BENGALS RE CARL LAWSON AND OLB JORDAN EVANS VS. BUCS QB JAMEIS WINSTON AND TE O.J. HOWARD
After Sunday night's giant missed tackle of a chance in Kansas City, all eyes are on the Bengals defense this Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19, click for tickets) against Tampa Bay's No. 1 pass offense in a Paul Brown Stadium game that can't be whiffed for a Cincinnati team looking to hang on to the AFC North lead at 5-3 heading into the bye week.
They're looking for their core and talent-laden drafts to lead the way rather than a throw-it-against-the-wall-see-what-sticks deadline trade and now is the time to call on that 2017 class. Wide receiver John Ross (groin), No. 9 in that first round, won't be available for the what-if comparisons against Howard, No. 19 to the Bucs and highly-rated prospect on the Bengals' board. But second-round running back Joe Mixon has proven to be a factor when they choose to run it and a low 50ish-degree day with rain and an explosive offense can be exactly that.
Yet it is the Bengals' young defenders like sophomores Lawson (fourth round) and Evans (sixth round) that have to answer the bell for a unit awash in question marks and injury. They don't have their two top signal-callers at linebacker (Vontaze Burfict and Nick Vigil), they don't have their slot cornerback (Darqueze Dennard) and they're coming off an appalling 18 missed tackles in Kansas City, a number charted by both profootballfocus.com and The Athletic. After allowing 551 yards against the Chiefs for the third most yielded in the 16 seasons of head coach Marvin Lewis, they've done nothing to stanch a trend that has them on pace to give up the most yards in club history.
And here are the Bucs with their 450 yards per game. Don't be fooled by their 3-3 record. Just like the Chiefs, they've got weapons everywhere. Howard leads all tight ends with 17.6 yards per catch. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson can still fly at age 31 with an NFL-best 22.9 yards per catch. Wide receiver and jump-ball artist Mike Evans has the 10th most yards in the league. Tight end Cameron Brate has 20 touchdowns in 51 games.
With Winston getting snaps under him now that he's played three games after his suspension, how much more stress can the Bengals defense take? The speedy Jordan Evans, who'll have to be able to run with the gifted 6-6, 251-pound Howard, says coordinator Teryl Austin has emphasized this week getting eleven men to the ball rather than the specific act of tackling.
"We do tackling drills every day," says Evans, a backup whose role must increase without Burfict and Vigil. "I can only speak for myself, but it's not because of a lack of drills. I just think we're not running to the ball. I haven't been running to the ball like I have in the past and that's what I'm looking to do."
Preparations continue for the Bengals as Cincinnati hosts the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, Oct. 28 at 1 p.m.
Meanwhile, Lawson, who had 8.5 sacks last season playing 42 percent of the snaps, is looking to bust out with just one sack this season on 44 percent of the downs.
"I've never been through a drought like this," Lawson says. "I want to be the best in the league and the best in the league find a way to get it done. It's a very humbling experience. There are nine games left and I'm not going to give up. I'm still going for the sacks and forced fumbles and all the thigs I work for. It bothers me every day. I wake up every morning thinking I've got to do more. That's the way I'm built. The best find a way."
The Bengals have had just two sacks in the last two weeks after getting two sacks in the fourth quarter against Miami three weeks ago. They'd like to get pressure on Winston. He's not a bombs-away guy like the guy that replaced him, old friend Ryan Fitzpatrick, and he doesn't have the big arm accuracy. He's thrown more interceptions than touchdowns and he's a big guy (6-4, 231 pounds).
Left end Carlos Dunlap, who has five sacks, says he went through the same thing that Lawson is going through after he set the Bengals rookie record with 9.5 in 2010. The adjustment that comes with more attention from offensive lines. After the Steelers only max-protected in two-minute situations and the Chiefs maybe did it once all last week, Lawson expects the Bucs to max protect more than the last two foes did.
"It's a sign of respect," says Lawson of the more frequent chips on the edge. "But it's no excuse, either. I just have to get there faster. That's all there is to it."
But Dunlap will tell you that's easier said than done with opposing quarterbacks getting rid of the ball quickly. And the check-down passes and screens and flips have worked because the Bengals have been miserable at tackling. Not only last week. They've got 67 for the season, according to PFF, on pace for 153. The '09 AFC North champ Bengals had 79 misses for that entire season.
According to PFF, middle linebacker Preston Brown is the only starter without a miss. Which makes sense. He led the NFL in tackles last season missing just six. Count Brown as also shocked at all of last Sunday's misses. It's led to some uncomfortable but frank observations from players. Brown talks about want-to, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick "fire," and strong safety Shawn Williams "pride."
"Especially on such a big stage. You would think everybody would be on their A game but we just didn't come ready to tackle," Brown said. "We have to find a way to stay on our feet better. A lot of guys, as soon as we made contact, our feet went dead.
"It starts (in practice), making sure we've got great angles. Making sure we're always in football position. That's the thing. We're overrunning. I'm overrunning. Everybody is overrunning plays when you have to stay on the near hip."
One theory out there is that the Bengals have yet to adjust to first-year defensive coordinator Teryl Austin's scheme. Brown, Evans and others don't buy it.
"When a guy has the ball, you've got to tackle them. I don't care what scheme it is," Brown says. "We've got to find a way to make a tackle. I think it's all want-to. The coaches aren't the ones out there tackling. I don't think we want Marvin trying to tackle anybody. It starts (in practice). If you see somebody overrun it, say something. Don't just say, 'Oh, that's OK,' because that's what we did in the game Sunday."
Kirkpatrick, whose eight misses lead the club, according to PFF, talks about re-kindling the fire. But he also mentions the new system and the possibility of getting back to the roots this Sunday.
"We're still learning. It's a new defense. We're doing things we (haven't) done around here before," Kirkpatrick says. "But like I said, as long as we get back to the things that make us good, we'll be all right. I think that's going to be the game plan this week.
"We've got to make those tackles, including myself. I don't like to talk about nobody else. I missed a couple tackles and that's something that's unacceptable here. We've got to clean that up."
Shawn Williams is another everybody-run-to-the-ball guy. He doesn't see guys hesitating because of scheme uncertainty. Getting 11 to the tackle has been a hallmark of most of the defenses of Mike Zimmer and Paul Guenther and Williams says they have to again.
"Don't overthink it. Don't overdo it. Everybody runs to the ball and you have the right angles and it won't be a problem," Williams says. "I just think we haven't done a good job running to the ball like we have been in the past. We've kind of gotten away from it. We've got to pick it up and literally showed the other night. That's a want-to. Pride, that's what it is. The coaches talked about it and pointed it out … It's up to the guys what needs to be done."
The biggest yards-after-catch (YAC) threat on the Bucs is Howard, seventh among tight ends. Evans is rated 25th in coverage among PFF's 113 backers when it comes to yards allowed per snap. He's the only Bengal backer in the top 60 and he knows he'll have his hands full with Howard.
"He's big, he's fast, he can run routes and he can block, too," Evans says. "We'll have to make sure he doesn't get loose."