Bengals have major issues, losing record at season midpoint

Published 11:01 pm Saturday, November 5, 2016

CINCINNATI (AP) — Something about the Bengals doesn’t add up.
The defending AFC North champions were among the league’s best in the first half of last season, when they won their first eight games.
In what amounts to a full season since, they’ve gone 7-9-1 — including a playoff loss to Pittsburgh — and no longer have the look of a contender.
They entered their bye this week at 3-4-1 following a 27-27 tie with Washington in London. A team that has reached the playoffs five consecutive seasons — and lost in the first round each time — is in danger of not even making it that far.
“We’ve got the guys in the locker room to do it, we just haven’t done it,” running back Jeremy Hill said. “So we can talk about it all we want, but until we go out there and do it, it doesn’t mean a thing.”
The Bengals have a losing record even though they’ve been one of the most fortunate teams in the league with injuries. They’re basically at full strength now that tight end Tyler Eifert has returned from ankle surgery.
“I feel like we should be leading the division right now,” cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said. “It’s not a long season (left), but we have a lot of games to make up for the early bumps in the road.”
There might be some changes in the second half, particularly on the defense.
The Bengals returned the nucleus of a unit that gave up the second-fewest points in the league last season. It ranks only 21st this season and is on pace to give up nearly 100 more points than last season.
The stars of the defense are having subpar years. Linemen Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Domata Peko and Michael Johnson combined for 34 1/2 sacks last season; they’re on pace for 19 combined this season.
Atkins, a two-time All-Pro tackle, had 11 sacks last season; he has only 3 1/2 this season. Dunlap is down from a career-high 13 1/2 to five.
It’s not only on the line. The linebackers and defensive backs have struggled, too.
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is using the bye week to evaluate each player’s performance and decide whether a younger player might deserve more time at their position.
“Some of the guys that have been here, that have been fixtures here, for some reason or another, whether it’s age or whatever it is, they are not playing at a high level,” Guenther said. “And I’ve got to figure out where I can inject some other guys that can do it better or at least try to.”
The Bengals thought that the defense would improve when linebacker Vontaze Burfict returned from a three-game suspension for illegal hits. He is third on the team in tackles and has one sack, but hasn’t made much of an overall difference.
Cincinnati has given up 400 yards in three of the past four games. The only exception was a win over Cleveland in which the winless Browns rushed for 180 yards. Last season, the Bengals allowed 400 total yards only once.
The offense is starting to look more formidable with Eifert back. He set a club record for a tight end with 13 touchdown catches last season.
The offense was among the worst in the league at scoring inside the opponent’s 20-yard line while he was recovering from ankle surgery. In his first extended playing time, he caught nine passes for 102 yards and a touchdown against Washington.
The running game also has improved lately after struggling through the first part of the season. The Bengals scored a season high in points during a 31-17 win over Cleveland, followed by the 27-point performance against Washington.
“We haven’t scored enough points we need for us to win games, and we all know that,” Hill said. “We know we have the talent in the locker room, especially with Tyler back. We saw what he can do. No reasons and excuses, we have to go out there and do it.”
With so many starters back from last season’s team that ran off eight straight wins, the Bengals figure they’ve got a chance to have a strong second half. They play Baltimore twice, host the first-place Steelers and play at Cleveland, so the division title is still a possibility.
“We did it last year,” Kirkpatrick said. “I don’t see any reason why we can’t do it this year. Same guys.”
But so far, different results.
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