Cus Words: Thoughts on Ohio State, the Big Ten and the Bengals

With Ohio State football enjoying an off week, I did, too.

But not a week off from football.

There was much football consumed in the Hartman house indeed, and we might have even learned a few things…

1. Michigan is a legitimate contender.

After years of struggling in the trenches, the Wolverines finally have put together good offensive lines multiple years in a row. They have a big boy running game that can take them far, but I am not sold on their quarterback or outside weapons.

The Michigan defense, like the Ohio State defense, hasn’t really been tested and likely won’t be until Nov. 26 when the Buckeyes and Wolverines play each other. The Wolverines secondary looks legit, but the jury is still out on the front seven.

In both cases, that is why they play the games, of course, and in terms of The Game, I’m sure I’m not the only one getting a lot of 2006 vibes.

2. Credit Michigan for dropping the hammer on the Nittany Lions on Saturday, but Penn State had a defensive game plan that looked more tailored for Ohio State.

The Nittany Lions weren’t that interested in loading the box to stop Michigan’s powerful running game, and when they did they still left vulnerabilities that were easily exploited.

The Nittany Lions also have a strong secondary, but the front seven looks to be less impressive than most seasons. Their offensive line does look like a typical Penn State front, and that is not a good thing. Nonetheless, PSU will bring a puncher’s chance into its game against Ohio State in two weeks because of a talented group of running backs and receivers. Senior quarterback Sean Clifford has his flaws, but he is a gamer who can get hot, too, and his ability to run is a wild card for Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles to worry about.

3. Has Alabama strayed too far from its roots?

I haven’t broken down the film, but it kinda feels like the Crimson Tide are a little too committed to the RPO game under offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, the former Penn State head coach. That may not have anything to do with the defense getting torched by Tennessee, but sometimes getting into some heavy formations and running over teams is still the best strategy. That is a lesson Ohio State coach Ryan Day learned the hard way last year, and one he needs to remember for the trip to Penn State and most especially the visit from Michigan because both of those teams are likely to invite the Buckeyes to run to avoid giving up too many big plays to C.J. Stroud and his receivers.

4. Ohio State just might be the national championship favorite.

There’s a lot of football left to play, but the Buckeyes look like the most complete team in the country.

They are No. 1 in SP+ rankings, which measure play-by-play success rate and explosiveness, with the top-ranked offense and the No. 5 defense in the country. Reigning national champion Georgia is No. 2 overall while fielding the No. 7 offense and No. 4 defense. Alabama (No. 4 offense, No. 10 defense) and Michigan (8/8) also have top 10 units on both sides of the ball.

Fresh off an upset of Alabama, Tennessee is up to No. 5 in SP+ and ranks second in offense but 40th in defense. Also-unbeaten UCLA has a similar profile (6th/44th), as does TCU (5th/53rd), while Clemson and Mississippi have been more balanced but less outstanding on either side of the ball.

5. From an eye test standpoint, there is a lot to like about Ohio State.

The offense still has the potential to be unstoppable while the defense remains untested but has potential of its own.

The cornerbacks are a real concern, though Knowles could protect them somewhat with the scheme. The pass rush could also be better, but again he says there are things he can do about it. Whether he is correct remains to be seen, but even the prospect of such a development counts as progress compared the past few seasons. As I have previously written, the main appeal of Knowles is that he runs a scheme that is not dependent on outstanding individual talent, unlike what Ohio State has done for most of the previous decade.

6. The Bengals won the battle in New Orleans, but what about the war for a balanced offense?

I don’t want to be one of those people who complains about a win… at least not too much.

Finding a way to overcome yet another bad start and get a win over another team with a backup quarterback was key to continuing to have hopes of recreating the Super Bowl run (you have to make the playoffs first) was big. Full stop. If you ever want to regret winning, remember the debacle of Week 1 against Pittsburgh. For all that went wrong, the Bengals still had that game won at least twice but blew it, and the impact on the standings is the most important lasting factor by far. That game may still rear its ugly head when all is said and done, but let’s not worry about that for now.

What’s still worrying is that the Bengals can’t run the ball, and Sunday they didn’t even look interested in trying. I get that you can’t spend so much time beating your head against a wall that the game passes you by, but they have the personnel to have a good running game, and having a good running game can help create more opportunities for explosive plays in the passing game while also reducing the number of times Joe Burrow is exposed to getting hit.

7. The good news is Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase recaptured the magic of not only their LSU days but last season’s Super Bowl run.

The bad news: It still kinda felt like magic. The Bengals needed 40 pass plays to get 273 yards (that does not include Burrow’s scrambles but does account for sacks), and 60 of those came on one play where Chase broke a tackle near the line of scrimmage and did the rest. That’s a pretty inefficient day and probably not a formula for long-term success. Much of the offseason coverage of the Bengals focused on whether or not they could continue to create the explosive plays they lived and sometimes thrived on last year. I felt they could, but that was mostly because of an improved running game giving them more balance and changing the way teams defend them. It hasn’t worked out so far, but there were signs at Baltimore it could if they continue to progress.

8. Burrow clearly is more comfortable in the shotgun with five-man protections.

When the Bengals get under center, it’s mostly a disaster.

Well, he is going to have to grow out of that. It looks great when he’s getting the ball out quick and elite receivers are breaking tackles but not so much when he is running for his life (or worse, not able to run because he is flat on his back). To live that way in the NFL, you need not only the three elite receivers they have (when none are injured) but an Anthony Munoz (or preferably two), and obviously don’t have the latter. Of course this is where having a coaching staff with some track record of coordinating a good offense would come in handy.

9. I’m not convinced they can lean on the defense all season.

Lou Anarumo has done a great job the last year-plus when he’s had good personnel to work with. Prior to that, the results were quite bad.

Unfortunately in the NFL having good personnel is often a week-to-week proposition. They have already lost their best run-stuffer (though D.J. Reader could return eventually), and now their best linebacker (Logan Wilson) is hurt. The Bengals have a nice starting 22 but virtually no depth (that’s life in a salary capped league) so as the typical attrition sets in, the pressure on the offense to not only succeed but thrive will mount.

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