|The Bengals struggles against the run returned to the surface against Pittsburgh and perpetuate the team's deficiencies in the red zone. (AP Images)|
More than three problems exist with a Bengals team spiraling into the bye week on a three-game losing streak, but these are the most pressing with tangible solutions.
1. Find an explosive weapon to pair with A.J. Green. Whether TE Jermaine Gresham, RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis or any of the cast of thousands parading through the No. 2 WR position, Cincinnati needs more from the others on offense. And they need it now.
Looking for a difference between the Bengals three wins and four losses? Look no further than the production from the pieces surrounding the Pro Bowl receiver in the passing game. The numbers take out Green, who has a TD in six consecutive games and ranks among the league leaders in most receiving categories
Games: Touchdowns/receptions 20+ yards
3 wins: 4/7
4 losses: 1/4
Solution: Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden stressed the importance of unscripted plays and has been preaching more patience from timing passer Andy Dalton. Meanwhile, the competition continues to be open for whoever can make plays at the No. 2 WR to seize an opportunity. Rookie Mohamed Sanu has shown well in games and practice. He'll likely see many more snaps against Denver. Once fifth-round pick Marvin Jones returns from injury (knee) he'll be given more opportunity as well.
2. Solve red zone and goal-to-go defense problems. The Bengals defense improved since the disastrous three-game start to the season. They've hardly become the top-five force expected of them prior to the season. Many of those problems are occurring inside the red zone. The Bengals are allowing fewer yards of late, but every time opponents the red zone they are cashing in for six. Specifically, any bowing up inside the goal-line has become almost non-existent.
Consider offenses scored touchdowns on nine of 10 goal-to-go situations this season. When was the lone stop? When Pittsburgh took a knee at the conclusion of Sunday's loss.
Essentially, excluding the Steelers giving up that's nine trips inside the Bengals 10-yard line this year and nine touchdowns for the opponent. Not one stop. No team in the NFL has gone the entire season without forcing at least one field goal. The league average is 67 percent touchdown rate and thanks to Pittsburgh's victory formation the Bengals only rank 30th instead of dead last. .
Red zone defense leaves as much to be desired. The Bengals allow a touchdown on 66 percent of trips into the red zone. The NFL average is 53 percent. That leaves Cincinnati ranked 29th in the NFL.
Solution: The pass rush earns most of the headlines, but the Bengals need to improve against the rush. Stopping opponents in close quarters means winning in the trenches. That means a better reaction time and finish from the linebackers and more push from run stoppers like Domata Peko and possibly more snaps for rookie Devon Still at defensive tackle.
3. Find fourth-quarter charges: The staple of the 2011 Bengals were fourth-quarter comebacks led by Dalton. Five of the team's nine victories involved them coming from behind in the final quarter. Thus far this season there have been zero.
During the three-game losing streak the Bengals started 11 drives in the fourth quarter – nearly all when trailing by one possession. How did those turn out?
- Four punts
- Three interceptions
- One fumble
- One missed field goal
- One touchdown
- One made field goal.
That's 11 drives, 10 points – all of which came against Cleveland.
Performing like that in the NFL in crunch time turns three-game losing streaks into six-game losing streaks.
Solution: This begins with Dalton. Poise under pressure defined his rise last season and needs to do so again this year. He needs to find ways to make more plays in the fourth quarter. He led the NFL in fourth-quarter quarterback rating through the first three weeks but the mojo disappeared of late.
Last year's decisive plays were typically where all 65,000 in the stadium knew the ball was going to A.J. Green, but the defense still couldn't stop it. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and his staff will undoubtedly be conjuring up many more creative ways to free Green up in those spots and convince Dalton to occasionally force passes to him.
Follow Paul Dehner Jr. for Bengals updates on Twitter at @CBSBengals.