1) Do Bengals fans have faith that Andy Dalton can turn the corner in "big games" and deliver consistent production?
Faith? No. Hope? Maybe.
Andy Dalton is a lightning rod amongst Bengals fans and media alike. He has his supporters and he has a very large (and loud) group of detractors - and in fairness, both groups have valid arguments. I fall somewhere in the middle. He has shown me glimpses of what he can do and therefore I have hope. This is a guy, who as a rookie, took over a 4-12 team that was going through turmoil (Palmer holding out, Chad Johnson traded) and without training camp, led them to the playoffs. That was a team that many had projected to go 0-16. And thus begins the frustration of Andy Dalton.
The consistency part of Dalton's game is so frustrating. Around Cincinnati, you hear a lot about "Good Andy" and "Bad Andy." "Good Andy" is really good and can win any game. "Bad Andy" is really, really bad - i.e. the Week 10 Cleveland game (primetime) where Dalton went 10-33 with a 2.0 passer rating. The problem is there is very little middle ground with Dalton. He is either really good or really bad. When he is really good, this is a legitimate Super Bowl contending team. When he is really bad, they can look silly against any team. After his 2.0 passer rating at home against Cleveland, he followed it up with a 143.9 passer rating in New Orleans. To make a run in the playoffs and win the "big games" the Bengals need Dalton to find that middle ground - be solid and protect the ball.
Those that believe in Dalton point to the fact that the guy simply wins. He is 38-22-1 (.633) as a starter and there aren't many active quarterbacks (outside of guys like Manning, Brady, etc.) that have that type of winning percentage. These fans point to games of "Good Andy" and when "Good Andy" shows up, this is a very good team.
But (and this is a big but), to your point, he struggles in "big games." 0-3 in the playoffs and 2-6 primetime games, and those are the games, understandably so, that people remember. The "Dalton bashers" point to these games and say he can't win them and therefore they need a new quarterback.
I would say about 50% of Bengals fans have seen his potential and hope that he can get to that "next level" and start delivering consistently and winning the "big games." However, there are probably 50% of Bengals fans for whom Dalton can do no right. Regardless, I don't think there are any Bengals fans 100% sold that Dalton can win the big game and deliver consistently, and until he proves otherwise, I think that is fair.
2) From your perspective, how overblown is the narrative that the Bengals tend to regress in prime time?
I wish I could say it was overblown, but until they prove themselves on the big stage, I am afraid it is valid and has been a knock on Marvin Lewis' resume throughout his tenure in Cincinnati.
I do, however, believe there is an easy explanation - and we discussed it above - quarterback play. Andy Dalton wins games, and therefore the Bengals get put in primetime games (and make the playoffs). However, when making the primetime schedule, the networks want two good teams. As such, that often means the Bengals are playing a team that has a quarterback better than Dalton (i.e. Manning, Roethlisberger, Brady, etc.). Dalton, at this point in his career, is going to lose more of those matchups than he wins.
The most disappointing aspect about the Bengals "shrinking in primetime" narrative is the way in which they lose - they look unprepared, overwhelmed and often times get blown out. Losing in Foxboro to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick this year on Sunday night is nothing to be ashamed of, but getting blown out the way they did was what was so frustrating. And the Cleveland game on Thursday night? Talk about embarrassing! For once, Dalton was matched up against a quarterback he should beat and he completely fell apart (2.0 passer rating) - hence the reputation he carries of not being able to win on the big stage.
I don't think you will find many Bengals fans (at least sane ones) who believe the Bengals will win this game, but what is important is that Dalton and the Bengals play well and show they can compete against the top teams in the spotlight. The Bengals have been a very good team the past few years, but most fans believe they have been overrated because of the way they have looked in the national spotlight. If the real Bengals team shows up on Monday night, this should be a very good and entertaining game. But that is a very big if.
So, while the narrative is tired, until the Bengals prove otherwise, unfortunately it is true.
3) Looking at your schedule, the Bengals are 2-3 against teams that are still in the playoff hunt, is it fair to say that they have struggled more against some of the better competition?
