It’s tough to face, but 2016 was full of lows for the Cincinnati Bengals. We’ve already listed the highs from this season, so it’s now time to rally off the low points of the year, from an individual and team standpoint.
Kicking Game: 2016 was dubiously filled with season-long struggles in the kicking game. Mike Nugent was released in mid-December, but actually started the season off hot. He hit the game-winning 47-yarder to beat the Jets in week one, then went 5 for 5 in a 22-7 win over Miami three weeks later at Paul Brown Stadium.
But his season started to spiral out of control in week seven, when he missed a pair of field goals in a 31-17 victory over the Browns. The veteran kicker and Centerville, OH-native finished the year with six missed field goals and extra points, becoming the first kicker since 1986 to miss a PAT in three consecutive games.
Nugent’s run in the Queen City ended after missing two kicks against Cleveland in week 14. His replacement, Randy Bullock, made 11 of 12 kicks, but his lone misfire was at the gun in Houston, a 43-yarder he pushed wide right that handed the Texans a division championship as an early Christmas present.
Offensive line woes: Andy Dalton was sacked 41 times this season. The same number of sacks he took in 2014 & ’15 combined. The front-five struggles came out in week one when Dalton was sacked a career-high seven times. Of course that was overlooked when the Bengals came back to win in the final minute.
The O-line is perhaps the biggest question mark heading into 2017. Andrew Whitworth, after 11 seasons in Cincinnati, is a free agent. The Bengals drafted two tackles, Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher, that were supposed to be Whit’s replacement. But they’re simply not ready. If they were, bringing back Whitworth wouldn’t be as big of a priority as it is.
Fisher didn’t see the field much and Ogbuehi received a terrible 44.1 grade from Pro Football Focus in his only start of the season at left tackle in week 16 when Whitworth moved in to play guard with Clint Boling (shoulder) put on IR.
At the worst possible times, the offensive line found themselves looking back at their quarterback being taken to the turf.
@NE: The Bengals led, 14-10, in the third quarter against the Patriots in Foxboro. But Dalton was sacked for a safety and New England went on a 23-3 run to end the game.
vs. WASH: With the score tied at 27 in overtime, the Bengals drove to the Redskins’ 40-yard line and faced third down. Needing just one positive play to either extend the drive or attempt a game-winning field goal (which wasn’t a guarantee, but still a chance), Dalton was sacked by Ryan Kerrigan, forcing a punt.
@ BAL: Without two of their top offensive weapons, the Bengals still hung in with the division-leading Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium in a must-win game to keep the season on life support. Trailing by a touchdown late in the fourth quarter, Dalton drove all the way to the Baltimore 16 but Elvis Dumervil beat right tackle Eric Winston around the edge and his sack-strip ended the game.
Close losses: This Bengals’ team was not a bad one. It was simply a squad that couldn’t mesh on every phase on a weekly basis. Too many problems — pass defense, protection, kicking, slow running game, lack of pass rush — resurfaced at different times and ultimately cost the team wins.
After starting 3-4, the Bengals’ final six games they didn’t win were decided by a combined 16 points.
- vs. WASH: T 27-27
- @ NYG: L 21-20
- vs. BUF: L 16-12
- @ BAL: L 19-14
- vs. PIT: L 24-20
- @ HOU: L 12-10
That’s an 0-5-1 stretch that proved to be the difference in the season. If the Bengals pull out a few of those contests, they could’ve won 10 games and leapfrogged the Dolphins (via head-to-head tie breaker) for the final wild card.
Week 2: The Bengals were fresh off their first road win over the Jets since 1981 when they traveled East to meet the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field; the two team’s first meeting since the 2015 playoffs.
Instead of starting 2-0, the Bengals sputtered to their first of six one-possession losses of the season. The offense went 0 for 3 in the red zone, settling for three field goals. On the other side, Pittsburgh capped off all three of their red zone chances with Ben Roethlisberger touchdown tosses.
To cap it all off, the Bengals still had a chance to go tie the game late. Despite a 15-point deficit, Giovani Bernard‘s 25-yard touchdown reception made it a one-possession game. After a defensive stop, Cincinnati drove into Steelers’ territory needing a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie it up.
