Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is asking everyone to raise their level of play this week to help backup quarterback Jeff Driskel make a smooth transition into the starting role.
It’s a necessary request regardless of who is leading the offense.
Driskel will make his first NFL start on Sunday as the Bengals (5-6) host the Denver Broncos (5-6) in a matchup of teams trying to get back to .500. Denver is coming off back-to-back wins over playoff-bound opponents, while Cincinnati is looking to end a three-game losing streak. The Bengals have lost five of their last six after a 4-1 start and desperately need a win to get back on track.
Here is a look at five storylines to watch in Sunday’s game:
1. New-look offense
Andy Dalton went on injured reserve Monday and had a successful thumb surgery Tuesday, but now the Bengals have to move on with their new leader.
Driskel may be inexperienced, as a third-year player seeing his first action this season, but he brings a different element to Cincinnati’s offense as a capable runner. He’s quick and known as the best athlete on the team. Driskel’s accuracy throwing the ball and communication with the offensive line could have been better when he replaced Dalton in the third quarter against the Browns last week, but he had never played or practiced with the first-team offense.
“I’m just a guy who can operate within the offense, move the football and score points,” Driskel said. “That’s what we’re out there to do, whether that’s long drives or big plays — however those come. Our job is to score points on offense, and that’s what we expect to do.”
2. Help on the way
The Bengals lost two more players to injured reserve this week (bringing the total to 14 for the season), including Dalton and backup left tackle Jake Fisher, but they get two key players back.
Wide receiver A.J. Green and linebacker Nick Vigil returned to practice this week and were full participants Friday, meaning they should both be ready to go Sunday. Green missed the last three games with a toe injury, and Vigil hasn’t played since injuring his knee in a Week 6 loss to the Steelers.
The Bengals have had their three starting linebackers on the field for just one full game this season, the last time being a win over Miami in Week 5, but there was especially notable drop-off in the production in the middle of the defense when Vigil went down.
Green’s return is crucial for Driskel to have his biggest weapon available, and the seven-time Pro Bowl receiver hopes to be an asset.
“In 2015 when Andy went down, AJ (McCarron) just stepped right in, I feel like we were playing great football then,” Green said. “Andy was playing one of his best years. Me, as a receiver and one of the leaders of the team, when the starting quarterback goes down I feel like my role is to step up more as a playmaker. Everything is not going to be perfect. I just have to try to make the plays.”
3. Avoiding sacks
With Von Miller and Bradley Chubb combining for almost 20 sacks this season, the Broncos pose a big threat to Driskel, especially given he is likely without the protection of left tackle Cordy Glenn.
Glenn is doubtful after missing the past two weeks of practice with a back injury, and since Fisher is on IR, it’s unclear who will be starting in his place. The team brought in Andre Smith, who was released by the Cardinals on Monday, but he’s more suited at right tackle, and it’s clear the Bengals don’t trust Cedric Ogbuehi. They could move Clint Boling there and put Trey Hopkins at left guard, but regardless, there seems to be a lot of shuffling going on with the line.
Driskel’s speed could be his biggest asset, but the running backs can also take off some of the pressure.
“At the end of the day, we have to go in there, hopefully try to run the football, do whatever we can to keep Von and Chubb off the quarterback,” running back Joe Mixon said. “They have opportunity just like we do, but at the same time we have to figure out a way to mix them up, keep them off balance and keep them away from the quarterback.”
4. Marvin’s defense improving
This will be Lewis’ third game calling the defense, and he hopes to see a big improvement this week, as players finally seem to be grasping what he’s teaching them while going back to fundamentals and communication. Cincinnati started off poorly last week but adjusted in the second half against the Browns, forcing them to punt four times and allowing less than 100 yards of offense that span.
With Vigil returning, Burfict can move out of the middle linebacker spot and this will be Darqueze Dennard’s second week back.
“Their awareness of the opponent needs to continue to grow,” Lewis said. “We lost a little bit of that somehow, but we’re gaining it back play by play — or I guess I should say day by day — in this with how we go about it. They wanted answers, and I’ve given them answers. I’ve put it back on them, because it’s point-blank.”
5. Shaking off doubt
Lewis said he watches the body language of his players closely in times of adversity to make sure he’s got guys who are going to be putting out effort despite the team’s struggles.
Mixon doesn’t necessarily think people aren’t trying but said some guys could be playing harder. The next few weeks, it will be clear who is putting in the effort, and there is little doubt that Mixon is among those still trying to make things happen.
“It’s tough because with the people who got hurt, injuries happen, and I just feel like with the guys filling in, we’re just playing a little timid because the game speed is different,” Mixon said. “I understand, and I know. The game speed is different. The schemes we go against every week are different. For the new guys that have got to fill those roles, they are playing a little slow and hesitant, but you’ve got to play anticipating.”