Depending what happens this weekend, the Cincinnati Bengals could be headed to Pittsburgh on Oct. 22 with a chance to move into first place in the AFC North.
The two-game winning streak has the Bengals (2-3) just one game back of the Steelers and Ravens, with Pittsburgh playing at undefeated Kansas City on Sunday while Baltimore plays host to Chicago.
The recent surge after the 0-3 start has kept the season alive, but there are still plenty of issues the Bengals need to clean up over the final 11 games if they want to remain in contention for a division title in December.
Here is a look at five things the team needs to fix after the bye:
When Bill Lazor took over as offensive coordinator after the 0-2 start, the improvement in the passing game was immediate, but there have been little gains in the rushing attack.
In fact, you could argue it’s regressed. After averaging 3.4 yards per carry under Zampese, the running game is getting only 3.0 yards per attempt in three games with Lazor.
“I’m committed that we’ll get the run game going better,” Lazor said. “So (Monday), we already as a staff, we’ve looked at where the breakdowns were and some of them were maybe tough situations to be in, some of them we thought we would’ve been able to execute better. It’s usually a mix.”
Any time there are struggles in the run game, there are two options: Fix it, or abandon it.
Lazor said the latter is not an option, and he’s proven that the last two weeks with the team recorded 27 rushes vs. Buffalo and 30 against Cleveland.
“I don’t think you can stop,” Lazor said. “I just think in this league when they know you’re passing, it’s really hard to protect the quarterback and to get open because defensive coordinators have so many different schemes to rush the passer.
“And so I just think we’re going to maintain to some level – maybe not 27 runs, there might be a week where we only run 20 times if that’s what we need to do to win – but I think you’ve got to maintain a certain level of run,” he continued. “Every team I’ve ever been on has. That’s the only way to really be able to keep the defense off balance.”
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Beginning with his season-ending press conference and continuing through the Combine, draft and training camp, head coach Marvin Lewis often cited the low number of penalties and turnovers the team committed last year as an encouraging foundation to build upon heading into 2017.
But after committing a league-low 88 penalties in 2016, the Bengals already have 37 this year. That’s the 11th most and puts them on pace for 118, which would tie for the second most in franchise history.
The Bengals also led the league in fewest penalty yards last year with 726. They have 316 yards through five games, which also ranks 11th and extrapolates to 1,011, which would tie for fourth most in team history.
The Bengals punt coverage unit has ranked in the top half of the league the last three years, including top-10 finishes in 2015 (seventh) and 2016 (10th).
But Darrin Simmons group heads into the bye ranked 24th after allowing a 40-yard return to former Bengal Brandon Tate on Sunday. The team also gave up a 33-yard return to Green Bay’s Trevor Davis.
The longest return the Bengals allowed in 2016, when they ranked a middling 14th, was 28 yards to Baltimore’s Devin Hester. They surrendered only six returns of 15 yards or more. That number already is at four in 2017.
Some growing pains were to be expected with the influx of youth, so the challenge moving forward is for Simmons to find a way to plug the leaks.
As big as the win over the Bills was to give the Bengals some momentum, it was somewhat of a fluke.
The game marked just the 15th time in franchise history that the Bengals have won despite having a negative turnover margin of two or more. With three giveaways and one takeaway, the Bengals margin dropped to minus-7 this season. Only Chicago is worse at minus-9.
The 11 total turnovers rank 30th.
Of course, takeaways are half of the equation, and the Bengals haven’t been strong in that area either with just four through five games.
They have gone 16 consecutive games without a fumble recovery – a modern NFL record – and two of their four interceptions have been gifts on passes that bounced off an open receiver’s hands.
“We’re not getting enough fumbles, we’re not getting enough interceptions,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “Those things will come if you keep doing it in the right way.”