As we look forward to the stretch run in the AFC, several questions jump to mind. Joining the discussion today are Kyle Hirshkind (Cover32 Jets), Andy Hammel (Cover32 Bengals) and Mike D’Abate (Cover32 Chargers).
How would you fix the Raiders?
Hirshkind: The Raiders have been a massive question mark in my mind all year. When I say that, I mean I can’t really figure out the problem. It’s like one of those impossible math questions your middle school teacher would give you for extra credit homework, and you may spend too much time trying to figure it out. To me, the Raiders’ struggles are minuscule ones, which, similarly to the Jets, are taking a toll on their overall record. Some areas where I think Oakland needs to clean up a bit: play calling, deep coverage, and running attack. In my opinion, the Raiders are getting beat in all of those areas on a weekly basis, and for some reason they aren’t addressing it even though they have the potential pieces to patch them up.
Hammel: Start with the defense: the back seven needs a talent infusion, especially at linebacker and cornerback. NaVorro Bowman is ideally a two-down player at this point in his career, and the guys behind him are hardly better in coverage. Reggie Nelson, the veteran of the group and the only defensive back to be on the field for 100% of Oakland’s defensive snaps, has been solid. Karl Joseph has as well, and Obi Melifonwu is set to return from injury. The cornerbacks have been bad. David Amerson and T.J. Carrie aren’t a starting combination, while Sean Smith hasn’t lived up to his free agency billing. 2017 first-round pick Gareon Conley has been invisible, especially next to fellow rookies Marshon Lattimore and Tre’Davious White.
D’Abate: The Raiders still have a lot of pieces in the place to contend, and be a force in the AFC. Despite that, they find themselves with a sub-.500 record. To fix this, I would start with the secondary. The Raiders defensive backs are not the only reason for their struggles this year, but they are the biggest. The Raiders have been slow to adjust their scheme when opponents are exploiting a weakness. How else can you explain allowing 311 yards passing to Jay Cutler? Some of that can be blamed on coaching. However, the production that they have received from backs like Sean Smith and Reggie Nelson has been less than stellar. Perhaps, it’s time to unleash talents such as TJ Carrie and Obi Melifonwu, while brining in some new blood. Malcolm Butler, if available, might look awfully nice on this team next year.
In less than two seasons, Joey Bosa is fast becoming a nightmare matchup, where can he improve?
D’Abate: Bosa is one of the most fearsome defenders in the NFL and is still coming into his own. He is a defensive total package. He has speed, strength and toughness that few are able to achieve. However, with less than two seasons on his resume, Bosa still has some improvements to make. One of the most glaring of these is field awareness. Bosa is prone to penalties, and he must learn to harness his energy. Far too often, his emotion clouds his judgment. It has been a known issue for him since his hit on DeShone Kizer, while he was at Ohio State. Fundamentally, Bosa is pretty sound and will only improve as time goes on.
Hirshkind: Man, Joey Bosa has been emphatic for LA. Putting him and Melvin Ingram next to one another has worked magic for the Chargers and their pass rushing abilities as they both continue to rack up sacks. It’s tough to say where Bosa can improve his game. As a young player, he’s only going to grow more adept to the NFL. The Bolts are tapping into some serious potential, and it’s truly exciting to see. If you really need me to choose an area where I’d like to see improvement, I’d have to say his open-field tackling abilities. While Bosa doesn’t necessarily get a lot of work in the open field, it would only make him more dynamic if he could be that type of player as well. His tackle totals are decent so far this year, but they could certainly be higher.
Hammel: Everyone’s favorite comparison for Joey Bosa is probably J.J. Watt — Bosa shares Watt’s rare blend of speed, strength and lateral agility, and he has a feel for the technical aspects of the position well beyond his years. He’s not physically the perfect speed rusher or the perfect interior lineman, but he’s only a step behind in both categories. Bosa can learn from Watt’s career trajectory — Watt developed an uncanny and well-documented penchant for batting passes at the line of scrimmage early in his career, even occasionally intercepting them and returning them for touchdowns. Bosa can get home in a number of ways as a pass rusher, but I’d like to see what else he brings to the table when he can’t.
How does Marvin Lewis keep employment, despite underwhelming results?
Hirshkind: In my opinion, it’s quite simple. Marvin Lewis is a solid and knowledgeable coach. He’s been Cincinnati’s HC since ’03 and has only let the team finish under .500 four times. He’s also helped the Bengals reach the playoffs in seven of the 14 years he’s been the coach. There’s a thin line between the players and coaches when it comes to team success, and while many organizations prefer to knock the latter of the two for dormant play, the Bengals feel as though Lewis is the one piece keeping them afloat. My prediction is that change will find its way through the Cincinnati doors sooner than later however, unless Lewis is finally able to get his team over the hump.
D’Abate: This may be one of the greatest mysteries of our age. However, all kidding aside, Lewis’s familiarity with the Bengals ownership and front office seems to be the best reason for his continued employment. Lewis does have a great wealth of defensive knowledge, and this makes him a valuable football mind. The lack of offensive production, as well as the behavioral issues that have plagued the Bengals should make this the final season for Lewis in Cincinnati. Enough is enough, and it’s time for a change.
Hammel: Bengals owner/president Mike Brown is among the most conservative decision-makers in the NFL. His firing of OC Ken Zampese after Week 2 this season was the first time in his fifty-year run with the team that a staff member was fired midseason. Lewis’ status as head coach is more a product of this leadership philosophy than his results.
If the management of the Cleveland Browns over the years is one logical extreme, Cincinnati’s is the opposite extreme. It appears Brown would rather have the bird in the hand than chase the two in the bush, maintaining a stable floor for expectations and passively waiting for playoff windows. It’s an uninspiring look, but there’s little anyone else can do about it.
After early season struggles, what did the Jets did to change their fortunes?
Hammel: I don’t know that the Jets changed anything in particular so much as they were just grossly underestimated, but they’ve gotten big performances from players they’ve needed to step up. On defense: Muhammad Wilkerson is back to playing like himself, Demario Davis is doing well, Leonard Williams was a known stud, and Kony Ealy looks like a player that the Patriots could use about now. On offense: Josh McCown is having an oddly great year, the backfield mix has pulled their weight, and Jermaine Kearse, Robby Anderson and Austin Sefarian-Jenkins have done more than initially expected as receivers. The Jets started the season with two road games on opposite sides of the country and several key contributors were only acquired during the preseason. I’d just write it off as a slow start.
D’Abate: It’s as simple as this…they realized they have talent and they can play. Josh McCown has been more than a pleasant surprise running the offense. They are getting defensive production from their secondary for the first time in years; thanks in part to the play of safety Jamal Adams. I also think that some of the negativity that permeated the Jets locker room in 2016 was purged. That can go a long way toward making the type of leap that they have made in 2017. Todd Bowles deserved a lot of credit in keeping the team focused. Prior to the start of the season, no one would have believed that the Jets would, by far, be the best football team in New York. That is a reality and the Jets have a bright future.
Hirshkind: Another year, another roller coaster season for Gang Green. They started out the year in an 0-2 hole, then won three straight, then lost three straight, and are now coming off a blowout win in prime time. Their struggles are few and far in between, but the Jets have really been a competitive football team this year, which only sounds surprising because no one thought they would be. Ultimately though, they still have a lot to improve on as any young, rebuilding team should. While they have extended their charge with their most recent win over Buffalo, they will still face severe adversity throughout the rest of 2017. Some things they have improved on as of late however are their pass rushing abilities and running attack. Some areas where work still needs to be done: reducing penalty infractions, finishing out games.