chandler Jones. Suggs is questionable with a back issue.
3. Coming home
Cardinals linebacker Jordan Hicks will be playing in front of his hometown crowd, as a Lakota West High School graduate. He’s played against the Bengals once in his career when he was with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2016. In that game, he had three tackles while playing 98 percent of the defensive snaps of a 32-14 loss for the Eagles.
Hicks was a third-round draft pick of the Eagles in 2015, coming out of Texas.
In his fifth NFL season, he has 12 tackles, one quarterback hit, a half-sack and two forced fumbles with four starts.
4. Top draft pick
If nothing else, Bengals fans will get a chance to see the top overall draft pick from this year. Kyler Murray was the first pick, coming out of Oklahoma, and is off to a decent start despite playing behind an even worse offensive line than Cincinnati’s.
Murray, who also was a first-round MLB draft pick in 2018, has completed 62.7 percent of his passes for 1,071 yards and four touchdowns with four interceptions but has taken a league-high 20 sacks.
“Creative,” Taylor said of him. “The play is always alive. He’s stronger than you think. He’s harder to bring down than you think, because he’s not 6-5, 240 (pounds). You see the power in his arm, that’s the first thing. When you go to the pro days and you see him in person, the power he generates (is evident). He’s a pro baseball player – he obviously has power for all the things he’s been able to do. You see that in person, and it’s good to see in person because otherwise, you think he’s not a big guy and it’s more of a controlled passing game. That’s not the case. He has the power in his arm to drive down the field. He’s the No. 1 pick for a reason. You see it on tape.”
Larry Fitzgerald is his top receiver with 300 yards and two touchdowns on 23 catches, while Christian Kirk adds 242 yards on 24 catches. Damiere Byrd (96 yards on 12 catches) is questionable with a hamstring injury.
The Bengals rank 17th in pass defense while allowing 243.2 passing yards per game.
5. Where’s the rush?
Cincinnati’s defensive line was supposed to be a strength with its depth and up-and-coming pass rushers like Sam Hubbard and Carl Lawson and veterans Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap expected to lead the way. However, the Bengals have just one sack over the last three games after a four-sack effort in the opener at Seattle.
With the Cardinals offensive line struggling, this could be an opportunity to get that going again. The Bengals are among eight teams in the league with five sacks or fewer.
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