The Cincinnati Bengals are hoping some recent changes pay off when they travel to play the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.
A week after giving rookie quarterback Ryan Finley his first NFL start in place of benched veteran Andy Dalton, the Bengals shook things up on defense by waiving sixth-year linebacker Preston Brown in the first season of a three-year deal he signed in March.
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The Bengals have been searching for solutions to their 0-9 start and seek their first win under Taylor as they face a team making strides in Jon Gruden’s second season back. Here are five things to know going into Sunday’s game:
1. Avoiding the worst
The Bengals are seeking to avoid joining the ranks of the franchise’s worst teams. Another loss Sunday would match Cincinnati’s worst start and longest losing streak in a single season.
Cincinnati went 0-10 under Dave Shula in 1993 (but won three of its last six games), and Marvin Lewis’ 2010 team lost 10 straight after a 2-1 start before winning two of its last three to finish 4-12.
“I really feel like this week we are going to show who we are,” safety Shawn Williams said. “We know who we are but it looks bad when we don’t execute. That’s the main thing is we haven’t been executing what we do in practice. It doesn’t take much to turn things around. It just takes one win. That’s a turnaround. You’re not 0-and-whatever anymore, and your hard work pays off.”
The Bengals have lost 16 of their last 17 dating back to last season, but Taylor believes they are on the verge of breaking through and turning a corner.
“What we do know is this is the toughest stretch we’re going to go through in our next 20 years here — this is going to be the toughest one,” Taylor said Monday. “And so we find out about the character of the people in this building and what the approach is going to be so that we can look back on this and say it made us stronger.”
2. Improvement on the ground
Joe Mixon is coming off his best game of the season, as he rushed for 114 yards on a career-high 30 carries in a 49-13 loss to Baltimore. He’s hoping to make November and December his best months and playing at Oakland adds some extra motivation for him, being 45 minutes from his hometown.
Finley also adds something to the running game, as he showed he could extend plays with his legs last week as he had a 16-yard carry.
“It’s huge if we can keep building on what we’ve done in the last two weeks,” Finley said of the running game. “We’ve rushed the ball for 260 yards in the past two games, so we’re going to keep building on that. We have a good rhythm, and we’ve found a few plays that we execute really well. We found some stuff that Joe does really well, and he just ran super hard last week. It’s going to be fun to see that from him again going forward.”
Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said the increased success has been due to a tweak in the scheme that has seen the Bengals use more man/gap principles than zone schemes. The Raiders rank 10th in run defense, allowing just 98.4 rushing yards per game this year.
Mixon rushed for 129 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries last year in a 30-16 win over Oakland at Paul Brown Stadium on Dec. 16, 2018. That was the best game of his career and Bengals’ last win.
3. Finley evaluation continues
Finley showed some good and bad in his NFL debut, though the bad outweighed the good. Taylor and Callahan both said there was enough good to build on, and Finley noted that he’s feeling more comfortable with the more reps he gets in practice.
“Details are the emphasis this week,” he said. “We have a really good opportunity ahead of us. Oakland is a good team, but we’re excited to get after them.”
There’s also emphasis this week on trying to stretch the field more, something that has been missing from the offense since John Ross went out in Week 4. Oakland runs more zone defense than Baltimore did, and Finley said that might lead to more opportunities down field.
“We need big plays,” Finley said. “We need touchdowns. Touchdowns win games. We need to take some shots downfield and connect (on those). That, on top of our possessions that we did last game — that mixture — that’s what we need to have success.”
4. Stopping the run
Oakland’s ground attack ranks eighth in the league with 129.9 rushing yards per game, and the Bengals have struggled especially against the run as they’ve allowed a league-worst 173.0 yards per game.
Taylor called out the linebackers this week, saying they need to step up. The next day the team waived Brown. Rookie third-round pick Germaine Pratt is now the new strongside linebacker and is expected to get his third career start Sunday.
The Bengals will be looking to contain Josh Jacobs, who has 811 yards rushing. Oakland could be without its top two right tackles, as starter Trent Brown (knee) is questionable after not practicing Friday and backup David Sharpe (calf) is out.
Cincinnati’s defense could be missing Geno Atkins, who is questionable with knee/ankle problems this week.
5. The Carr Show
Oakland quarterback Derek Carr is having his most consistent season in terms of passing accuracy, as he’s completed 70.3 percent of his throws for 2,202 yards and 14 touchdowns with four interceptions.
“We’ve gone through a lot of changes here as we’ve put our team together,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said of Carr. “We have a new offense that we’ve taught him, new tight ends, new receivers, new offensive linemen and we’ve got a lot of new things happening here. We’ve shifted gears from multiple receiver sets to multiple tight end sets. Derek Carr is a heckuva player.”
Callahan was his quarterbacks coach last year, which should help the Bengals in their preparations, but Williams said the key for the secondary is just eliminating big plays.
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