Rookie Tyler Boyd made a catch and met former defensive POY James Harrison in the middle of the field. While being taken down to the turf, the ball came out. Pittsburgh recovered and sealed a win. Upon review, it looked like Boyd’s knee was touching the ground prior to the ball coming out. The controversial turnover, however, was upheld, dropping the Bengals to 1-1.
Second-half offense down the stretch: In the final eight weeks of the season, it seemed the Bengals’ offense could not made the necessary adjustments needed to sustain drives and put points on the board.
Starting with the one-point loss to the Giants on November 14th, the Bengals scored on just 10 of their 44 second-half drives in the final eight games of the year. In that span, they had more turnovers (6) than touchdowns (5).
In home losses to Buffalo and Pittsburgh, the Bengals led at the intermission but were shutout in the second half in both games.
Brandon LaFell‘s 86-yard catch and run against Houston on Christmas Eve was Cincinnati’s first fourth-quarter touchdown since the tie with Washington on October 30th.
In week 17, they would’ve been shutout again in the second half, but Baltimore failed on fourth down at their own 25, leading to a short field for the Bengals and Rex Burkhead‘s second touchdown run of the game.
Buffalo funeral: The 3-5-1 Bengals wore all black against the Bills on November 20th, perhaps resembling the team’s funeral for the entire season.
On the second play of the game, A.J. Green went down with a partial hamstring tear and had to be carted off the field. He would miss the remainder of the season, falling 36 yards shy of joining Randy Moss as the only receivers in league history to record 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first six seasons in the league.
Dalton was intercepted twice (his only multi-pick game of the season), Nugent missed a pair of extra points, and the offense produced just 37 yards over 17 plays on its first five second-half drives.
The defense kept Cincinnati in the game, yielding just two Dan Carpenter field goals that made it 16-12. The Bengals’ marched 58 yards on their final possession, but Dalton’s pass to the end zone as time expired was broken up. To make matters worse, Giovani Bernard suffered a torn ACL somewhere on the last drive and was shelved for the year.
Eifert can’t stay healthy: The 2016 calendar year started great for tight end Tyler Eifert. On January 3rd, he caught four balls for 51 yards and a touchdown as the Bengals came back to defeat the Ravens, 24-16.
Then it turned tragic. After the playoff loss to Pittsburgh, Eifert injured his foot in the Pro Bowl. The issue required surgery, which Eifert didn’t receive until May, causing him to miss training camp and the first six games of the 2016 regular season.
When he returned, his presence made an impact. In eight games, he tallied 29 receptions for 394 yards and five touchdowns. But after being targeted just three times in the loss to Pittsburgh on December 18th, he was put on season-ending injured reserve with a back injury.
His backups on the depth chart, Tyler Kroft and C.J. Uzomah, combined for 326 receiving yards and just one touchdown.
The injuries continue to stack up for the Bengals’ red zone machine. In four seasons, Eifert has now missed 28 games and played in 39. Fortunately, he vowed to never play in the Pro Bowl ever again. He didn’t come close to an All-star spot this season, finishing 16th in catches, 14th in receiving yards, and tied for sixth in touchdowns among the AFC’s tight ends.
Tennessee’s Delanie Walker (65-800-7) and Kansas City’s Travis Kelce (85-1,125-4) made it from the AFC.
Eifert now has the entire offseason to focus on the objective of getting healthy. Prior to the 2016 season, the Bengals picked up the fifth-year option on the $8.3 million-dollar deal he signed as a rookie.
2017 will be a contract year for the former first-rounder, who will look to earn an extension at season’s end. A comeback campaign will be built on the heels of the tight end’s health.
Jeremy Hill: If you think Eifert’s 2016 was a bust, Jeremy Hill‘s was even more of a disappointment. Like Eifert, it started with a second-half touchdown in the win over Baltimore on January 3rd. In the playoffs, though, Hill’s fourth-quarter fumble (along with other factors) while the Bengals were leading in the final minutes cost a team their first postseason victory since 1991.
