Leon Halll and the Bengals cornerbacks are challenging Tampa rookie Mike Evans.
The 7-3-1 and first -place Bengals are trying not to get caught peeking into December, where their fate is going to be decided as the only AFC North team with three division games. Sunday's game on the last day of November against the 2-9 Bucs (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) is fraught with danger, but the Bengals.com Media Roundtable believes Cincinnati's edge on paper translates.
Paul Dehner Jr., The Cincinnati Enquirer beat man, says the hosts are 2-9 and winless at home for a reason. One of them is that Bucs quarterback Josh McCown has more interceptions (8) than touchdowns (7).
Roy Cummings, a 31-year veteran of The Tampa Tribune who has covered every Bucs game of the century, thinks their defense is playing well enough to make Sunday close. But just like they started November wilting late in Cleveland a few weeks back, that's how he sees Tampa ending the month against the Bengals in a late loss.
Steve Wyche, the former print man covering the Falcons and now a do-it-all reporter/studio host for NFL Network, is a veteran NFC South observer that sees an easy Bengals victory because of their hot defense against an offense that has trouble scrounging points.
Let's go around The Table with visitors first.
The fact the Bucs defense has been improving gives them a chance to win this game. Their defense has really played better the last five weeks. Since they've come back from the bye they're (fourth) in the league in total yards against and they've had nine sacks in the last two weeks. That will give them a chance to keep it close. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton will give them some trouble but I think they're capable of keeping it close on that side.
Offensively, they just have to avoid turnovers. If they can somehow do that, they should probably be able to stay in the game. They have to get the running game going. They're only averaging 73.8 yards over the last nine. They've shown they can throw the ball. You would think defenses have to start respecting that and that it should open up areas for the run game to excel, but they haven't been able to do it. If they can figure out a way to run the ball, hold the ball, and play good defense, they've got a shot at pulling off the upset.
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy has 5.5 sacks the last five weeks. The guy who really has given them a boost is left end Jacquies Smith, a guy they picked up from Buffalo just after the preseason. He started last week and he's really come on. He's got four sacks in the last five games and he's given them what they haven't gotten from Michael Johnson, the free agent from Cincinnati at right end. Johnson has only three sacks and they were looking for him to get a little more rush. He's had a tough season so far. The normal alignment is Johnson on the right and Smith on the left. Sometimes they switch, but most of the time Smith is going to be on Bengals backup right tackle Marshall Newhouse. Smith has some quickness, but he bull rushes guys and pushes tackles back into QBs. He's got some power, plus some speed and now he's got some confidence. With McCoy pushing two guys in the middle they've been waiting for somebody to take advantage one-on-one and Smith is the first one to take advantage of it.
The whole thing with the defense is it took people awhile to figure it out and what their borders are. Once they figured that out, they're playing a lot better.
The pressure on the passer is leading to some of the mistakes. That's what happened in Chicago last week. The protection has not been good. The Bucs have given up the second most QB hits in the league and McCown has made some questionable decisions with the ball under pressure. Last week he was running out of the pocket and had the ball poked away from behind. A lot of points the defense has given up have come on short fields. McCown can sling it a little bit. He has the ability to make a team pay with his arm, but he has to make better decisions.
The fact the Bucs don't have a home win is eating away at them; head coach Lovie Smith, in particular. The players are annoyed by it, too. Everyone wants to have a home-field advantage and in a place like Tampa you should be able to do that. It's hotter here than in most places. They play afternoon games. Teams like Cincinnati should come down here and have a little bit of difficulty in the heat. This time of year it's a little bit of a neutral situation and it probably will be on Sunday with temperatures about 70 degrees and beautiful. Somehow they have to turn the stadium into an advantage. Playing some sound football would be a start.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 24-21. As much as I think the Bucs can make it a close game, I still think the Bengals are the better team. They've clearly got the better quarterback. Games are usually decided that way. They'll win it by a field goal. Probably late. One thing the Bucs have had trouble doing is finishing games on both sides of the ball. They can't mount scores late in the game and they can't prevent them too much, either. They beat Pittsburgh and were ahead of Cleveland and had a chance to beat them in the fourth quarter. They've had six fourth quarter leads and haven't been able to finish it off. They've been in most games.
The one thing about the Buccaneers is they really compete. They don't have much on terms offense as far as cohesiveness and consistency but they compete on both sides of the ball. That's always got to be a scary thing. And the wideouts, especially Mike Evans, are really coming on. That will be a challenge for the defense.
But the Bengals defensive front, especially the way it played last week, if they can play like that, they should give McCown trouble and keep Tampa from scoring more than 14 points. The win against Houston on the road was a dominant performance over a tough team. That was huge.
As great as Bengals running back Jeremy Hill has played, you see what Giovani Bernard brings. He's one of those guys where you saw the Texans defenders had him right in their crosshairs and then he's gone. That's very frustrating for a defense. He just adds that dimension. And it looked like offensive coordinator Hue Jackson opened up the playbook once they got the defense on its heels.
It's just the Bengals. Are they ever going to convince us? Are they ever going to make anyone completely buy in? Just when they've got you on the hook, they have a bad loss or a really shaky performance. But you also have to say the NFL is a grind. Teams have to win on last-second field goals. They have to be involved in ties. The great thing is this division is fantastic. They got fat off the NFC South. But coming down the stretch it's going to be just a great race.
The Bengals' schedule is brutal. Whether not they don't play their best, they play some good teams that are going to make things tough on them. They'll have to earn it.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 28-14. The defense is playing pretty well and Tampa can't really score. The Bucs compete hard. I'd be surprised if Cincinnati didn't pull away in the final eight to 10 minutes of the game.
