JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser each week during the 2020 regular season will speak with a writer or media member covering the Jaguars' opponent.
Up this week:
Bengals.com senior writer Geoff Hobson on the Cincinnati Bengals as they prepare for Sunday's 2020 Week 4 game against the Jaguars at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Question: The Bengals tied the Philadelphia Eagles, 23-23, in Philadelphia Sunday and are now 0-2-1. How do the Bengals feel entering Sunday's game against the Jaguars? Did they expect to be ahead of where they are now?
Answer: I think they thought they were going to have a better record than this. They've got a lot of weapons on offense and they just haven't been able to get a big play. [Wide receiver A.J. Green] doesn't have a catch over 15 yards. They didn't get their longest catch by a wide receiver until the second half in Philly: Tyler Boyd, 25 yards. They feel like they haven't scratched the surface yet. They love what [rookie quarterback and 2020 No. 1 overall selection Joe] Burrow is doing, but they felt like they were going to be more potent in the downfield passing game.
Q: It's still early. Is the optimism for this offense still there?
A: [Defensive tackle] D.J. Reader kind of alluded to this in a Zoom call Monday: These guys know what they have back there in Burrow. He's a guy who can win games for you. Just his demeanor and his ability give them a lift. They realize they're going to be a factor when they can get their stuff together because Burrow is legit. He made a play on the sideline Sunday; [wide receiver] Tae Higgins called him a magician. The play didn't count because Higgins went out of bounds and came back in. But the pass was almost [Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick] Mahomes-ish – the way he flipped his knee, turned and threw it and got away from the rush.
Q: It sounds like you think Burrow is the real deal…
A: He's a very mature guy – and not just on the field. He played a significant role late in training camp when the social justice issues came about. His teammates really appreciated the way he stepped to the fore and became involved. He provided real leadership and for a 23-year-old kid to do that … I know we're talking about sports, but this goes beyond that. For a young man to step up in a situation like that – it was very impressive.
Q: Aside from Burrow, what are they offensively? What do they do well? What do they want to do well?
A: They're trying to find that identity. [Head Coach] Zac Taylor came out of [Los Angeles Rams Head Coach] Sean McVay's system with the Rams, but this is not really the same thing. Sean is a run-first kind of guy, and I don't really think the Bengals have established that yet with [running back] Joe Mixon – a guy they love and a very talented back. Over the last half of last season, the only guy who had more yards was [Tennessee Titans running back] Derrick Henry – the [2019 NFL] rushing champion. They have to get him going. That hasn't happened yet – in large part because of the turbulence on the offensive line. But that's the key for them: Their long game, which has been in the box, will get going once they get the running game rolling with Mixon – and in years past they have gotten that done as seasons go on.
Q: You mentioned turbulence on the offensive line …
A: It's a little bit of everything. The right side of the line is a problem. The lost the free-agent [guard] they signed – Xavier Su'a-Filo – in the opener [to a broken bone in his leg]. They went with Billy Price to end the game, but then they gave Fred Johnson his first start. They pulled him halfway through the game at Philadelphia, and then Price struggled against [Eagles defensive tackle] Fletcher Cox – which a lot of people do. It looks like they'll start their third different right guard, which has made life tough for right tackle Bobby Hart. They've been more stable on the left side of the line, but they're young over there. Their first-round selection from 2019 – left tackle Jonah Williams – missed all of his rookie year and is playing for the first time. He's next to a second-year player in Michael Jordan. The stability has been at center with Trey Hopkins as the left side gets its feet went and the right side is going through some issues.
Q: The defense has struggled against the run early. Is that fixable?
A: They looked a little better Sunday, although [Eagles quarterback Carson] Wentz hurt them out of the pocket, and they did give up some big runs. It looks like it is fixable, because it was better. You saw what that meant for their pass rush. They have a very good pass rush with defensive ends Sam Hubbard, Carlos Dunlap and Carl Lawson. Carl Lawson played a heck of a game against [Eagles tackle] Jason Peters. He got pressure against a Pro Bowl tackle and they did some damage on the right side against Lane Johnson, who's another Pro Bowl tackle. They showed they can rush the passer, but they have to stop the run first. It will be interesting to see if they get [defensive tackle] Geno Atkins back. He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer; they haven't had him for the first three games because of his shoulder problems. That will obviously be big when they get him back. Right now, teams are getting to the second level too much against the young linebackers.
Q: Was the tie against the Eagles a step in the right direction? Or is it too early to know?
A: It's tough because it was such a draining game. They had so many chances to win the game. That was the tough thing about it. The only touchdowns they gave up were on two-minute drills at the end of each half that never should have happened. That was very discouraging. They had a chance to put the game away. Burrow had first-and-goal on the Eagles four up four with five minutes left and couldn't punch it in. False start. Sack. That kind of stuff is disturbing because you're there and you should have won 15 different ways. But the fact that they are in games, and Burrow is the real deal – there is a sense there will not be a repeat of the 0-12 start last season. They're just too good on offense at the skill positions and they put too much money in the defense. They put nearly $120 million into the defense –between Reader and [cornerback] Trae Waynes and [safety] Vonn Bell. They drafted three linebackers. They invested a lot in the defense. They have good skill players. They're got to do more to protect those people. They feel like they certainly have talent to win games.
Q: What's the key to do that?
A: It's getting Joe Mixon going. That's No. 1. I'm going to circle that. If they get Joe Mixon going, it opens everything up – long plays and it will keep heat off Burrow. Defensively, it's stopping the run. Nobody has given up more yards on the ground in the last three years than the Bengals and this season has started out like that. Stopping the run and running the ball will give this team a new life.