The Bengals were sitting atop the AFC after dominating Baltimore on their home field a couple weeks ago.
Now they enter the bye week with a 5-4 record after two disappointing losses: a trap game against the Jets in Week 8 and a divisional beatdown to the Browns on Sunday.
Despite the dip in play, a Bengals legend doesn’t believe it’s time to hit the panic button.
“The way they have played the last two weeks, a little bit concerning, but not overly,” Joe Walter said in an exclusive interview with All Bengals. “The good thing is they have the bye week; two weeks to regroup, reset, get away from the game, and get the guys that are nicked up healthy again.”
Walter feels this team can turn things around in the back half of the season with the veteran leadership and youthful talent paired together on the roster. He isn’t dismissing the possibility of Cincinnati making the playoffs for the first time since the 2015 season as long as the players and coaches can make the proper adjustments during the bye.
The fixes must start in the trenches. Walter credits Frank Pollack with the upgraded offensive line from recent years, but the unit still has room to grow.
Cohesion is a key factor in the success of an offensive line. The Bengals haven’t had the ability to establish that chemistry on the field with a revolving door at right guard. Hakeem Adeniji became Cincinnati’s fourth different starting right guard in Sunday's loss to the Browns.
“If you’re not used to playing with each other, you don’t have that cohesiveness yet. It takes some time to build that,” Walter said. “We’re in game nine and they’re still figuring it out. They’ve had different combinations, it hasn’t been the same group on the right side all season.”
The interior poses as the unit’s greatest weakness. Adeniji’s return helps with depth, but how much better can they get this season?
Walter believes the most significant improvements will come after Pollack has a full season under his belt.
Joe Burrow has been sacked 25 times and taken another 22 hits this season. If the offensive line can consistently showcase the glimpses of improvement seen this season by keeping Burrow upright and giving him time to throw for the remainder of the season, it could be the difference between potentially making the playoffs or watching them from home.
Burrow has played at a high level for most of the year, despite dealing with pressure, but he does lead the NFL in interceptions.
“Sometimes those interceptions have to happen for him [Burrow] to learn,” Walter said. “You can get over confident in your throws and I think he’s gotten that way a little bit and needs to be reigned in. It’s not a bad thing. To come off and play the way he’s playing off that knee injury, you can see the confidence week in and week out. But he just has to trust the process, trust the plays, trust the other guys, because if he starts to zero in on one guy, maybe two, that hurts you, because you have other guys that are open. That’s the part that he has to work on. He’ll figure that out and see that this week.”
Ja’Marr Chase has been Burrow’s favorite option with 73 targets. After starting the first seven games with 35 catches and 754 receiving yards, defenses have started to pay more attention to him.
Chase has a total of just nine receptions for 81 yards and one touchdown in his last two games
Tee Higgins (57) and Tyler Boyd (55) are second and third on the team in targets, respectively. Higgins missed two games earlier in the year.
Boyd has just 38 receptions this season. The offense needs to utilize him more and find more balance among their star trio of wide receivers. If Chase and/or Higgins draw more attention, then Boyd is bound to be open.
Regardless of the early season success, the former offensive lineman admits that the Bengals will be in their rebuilding phase until the talent in the trenches can catch up with their skill position players.
Walter is optimistic about the direction the Bengals are heading in. He feels the culture shift in the locker room that many of the players and coaches have harped on this season.
Can this team end up becoming as good as Walter's 1988 Bengals that made it all the way to the Super Bowl?
"Come on, now. Come on, now," Walter said with a laugh. "The offensive line would have to get much better. The skill positions I think are equal."
The second half of the season is going to define which point of the rebuild the Bengals are in as they face just one team (49ers) currently under .500 in their final eight games.
Cincinnati heads to Las Vegas to play the Raiders on Nov. 21 at 4:05 p.m. ET.
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