Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Cincinnati Bengals

Bengals vs. Buccaneers preview

November, 28, 2014
11/28/14
8:00
AM ET
When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla. TV: CBS

At 7-3-1, the Cincinnati Bengals lead the AFC North. Barely.

Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore each are 7-4. The Bengals are in the thick of a playoff race in what might be the league's toughest division.

On Sunday, the Bengals will play another playoff contender. Seriously, the 2-9 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in the playoff hunt in the shockingly weak NFC South. The Bucs are only two games behind Atlanta and New Orleans in the win column.

ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and ESPN Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas preview Sunday’s matchup:

Harvey: Pat, this is so weird to me: The Bucs, with two wins, still are technically in the NFC South playoff hunt because the division is so bad. I know recently you said that the team needed to start thinking about next year, but what do you sense the players’ approach is about still possibly trying to sneak into the postseason?

Yasinskas: Even the Bucs are amazed that they technically still are in the division race. Coach Lovie Smith has made it clear the Bucs are playing to win and aren't planning to look at young players to get ready for next season. I think that really is the only approach Smith can take. His team is only two games off the division lead, so the Bucs might as well play to win.

The Bengals lost coordinators Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer to head-coaching jobs in the offseason, but it doesn't seem as if they've missed a beat. How have they adapted to the changes?

Harvey: Well, Pat, I wouldn't quite say the haven't "missed a beat." You and the Buccaneers just happen to be getting ready to see them at the right time. Three weeks ago at home on a Thursday night against the Browns, the offense and the defense looked as if they had just been handed Hue Jackson's and Paul Guenther's new schemes about an hour before kickoff. They didn't run much in that game; they didn't pass well; and they didn't stop the run at all. In fact, until two weeks ago, the Bengals had allowed seven straight 100-yard rushing performances by opposing offenses. They ranked 31st in rush defense coming out of the 24-3 loss to the Browns. They have since turned it around with two 75-yards-and-under performances to rank 27th. Still not great, but progress.

Overall, though, the Bengals have adapted well to the changes at coordinator. Through the first three games, they looked unstoppable on both sides of the ball and were 3-0. Injuries later handcuffed them, with key players Vontaze Burfict, A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard and Andre Smith among those occasionally hurt. Now that they’re healthier, the Bengals have shown at New Orleans and Houston the past two weeks that they have a full grasp of Jackson's and Guenther's systems.

It's clear Josh McCown wears his heart on his sleeve. And although there were no tears after his homecoming loss in Chicago on Sunday, how much could that loss in particular weigh on him entering this week?

Yasinskas: Knowing McCown, he'll use what happened in Chicago as a motivating factor. The Chicago game was extra important to McCown because of his past there, but he wound up playing perhaps his worst game of the year. But I can't see McCown pouting about it. He's a pro's pro, and he'll be trying hard to bounce back from a bad game.

The Bengals have been running the ball especially well. Why have they been so successful on the ground?

Harvey: They are, in a word, "stubborn." That was the word Jackson used earlier this season after his backs carried the ball 12 times in a 27-0 loss at Indianapolis (another game neither side showed up for). He indicated then that, although the score eventually dictated the Bengals needed to pass to get back into that game, he still thought, in retrospect, that he abandoned the run way too soon. What we've seen in three of the past four games is a stubbornness when it comes to running the ball.

Since their 12-carry day at Indy, the Bengals have averaged 31.8 rushes per game. Whether down by a few or ahead in a close contest, the Bengals have made more of a concerted effort to keep feeding their backs. And those backs, namely rookie Jeremy Hill, have rewarded them. When Bernard missed three straight games recently, Hill rushed for 361 yards in his place, going for more than 150 yards in two games. Now both backs are healthy again, and there is clearly a renewed focus on running the ball. In Sunday's win at Houston, they rushed 43 times.

I see Michael Johnson's production is down in Tampa Bay this year. He hasn't much looked like a defensive end worth $9 million a year. What has led to his poor play, and is there still confidence that he could be the team's future defensive cornerstone?

Yasinskas: Johnson's lack of production is a bit misleading. He has been injured virtually all season. He played through an ankle injury early on and is playing with a broken hand right now. That has limited his playing time. But Johnson is getting close to being fully healthy, and the Bucs remain optimistic about his future.

Speaking of Johnson, who has taken his place at defensive end, and how has that worked out for the Bengals?

Harvey: Johnson's replacement, so to speak, has been Carlos Dunlap, a fifth-year player who helped Johnson bookend the defensive line the past four seasons. Dunlap was already a solid player, but he has emerged as the line's star now that Johnson is gone. It isn't just on the field that Dunlap has replicated his former teammate -- he's closing in on potential career highs in tackles (48 currently) and sacks (5.5 currently) -- he has done it off the field, too. In Cincinnati, the Carlos Dunlap Foundation has become the most recognized of the team's player charities, and he has taken a more active role in working with underprivileged children and treating them to experiences such as a Cincinnati Reds game. As you well know, Pat, Johnson remains quite active in the community in his hometown of Selma, Alabama.

