Despite the last two games, and the Cincinnati Bengals are looking pretty good crossing the midway point of the season with five wins and eight weeks left to play.
Bengals players and coaches spoke earlier this week, going into the bye, about how well they are positioned for the second half of the season, despite coming off two disappointing losses against the Jets and Browns.
Cincinnati, which travels to Las Vegas on Sunday, is 5-4, one of nine AFC teams with five wins. The Titans (7-2) and AFC North-leading Ravens (6-3) are the two teams at the top of the pack.
Here are some of the storylines to watch down the stretch as the Bengals look to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2015:
1. Burrow interceptions
While the defense has placed more emphasis on getting turnovers this season, the offense is now having to focus on cutting down its miscues, and surprisingly the franchise quarterback has struggled in that area.
After throwing five interceptions in 10 games as a rookie last year, Joe Burrow has 11 picks through nine games this week. Two of those came in Week 9 against the Browns, and that was his third multi-interception game of the season.
“Over the course of the season, there’s been some that were my fault, some good plays by the defense,” Burrow said after last week’s loss to Cleveland. “The ones that I can control I need to limit, and that’s that.”
Burrow also needs more consistency from Ja’Marr Chase than he got the last two games, and Bengals coach Zac Taylor said he needs to make sure Tyler Boyd is more involved going forward. Chase has shown to be a deep threat but drops against the Jets and a fumble against the Browns were his most memorable plays following an impressive first seven games. Boyd had one catch for 11 yards on just two targets against Cleveland, though Taylor said he was the intended target on at least two plays that ended with sacks.
2. Rotation at right guard
The Bengals have started four different players at right guard as that spot still remains a question going forward. Xavier Su’a-Filo has been on injured reserve since suffering a knee injury in Week 2, and Jackson Carman hasn’t been able to maintain a grip on the starting job in his absence, though he was expected to take over at some point even without injury to Su’a-Filo.
Fellow rookie Troy Hill got one start when Carman was coming back from illness, but the second-round draft pick and former Fairfield High standout returned and lasted just two more games before the team moved on to the next option. With Hakeem Adeniji back from injured reserve, he got the start against Cleveland just two weeks after he began practicing with the team for the first time in pads since last December.
Taylor said he earned at least one more chance to start, as he “did some really good things to continue to build off of” against Cleveland, a game in which the Bengals allowed five sacks and 12 hits on Burrow.
“I think he’s earned another opportunity,” Taylor said. “Again, there are some things he’s got to improve from but we’re starting to build some good depth there. You know, we still have Jackson in the fold. We’ve got confidence in Jackson. It’s just right now we’re going to take a peek at Hakeem and see if he can build off this performance.”
3. Opponents targeting linebackers
The linebackers – a group now missing Jordan Evans and Akeem Davis-Gaithers because of injuries -- seem to be getting targeted in recent weeks and teams are once again exploiting the middle of the field, which was an issue last year. Logan Wilson got off to a strong start but seemed to fade the last two games, and the Jets and Browns made the linebackers look invisible in different ways.
While the Jets used a lot of screens and underneath passes that exposed gaps in the defense, the Browns had some explosive plays where the linebackers were no where to be found.
“The Jets threw a lot of stuff underneath, which ultimately is going to fall into that area of the field where the linebackers usually are,” Taylor said when asked to assess those issues. “I didn’t see as much of that with Cleveland. Again what I talked about, the cumulative team effort, we didn’t put them behind the chains very much where they were playing from behind or playing behind the sticks where we could really make them pay. The linebacker room has done some really good things through nine weeks.
“Obviously, the depth is really going to have to stand up now. … Those guys are gonna have to step up and play big and keep making plays. There was a period of time there where they were creating a lot of turnovers and maybe that hasn’t been the case the last couple games, but it’s not just on them, that’s on the entire defense. We’ve got to get back to that.”
4. Cornerback carousel
Trae Waynes’ absence has been felt for a second straight year after he was expected to make a big impact. While he missed the entire 2020 campaign because of a pectoral injury, he’s been on injured reserve this season with a hamstring injury and Taylor said he won’t be ready to return yet coming off of the bye.
Eli Apple has struggled as his replacement, and Taylor didn’t say whether he will remain in that role. When asked how he assesses Apple so far as part of a question about expectations for Waynes, Taylor didn’t say what he thought about Apple.
“I think we’ve got some depth in that room now, and so we get a chance to continue to evaluate those guys and see what kind of roles they play,” Taylor said. “Sometimes they don’t come in as starters. Sometimes there’s other opportunities to get them on the field and feature some of their talents. I don’t anticipate Trae Waynes playing right out the gate after the bye. He’ll continue to rehab that hamstring and then we’ll see where it goes form there. I don’t have the number of weeks it will be. We’ll just take it week to week. But I’m not counting on him for the Vegas game.”
5. Special teams holes
The Bengals lost backup safety Brandon Wilson and Davis-Gaither to injury last week, and both will especially be missed on special teams. Wilson is out for the year with an ACL tear and will leave open the kick return job and a role as a gunner on punt returns. Davis-Gaither is out for at least three weeks because of a foot injury and he has contributed on about 70 percent of special teams snaps this season.
Darrin Simmons said punt returner Darius Phillips is the leading candidate to take over kick returns, but Wilson will need replaced by multiple players. Chris Evans, if healthy, also could be an option on kick returns.
Also on special teams, the Bengals are looking for more consistency from punter Kevin Huber. He was set to get an injection in his hip to help alleviate pressure and open up his swing. Simmons was hopeful that would make a difference in his accuracy and distance.
Bengals at Raiders, 4:05 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7