CINCINNATI (AP) — Off to a historically bad start on offense, the Bengals fired their coordinator after only two games last season and got better results the rest of the way, though not good enough to make the playoffs.
They overhauled the NFL’s worst offense in the offseason by firing the line coach, trading for a tackle and drafting a center in the first round.
That part has worked. The offensive improvement is part of the reason Cincinnati is 5-3 at its bye, one of nine teams with so many wins.
Now, the Bengals have another huge problem to fix if they’re going to reach the playoffs for the first time in three years.
This time, it’s a historically bad defense .
Cincinnati has allowed the most yards and points in the league. The Bengals have given up 500 yards in back-to-back games for the first time in their history. If their current track holds, they would become only the second team in NFL history to allow more than 7,000 yards in a season.
“At the end of the day, we can do better,” cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said. “I know we can.”
They’ll have to play a lot better on defense if they want to overtake Pittsburgh (4-2-1) and win the division.
The Bengals installed a new defense under first-year coordinator Teryl Austin. They also continued a youth movement on defense, fielding the youngest team in coach Marvin Lewis’ 16 seasons.
Injuries have played a role, too.
So has the schedule, with Cincinnati facing some of the league’s top offenses — No. 1 Tampa Bay, No. 3 Kansas City, No. 4 Pittsburgh, No. 7 Atlanta. The Bengals face No. 8 New Orleans coming out of their bye.
“The NFL wants more yards, more scoring, and they are getting it,” Austin said. “A lot of it has to do with there are a lot of good quarterbacks, a lot of good receivers, and it’s been opened up. It’s like fast-break basketball. That makes it tough.”
The bye could help with some healing. Cornerback Darqueze Dennard has been sidelined with a shoulder injury the past two games. Linebacker Nick Vigil is out with a sprained knee. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict sat out a win over Tampa Bay with a hip injury. Kirkpatrick has been limited by an Achilles injury. Pass rush specialist Carl Lawson tore his ACL. Several others have been in-and-out with various problems, hurting the consistency.
“This has been a challenge in terms of the amount of injuries,” Austin said.
The offense also is looking to get several key players back after the bye. Running back Giovani Bernard has been sidelined by a knee injury for the past four games.
Rookie center Billy Price is practicing after suffering a partially torn ligament in his right foot during the second game. Tight end Tyler Kroft (foot) and receiver John Ross (groin) also have missed time, contributing to problems on an offense that’s better than last year but still has issues and ranks 23rd in yards.
During a 37-34 win over the Buccaneers on Sunday, the offense managed only 95 yards in the second half and had four consecutive drives that failed to get a first down, helping Tampa Bay rally late .
“That is where it’s disappointing,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “Offensively, we didn’t play the same way we did in the first half and we weren’t getting first downs. We had way too many three-and-out drives, and in that way it’s disappointing.”
Despite their flaws, the Bengals have stayed above .500 by pulling out games at the end — something they lacked the past two seasons. The defense has scored four touchdowns, and Dalton has led last-minute drives in two victories. They know they’ve been fortunate.
“To be 5-3 right now is huge,” Dalton said.
Four of their last eight games are against teams that currently have losing records, including two against Cleveland. They also play at Baltimore and finish the season at Pittsburgh, so there’s a chance to win the division if they can fix their problems.
The bye provides a chance to try to figure out ways to tweak the offense and the defense, get some veterans ready to return, and take a breath after a wild first two months.
“There needs to be some mental health here, too,” Lewis said.