Bengals getting set for second-half playoff push

The Cincinnati Bengals went into their bye week feeling good after a big win, and they are hoping for another run to the playoffs in the second half of the season.

Cincinnati won three of its last four games, including a 41-21 blowout against Carolina on Nov. 6, to head into the week off with some positivity. The Bengals are 5-4, just like they were at the bye last year before making a run to the AFC North title and Super Bowl appearance.

That won’t be easy to repeat with a challenging second-half schedule. The Bengals seek their first division wins still, starting with an opportunity next week at Pittsburgh, and they face the likes of Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen with games against the Chiefs and Bills in December and January.

Here are five things to look for in the second-half of the season…

1. A more diverse running game?

With 241 yards rushing and five total touchdowns from running back Joe Mixon last week, the Bengals showed they can be more balanced on offense.

Coach Zac Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan have said the key to success is being flexible in the game plan and with adjustments, depending on what defenses are doing. That seems to be the case especially for the running game, as the Bengals had their best day offensively showing some diversity in the play calling. After recent emphasis out of the shot gun, they went back under center and used some different types of runs, too, like jet sweeps.

Now that feels like a launching point for the second half of the season.

“You really try to be proficient in multiple schemes, and so we’ve mixed in a good amount,” offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. “We pulled a lot the last couple of weeks and we’ve run some counters and some perimeter stuff, so you always have to be able to do all of it if you want to have a good run game. … Not every week is good for our RPOs either, and so to be able to pivot and get to the things that we like versus different schemes. It’s not always going to be just one thing. You really have to be proficient in the run game and in multiple schemes to have success.”

2. Getting healthy

The Bengals are hoping to get nose tackle D.J. Reader back after the bye week, and although there is no update yet on wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase’s timeline, the initial hope was for him to be back within the four-game period he would have missed if placed on injured reserve. He’s missed two games already.

Reader appears on track to return this week, though the Bengals will have 21 days to place him on the active roster once they designate him for return from injured reserve. They already opened a spot when they waived Dominique Davis, who was then re-signed to the practice squad.

“I think he’s on track,” defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said. “I saw him running around out there (Tuesday) morning and looking good so hopefully it’ll stay trending that way and just give us a great lift when he gets back.”

Cincinnati’s defense has been solid even in Reader’s absence but will be even better when their big run stopper is available.

3. Potential punter change?

Kevin Huber has struggled with consistency in his punting this season and more than a few bad punts stand out from the first half of the season. His 43.2 yards per punt average matches his career low from his rookie season.

The Bengals still have Drue Chrisman hanging around on the practice squad, and he’s been practicing on the field before games in full uniform as the team starts prepping him for future opportunities. Those opportunities could come sooner than perhaps Cincinnati expected.

“We’ve constantly been evaluating this whole thing,” special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said. “Obviously, our punting game has got to improve. We’re not getting out of it what we need to get out of it, in terms of flipping the field. It’s something we’ll take a look at over this bye week and try to figure out what the best thing is going forward.”

4. More ahead for Burrow

Joe Burrow had one monster game against Atlanta but otherwise has struggled to find consistency leading the offense. He’s still on pace to surpass last year’s “Comeback Player of the Year” season, and the Bengals will be hoping for more in the second half of the season.

Burrow has thrown for 2,535 yards and 18 touchdowns with six interceptions while taking 30 sacks. Last year after nine games, he had 2,497 yards and 20 touchdowns with 11 interceptions and 25 sacks.

“The way that he’s had to play this year, the way that he’s had to adapt and adjust, I think shows an incredible amount of growth in his mindset of knowing what’s required of the great quarterbacks in this league and when you have to manage, when you have to be great, when you have to be a baller, and when it’s time to be able to be one and he’s got the ability to do it,” Callahan said. “And then when it’s time to just manage sometimes. And I thought that he’s shown great patience.”

“And I think that’s part of his growth, is being able to manage all of those things as a starting quarterback. And then when it comes time to make a huge play, he’s made some huge plays and I think that’s always going to be who he is.”

5. Schedule gets harder

The Bengals’ first nine opponents were a combined 38-40, which ranked their strength of schedule 15th based on winning percentages, and those games featured a lot of backup quarterbacks like Cooper Rush, Andy Dalton, Jacoby Brissett and P.J. Wallker.

The combined record of their remaining opponents is 37-30 and they all have winning records, including the Titans (5-3) in Week 12, Chiefs (6-2) in Week 13, Patriots (5-4) in Week 16, Bills (6-2) in Week 17 and Ravens (6-3) in Week 18.

Cincinnati currently sits in second in the AFC North, despite being 0-3 against the division, and the team is ninth in the AFC, which puts the Bengals on the bubble for the playoff picture. ESPN analysts rank the Bengals remaining schedule the second most difficult.


Sunday, Nov. 20

Bengals at Steelers, 4:25 p.m., Ch. 7, 12; 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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