To get ready for Sunday's game I exchanged questions with Cincy Jungle, SB Nation's Bengals blog. My answers to his questions can be found over at Cincy Jungle at some point, and his answers to my questions are below.
1. I consider the Bengals' turnaround from 4-11-1 in 2008 to second place in the AFC so far this season to be one of the biggest surprises of 2009. Did this turnaround come out of left field for Bengals fans or were expectations for the team to be much better this season?
As a Bengals fan, we honestly didn’t know what to expect. We knew that Carson Palmer being out for most of 2008 was a large reason for our struggles. His anticipated return gave Bengals fans hope that we could compete again. Did we expect this, going to 8-3, sweeping our entire division and holding onto the second seed in the playoffs? No, not really. But we just didn’t know what this team would do.
We knew something special was happening though, ranging from the team’s chemistry, to the offseason dedication and workout regiments to a unified desire to be better than what they were. We progressively watched this team grow unlike what we’ve seen from the Bengals. Did we expect this? No. Did it surprise us that we’re here? No.
It also shows measures about how Marvin Lewis can rebuild an NFL team. This is his second go of it. Next step, winning a playoff game.
2. What is the biggest reason why the Bengals have become one of the league's best teams this season? Based on the statistics it seems like the defense is the driving force behind Cincinnati's turnaround. The Bengals' defense has given up the fewest amount of points in the league, yet their offense has scored fewer points than any other team that is currently in first place. Is it accurate to say that Cincinnati's stellar defense is the biggest reason why they're 8-3?
It would be a good place to start, that’s for sure. The team’s pass rush is vastly improved but their rush defense, which ranks third in the NFL, is combined with excellent defensive tackle play and a great linebacker lineup with Rey Maualuga, Dhani Jones, Keith Rivers and Brandon Johnson, who could arguably be the best performing linebacker this year. Our cornerbacks are one of the league’s best duos. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer puts them on an island, presenting additional blitzing schemes to force the opposing quarterback to rush his throws and, hopefully, make mistakes.
As a result of the good defense, the Bengals offense has matched their physical style of play. Not the high-powered scoring machine they were in 2005 or 2006, the Bengals have completely revamped their offense to be a more run efficient team, converting a high percentage of their third downs and dominating the time of possession.
3. Cedric Benson is expected to return from an injury this week. In his absence Bernard Scott got the bulk of carries for Cincinnati, though Larry Johnson got more last week. That could be because Scott suffered a turf toe injury, though, which could keep him out of Sunday's game. How do you think the Bengals will handle their running back situation , especially if Scott is unable to play? Should Lions fans expect to see mostly Benson or will it be more of an equal rotation where they try to ease Benson back into a game situation?
No matter what happens with anyone else, if Benson is healthy and ready to go, he will get the bulk of the work. Now, we’re not exactly sure how Larry Johnson will figure in. Signed after Benson suffered his hip injury, Johnson’s primary work came last week against the Cleveland Browns. Seeing how Johnson rotates in with Benson will be a new experience for us.
4. Chad Ochocinco has talked about how he wants the Bengals to throw the ball more this week, which is understandable considering Carson Palmer will probably have a field day against the Lions' secondary. Even though that may be the case, do you think the Bengals will stick to a rushing attack, keep it balanced, or air it out and rack up some serious points for my fantasy team that has Palmer, Ochocinco, and Laveranues Coles on it?
Oh yea, the Bengals won’t mess with the formula that’s gotten them to be an 8-3 team, sweeping both participants in last year’s AFC Championship game last year. We did wonder earlier in the week if the Bengals would conjure images of their former passing offense from 2005 and 2006 against the Lions, if anything, to prove that it was still effective, which it hasn’t been for a significant portion of this season.
5. Six Bengals players hail from Michigan colleges -- three from Michigan (Dhani Jones, Leon Hall, and Morgan Trent), two from Michigan State (Kyle Cook and Domata Peko), and one from Grand Valley State (Dan Skuta). Briefly, what role does each have on the team and how are they playing this season?
Well, being an Ohio State fan, you don’t know how much that pains guys like us. But, they are very good players. Dhani Jones has led the team in tackles in each of the past two seasons and is on tops again this year as the starting middle linebacker. Leon Hall is, I believe, the best cornerback on the team, if not one of the top five corners in the NFL. Morgan Trent, who we drafted in the sixth round, quickly earned his spot at the table as the team’s nickelback. In fact, Trent has probably been the most surprising new addition to this team. Kyle Cook could be argued as the biggest reason for the offensive line’s improvement from "worst unit in the NFL" to having one of the league’s best rushing offensive lines and Domata Peko is a great defensive tackle, getting better every week. Dan Skuta is primarily a special teams player.
Since this team is composed of Michigan and USC guys, I suppose my Buckeyes obsession won’t get in the way.