1. After three games, the Bengals looked like the best team in the NFL. Aside from injuries, especially wide receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones, what has happened since then? Specifically on defense, what are the concerns after giving up a combined 80 points at New England and against Carolina?
The Bengals are 22nd in the league against the run, something they pride themselves in stopping. They are fifth from the bottom in opponents’ yards per carry at 4.8. That's a lot. Two carries against the Bengals, and you've got third-and-1. Heck, even Trent Richardson can get that. They've given up 367 yards rushing the past two games. Why pass? Combine sieve-like tendencies against the run with less pressure than expected on the passer (eight sacks, 25th in the league), dwindling turnovers (3 forced fumbles, 1 recovery), silly penalties extending drives and a general inability to get off the field on third down, plus an incomprehensible inability to put a leash on opposing tight ends, and you've got what the Bengals have — opponents bum-rushing the red zone like it's festival seating.
Injuries to All-Pro linebacker Vontaze Burfict (two missed games with two concussions) and former All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins, not quite 100 percent after tearing his ACL less than a year ago on Oct. 31 against the Dolphins, hasn't helped. Even so, some believe that the worst thing that happened to the Bengals defense is that coordinator Mike Zimmer left to take the head-coaching job in Minnesota. The Bengals quickly named linebackers coach Paul Guenther the new defensive coordinator, in part so he wouldn't follow former Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden to Washington. For the players and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, it meant stability and continuity.
Guenther has coached at other positions with the team since 2005. But 2013 was just his second year as linebackers coach after several years as an assistant special teams and assistant linebackers coach. Zimmer is recognized for being one of the top defensive coordinators in the league. The Bengals finished in the top seven in total defense each of the past three seasons, including No. 3 last year. The only other time Guenther was a DC was in college at Jacksonville University in 1997. Between Jacksonville and the Bengals, he was Ursinus College head coach from 1997-2000 before taking his first NFL job as an assistant coach with the Redskins, where he stayed from 2002-03, long enough to meet Lewis, who was on the 2002 Redskins coaching staff.
What's not to like? This is the best least-hyped quarterback in the NFL. There's not a lot of "me" in Dalton, but there is a lot of team-first attitude and tons of moxie that has endeared him to Bengals coaches and fans alike. The Bengals' front office must agree. They gave him a six-year contract extension August 4 that could be worth as much as $115 million with team- and performance-based incentives. So, he's got the intangibles, and his team's trust.
Beyond that, the numbers speak for his progress. He's one of three quarterbacks in league history to throw for at least 3,000 yards in each of his first three seasons, joining some guys you might have heard of, Cam Newton and Peyton Manning. Andrew Luck will join them this year. He's one of three to pass for at least 20 touchdowns in his first three seasons, joining Manning and some guy named Dan Marino. Dalton is the only QB to lead the Bengals to three consecutive playoff berths, and he's one of five in NFL history to lead his team to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons.
Oh, and he's also the Bengals' single-season record-holder for passing yards and touchdowns in a season. This year, his passer rating is 98.4, ninth in the league. That's better than such sexier names as Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Jay Cutler, Colin Kaepernick, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford. His 33-19-1 record and .632 winning percentage is the best in team history for a starting quarterback with a minimum of 10 games. Dalton has started all 53 games since arriving as a second-round draft pick in 2011, so he's been durable. He's made Bengals fans forget Carson Palmer, the former Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 draft pick who helped lead the Bengals back to the playoffs after a generation's absence.
3. Because of the injury losses on offense, who has to step up as playmakers? Do the Bengals rely more on the run with Giovani Bernard, or is his status uncertain due to the shoulder injury?
Bernard is a go on Sunday. He practiced Wednesday. He and Jeremy Hill are getting things done on the ground, and Bernard is a passing game weapon coming out of the backfield for Dalton, who clearly is the key to his team's fortunes going forward. The Bengals have become a run-first offense under first-year coordinator Hue Jackson, at the behest of head coach Marvin Lewis, but Jackson has somehow convinced Lewis to open up the trick bag with all sorts of gimmickry that has resulted in receiver Mohamed Sanu throwing two TD passes and Dalton catching one.
Dalton has become the most irreplaceable player on the field for this team. If something were to keep him out of action for an extended period, the Bengals would be in a world of hurt. Losing Sanu would be a blow because he's the only healthy guy making big plays at receiver with Green banged up. If they can get disappointing tight end Jermaine Gresham going, that would certainly help, but some think that will never happen.
4. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis always receives his share of praise around the league, but he has yet to win a playoff game in Cincinnati. Is there added pressure to deliver this year?
Coach Lewis has found a place in the heart of owner Mike Brown, who can be loyal to a fault. But this line of loyalty is well deserved, and Lewis isn't going anywhere soon, no matter what happens this season. He is the second-longest tenured head coach in the league behind New England's Bill Belichick. Why? Under Lewis in 2005, the Bengals had their first winning season and won their first division title in fifteen years. After a long drought, they've been to the playoffs three years in a row, but without that breakthrough playoff win, which would be the first in 24 years.
Brown isn't holding that against Lewis. Brown doesn't like change; he's from conservative Cincinnati -- of course he doesn't like change! Brown sees the team getting better under Lewis' command, and he's right. Lewis has learned a lot since those first days in Cincinnati. He runs a tight ship now that he's done with messing with talented but troubled players like Cedric Benson, Chad Johnson and Terrell Owens. Adam Jones is still around and running his mouth, and Vontaze Burfict is a little rough around the edges, but Lewis' steady and consistent personality keeps things on an even keel.
5. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict is a talented player whose reputation took a hit in the last game. What was his reaction as well as the Bengals’ to his $25,000 fine for ankle-twisting a couple of Panthers? And do you think it will affect how he plays Sunday?
Burfict's reputation has been taking hits for years; nothing new there. But, after this latest incident, he has been talked to by Bengals coaches, who apparently have asked team captains to speak with Burfict as well about going too far with his passion. But Burfict is a stubborn man with a checkered history that caused him to go undrafted in 2012, despite his immense talent. However, he has righted his personal path, and became a 2013 Pro Bowl linebacker after leading the league in tackles. He was rewarded by the team, and signed a four-year contract extension in August.
When Carolina tight end Greg Olsen accused Burfict of intentionally trying to injure Olsen and quarterback Cam Newton by twisting their ankles after the play was over in Sunday's game, Burfict was fined by the league. Since the 2013 season, he’s been hit with nearly $80,000 in fines. Against Carolina, Burfict also was accused of going for the head while tackling. He will continue his aggressive style, hopefully without the intention to maim. As defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said, "He’s got to tone it down, play within himself, and try to garner the fire that he has, and he’s got to control it.”
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.