The 2016 season was not much better for the third-year running back. He finished the year with 839 yards on 222 carries, an average of just 3.8 yards per tote.
The numbers do show an increase from 2015 — 45 more yards on one less carry to be exact and the same amount of touchdowns (9). However, he was held under the 50-yard mark in nine of the 15 games he played in. The stats also get cloudy when you take out his big days against the Browns’ AFC-worst run defense.
He gashed Cleveland for a career-high 168 yards on just nine carries in week seven, a performance that included a season-long 74-yard run. In the second edition of the Battle of Ohio, Hill ran 25 times for 111 yards and another touchdown.
But if you remove the 279 yards on 34 attempts the LSU-product accumulated against the Browns this season, he finished with just 560 yards on 188 carries — an average of less than three yards per attempt.
Three of Hill’s six runs of 20-plus yards over the last two seasons have been at Cleveland’s expense.
Of course Hill’s biggest upside comes in the red zone. After the playoff fumble, he claimed to be strictly business in 2016: no more celebrating.
He held true for awhile, nonchalantly handing the ball back to the official after a preseason touchdown in Jacksonville, again in the season-opener in East Rutherford, and finally after both of his scores in the home-opening loss to Denver.
That came to a screeching halt against Cleveland. After his longest run since his rookie year, Hill ju ju’d on the beat in the end zone and was back to celebrating for the rest of the year.
Many think his celebrations put a curse on the Bengals in week 15, though. He plunged in for a four-yard touchdown to give Cincinnati a 14-point lead over the Steelers, then had some fun stomping and ripping a terrible towel in his end zone after-party.
Following the touchdown, Pittsburgh went on to score 21 of the game’s final 24 points to come away with a win. Furthermore, Hill’s five post-celebration carries that day produced negative three yards.
Hill’s knack for scoring makes him an attractive option. His 29 rushing touchdowns since 2014 are the most in the NFL in that span, edging DeMarco Murray‘s 28 scores while sporting three different uniforms (Dallas, Philadelphia, and Tennessee).
2016 saw Hill pass Ickey Woods for the sixth-most rushing touchdowns in franchise history. He also cracked the Top 10 in rushing yards, too, passing Charles Alexander.
But is he too touchdown-dependent? The value of a goal-line specialist to a backfield is a debatable topic. Especially when you factor in week 17 when he was Wally Pipp’d by third-string back Rex Burkhead.
Gio was already on the season-ending IR. And Hill, after just one second-half carry in the previous week’s loss to Houston, was ruled out against Baltimore in the season-finale.
Burkhead went on to gash the Ravens’ conference-best run defense for 119 yards and two touchdowns. The first Bengals’ 100-yard rusher against Baltimore since Cedric Benson in 2009.
There is an urge to re-sign Burkhead, who is set to hit the free-agent market in March. He made the most of the playing time. Adding in his 17 receptions, Burkhead averaged 5.4 yards per touch, more than Bernard (5.2) and Hill (4.2).
Doing so would inevitable send the message that the team is ready to move on from Hill once his contract expires after the 2017 season.
Lewis rumors: Any time your head coach is on the hot seat, it’s a low. Prior to the season-finale, long-time Redskins’ tight end Chris Cooley spread a rumor that Marvin Lewis, the Bengals’ head coach since 2003, would retire at the end of the season.
Less than 12 hours after the report came out, Lewis reported that it was false and that he planned on returning for a 15th season. Three days later, he earned his 17th career victory as a head coach over the Ravens, the same team he won a Super Bowl with in 2000 as a defensive coordinator.
2016 was only Lewis’s fourth losing season over a 14-year tenure. A 32-14 victory over Philadelphia on Dec. 4th put him in the top 30 for most wins in NFL history, passing George Allen.
Some fans may want him gone. After all, he and Jim Mora are the only coaches in the top 70 in career wins without a postseason victory. But since he’s coming back, fans will have to stick with the 58 year old and his .545 winning percentage.
In 2017, Lewis needs to make sure his team finds a way to win close contests after winning just one of eight games this season decided by one possession. Lewis is 57-58-3 in such games in his career during the regular season and 0-2 in the playoffs.