The Buc are 2-9 for a reason. They're winless at home for a reason. They've played better lately, for sure. But there are too many good teams that have gone down there and handled them. It's a game where if the Bengals play well, it shouldn't even be close. Especially the way they've been playing lately.
The way the secondary has played so well, particularly at keeping balls in front of them, negates Tampa's biggest strength, which is over the top to Mike Evans. Tampa has struggled so badly running the ball, if the Bengals run defense continues to play like it has the last two weeks, I think Tampa is really going to struggle to score points. If somehow they're able to pop Evans over the top against cornerback Terence Newman, it would be something that hasn't happened a whole lot to the Bengals this year. That would surprise me. Its strength on strength and think the Bengals will be so focused on not letting that happen.
McCown got yanked because he gives it to the other team too much and the Bengals have been pretty good at converting turnovers.
I think they have found a rhythm with Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill in the backfield and it's something they're still tinkering with because last week was the first time back with the two together in this 50-50 role and you can't argue with 4.9 per carry with Hill. Hill is so good in the fourth quarter, now he'll be even fresher. You look at the last three wins and Hill has closed out every one in some capacity. Whether it is the long run and the catch in Houston or being part of that four-and-a-half minute drive in New Orleans or the long TD run against Jacksonville, he's been the closer. That's what he was at LSU and that's what he's been here. If you give Gio more action in the first three quarters and now spell a fresh Hill, that's even more dangerous.
To me, replacing right tackle Andre Smith is the question of the season. Newhouse has been OK, but they put lot of pressure on the tackles here. You never know how that is going to play out. If he can play well, you can find ways to account for that. They're going to need more schemes like they did in stopping J.J. Watt because you're definitely not as comfortable leaving him out there on an island like Andre.
Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth matched up on former Bengal Michael Johnson is cool. I like stuff like that. It's the fun part of the NFL with guys who know each other so well. Whit, by the way, has been the best left tackle in football as far as pass protection, if you're into profootbalfocus.com, as some aren't. He leads the league in pass blocking efficiency. Part of it is how fast Andy gets rid of the ball, but another part is he's just been owning people and I would be surprised if Mike has a big day on Whit.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 23-10. I think the Bengals defense is going to have another big day. They've got some mojo going against a team that can't run it and a quarterback that gives it away. I think that's enough.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Everyone knows it. The Bengals need this one as badly as they've needed any win in the Green-Dalton era. With a December featuring the Steelers' home-and-home, Peyton Manning at Paul Brown Stadium in prime time and a game in Cleveland where they haven't won since Green and Dalton were rookies, they must get out of November with eight wins.
It won't be a walk in the park.
The Bengals have never won three straight on the road, the Buccaneers defense is starting to find its sea legs under Tampa Two guru Lovie Smith, and the Bucs are feisty after losing four of their six fourth-quarter leads. And how long can they go without winning a home game?
But the Bengals of November look ready to counter another version of Smith's rugged defenses. Their offensive line has rolled against New Orleans and Houston, and it looked particularly impressive against the Texans' physical front last week. They'll have to play that way against Bucs Pro Bowl tackle Gerald McCoy and they may need to give Newhouse help like they did against Watt last week since the Bus have nine sacks in the last two games.
But the Bengals have the counter to the pass rush with their two-headed running game and Dalton's ability to get rid of it quickly. They've allowed just one sack in the last two games and they may get a break, too, because defensive tackle Clinton McDonald didn't practice with a hamstring injury this week and may not play. The 2009 Bengals' seventh-rounder doesn't get as much pub as Johnson and left tackle Anthony Collins as former Bengals working in Tampa, but he's had sack in each of the last three games after signing a lucrative deal in March.
Collins is ranked 49th by profootballfocus.com in pass blocking efficiency and the Bucs' protection has struggled as a whole and is ranked 23rd in giving up sacks per pass. It will be interesting to see how savvy veteran Wallace Gilberry plays Collins after practicing against him for two years. Plus, Gilberry has an ex to grind. It was Tampa that cut him two years ago after one game and gave him a chance to revive his career with the Bengals. Collins hasn't seen rookie Will Clarke and maybe they'll flop Carlos Dunlap over there, as well.
The Bucs have had a tough time scoring. In the last six games they've broken 20 points only once even though rookie wide receiver Mike Evans has gone off. Since they're only averaging 84 yards per game on the ground, the jump ball to Evans (17.2 yards per catch, eight TDs) and wide receiver Vincent Jackson (14.1 per catch, two TDs) has been about it.
And the Bengals just don't give up big passes. They're allowing just 10.5 yards per catch, a league-low 11 TD passes, and, according to PFF, their top three cornerbacks have allowed just six passes of at least 25 yards.
Throw in that the Bengals defense is eighth in allowing red zone TDs zone and the Bucs are 17th in scoring them, it's hard to see Tampa scoring enough to win.
Which brings us to special teams, where the Bengals are leading the league. There don't seem to be any points here for the Bucs, either.
Tampa is fourth in returning punts, but has yet to break one and the Bengals, third in coverage, haven't given up one. Tampa is 20th in drive starts after kickoffs and rookie kicker Patrick Murray has a miss each from 20-29, 30-39, 40-49, and he's been short from 55.
But maybe the biggest stat is turnovers. Dalton suffered his first road turnover last week. The Bucs have the NFL's second most interceptions (14) and turnovers (24).
Lovie will make it a grinding, physical match. But the Bengals have responded to that style on this road trip and if Tampa doesn't get any help scoring, the Bengals should get into December with those eight wins.