Dunlap isn't doing it all himself, though. Wallace Gilberry also has had an impactful year in the Bengals’ pass rush, as has the Bengals' most-tenured player, veteran Robert Geathers, who missed all but two games last year because of an injury.

Michael Johnson, Anthony CollinsGetty ImagesFormer Bengals Michael Johnson and Anthony Collins have both landed with the Buccaneers.
Each week during the regular season you saw ESPN's NFL Nation reporters team up for "Double Coverage," a back-and-forth midweek banter about the biggest storylines going on ahead of that weekend's games.

There may not be any games right now, but teams have made all kinds of moves during this opening week of free agency. Few moves have been as big as the one that brought defensive end Michael Johnson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Tuesday, officially putting an end to his five-year stint with the Cincinnati Bengals. He wasn't the only former Bengal to start calling Tampa Bay home this week. Offensive tackle Anthony Collins also left Cincinnati to sign with the Bucs. Clinton McDonald, a 2009 Bengals draft pick who spent the last three seasons in Seattle, also arrived in Tampa Bay.

Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Bucs reporter Pat Yasinskas decided to check in with each another to put the moves in perspective for you:

Coley Harvey: Of course we still don't know the date yet, Pat, but the Bengals will be scheduled to visit Tampa Bay this fall as part of the AFC North/NFC South scheduling crossover. Did any of the former Bengals address playing their old team in their news conferences? Whether they did or didn't, what did they say about the ways their careers in Cincinnati ended?

Pat Yasinskas: None of them really talked about Cincinnati. They all seemed focused on a new start with Tampa Bay. But I'm sure the Cincinnati game will carry extra meaning for them. Playing against your old team always means a little more.

Michael Johnson was the crown jewel of Tampa Bay's free-agent class. He had only 3.5 sacks last season, but 11.5 the year before. Which season is a better indicator of what Johnson brings to the table?

Harvey: You know, Pat, I'd say the latter. If you look at his stats since the start of his career in 2009, you'll see that the 11.5 number was a bit of an aberration. He had 6.0 in 2011, but 5.5 combined in 2009 and 2010. That said, he can be a good pass-rusher, but I have to imagine Lovie Smith saw something else, too. Johnson has been noted for being a good run-stopper and his insanely long arms are a benefit, too. Why do I bring up his arms? Johnson was a basketball player growing up, and by most accounts a really good one. That skill must have translated to football because he's become known for his ability to swat passes at the line of scrimmage. He tied for the league lead with eight batted balls last year. Two of them tipped into his teammates' hands for momentum-changing interceptions. Another helped negate a potential Packers touchdown pass on their final play of a 34-30 Bengals win.

Part of the reason there wasn't much pressure on Johnson to collect sacks last season was because of left end Carlos Dunlap's success. Dunlap had 7.5 sacks in 2013, tying for the team lead. Now that he's teaming up with another good end in Gerald McCoy, what are the Bucs expecting from Johnson?

Yasinskas: The Bucs envision Johnson as a strong outside pass-rusher. That's something the Bucs sorely lacked last season. McCoy was a force in the middle, but there was almost no outside pass rush. The Bucs are hoping Johnson can be a double-digit sack guy. I think he can do that and I think his presence will only make McCoy better.

On offense, the Bucs invested a lot in Anthony Collins to be their left tackle. Is he capable of keeping the league's best pass-rushers off quarterback Josh McCown?

Harvey: Absolutely. According to Pro Football Focus, we're talking about a guy who hasn't allowed a sack since 2009. Granted, he didn't play much until last season. He was a pure backup from 2008 to 2012. In 2013, injuries forced him into a greater role. He earned seven starts between the playoffs and regular season last year and he didn't disappoint. Called upon to fill in for Pro Bowl veteran Andrew Whitworth at Chicago in the season opener, Collins completely shut down sack king Julius Peppers. He did the same against Elvis Dumervil late in the year and kept outside linebacker Robert Mathis silent when the Colts visited Cincinnati. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has to be pleased with how clean Collins kept him.

Now, it was becoming clear in Cincinnati that Collins was ready to be a starting left tackle, but what was it about his play off the bench that impressed the Bucs so much?

Yasinskas: General manager Jason Licht said he studied the seven games Collins started very closely and he came away very impressed. Licht said Collins' footwork and athleticism stood out. The Bucs obviously believe strongly that Collins can be a solid starter. They're paying him $6 million a season and they released veteran Donald Penn to open up the spot for Collins.

Defensive tackle Clinton McDonald is kind of the wild card of Tampa Bay's class of free agents. He had a big impact for Seattle last year. But McDonald was with Cincinnati in 2010 and did very little. The Bucs are planning on having him as a starter. Is he ready for it?

Harvey: Based off what I saw in Seattle last year, I'd say yes. We talked a lot earlier about sacks. It's not easy for a defensive tackle in constant rotation with others to pick up 5.5 sacks, particularly on a defense like Seattle's that had so many playmakers at every level. That's a dedication to McDonald's blue-collar work ethic and team-focused mentality. He may not have been a great player in Cincinnati, but he was a respected teammate. If he keeps grinding the way he clearly has since he left the Bengals, he should be just fine for the Bucs.

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