Completely fair. You and I discussed it above and Marvin Lewis hit on it this week in his press conference - in big games against good teams, the Bengals have been outplayed at the quarterback position. Their losses in 2014 have come against Tom Brady, Andrew Luck and Ben Roethlisberger (I am selectively leaving out Brian Hoyer!). For the Bengals to take the proverbial "next step" Dalton has to learn to beat those types of quarterbacks. In fairness to Dalton, he did thoroughly outplay Drew Brees in New Orleans, and as terrible as it may be, it looks like New Orleans will be in the playoffs.
4) Broncos fans will be less familiar with Jeremy Hill who has seemed to take over the starting role in the backfield. Can you give us some details on what kind of runner he is....is he a threat coming out of the backfield as a receiver?
Jeremy Hill will be one of the next top backs in the league (877 yards; 5.0 YPA). He is a big powerful back (6'1" 238 pounds) that can not only run over defenders, but has the quick elusive speed to run around defenders as well. He size and style of play is very similar to Le'Veon Bell, and like Bell, he is very good receiving out of the backfield - especially for a big guy. However, the Bengals don't use him as much as a receiver because of Giovani Bernard. Hill will get more dump offs while Bernard will run more routes. The one thing to watch with Hill is ball security. On 202 touches, Hill has 4 fumbles (1 lost).
5) What are some of the defensive tactics teams have used to get Andy Dalton and the Bengals offense off rhythm? Conversely what is the best way to attack the Bengal defense.
Andy Dalton is a rhythm quarterback who thrives on the short and intermediate throws. Historically, when Dalton struggles - and becomes "Bad Andy" - is when teams make him uncomfortable in the pocket. While all quarterbacks are less effective under pressure, Dalton's numbers drop more than the average quarterback. The other way to get Dalton off rhythm is to shut down his run game and don't allow him to get into a rhythm with the short passing game.
When Dalton is completing passes at a high percentage, the Bengals offense is very tough to defend. In 2014, when Dalton has a completion percentage of 65%+, the Bengals are 7-1-1 and Dalton has an average completion percentage of 70.5%, a 98.3 passer rating and a 66.8 QBR. When Dalton is below 65%, the Bengals are 2-3 and Dalton has an average completion percentage of 50.7%, a passer rating of 61.5 and a QBR of 31.9. If the Broncos keep Dalton under 65%, they have a great chance of winning.
The Best way to attack the Bengals defense is to establish the run and force the Bengals to bring a safety up in the box. The Bengals have a very good secondary (six first round picks - five corners, one safety). Manning could have a field day regardless, but if the Broncos get the run game going and get the Bengals defense guessing, it could get ugly.
As for establishing the run, it is not as easy as the stats would suggest. The Bengals defense has been decimated with injuries - especially at linebacker - however, after their Week 10 blowout against the Browns, the Bengals got their starting middle linebacker (Rey Maualuga) and arguably their top run stuffing defensive tackle (Brandon Thompson) back. Since those two players returned, the Bengals have held four of their five opponents to under 75 yards rushing (66.7 YPG and 3.1 YPA). The only game over (Pittsburgh - 193) saw 53 of those yards come on one play - a play in which the Bengals had four backup lineman on the field.
6) Everyone knows the big names, who are some of the more underrated players that have made an impact thus far?
I will give you three on each side of the ball:
Giovani Bernard (#25 RB) - Most fans know Bernard, but with the emergence of Hill, Bernard has taken a lesser role on the offense. However, he is still an impact player. At 5'9" 208 pounds, Bernard is a bigger version of Darren Sproles and is extremely dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield. Hill will get the bulk of the carries and that keeps Bernard fresh and extra dangerous on his 15-20 touches per game.
Mohamed Sanu (#12 WR) - As a result of injuries, Sanu has been the Bengals number two receiver this year - and at times number one. At 6'2" 210 pounds, Sanu is a big receiver who is strong on the ball. He is also 5/5 as a quarterback with 177 yards, 2 touchdowns, two passes of 50+ yards and a 158.3 passer rating. There is a good chance Sanu throws a pass on Monday.
Ryan Hewitt (#89 FB/TE) - Hewitt is an undrafted rookie out of Stanford and has been an outstanding blocker as a fullback. However, with all the Bengals injuries at the tight end position, Hewitt has played a bigger role in the passing game and has looked good. Last week was Hewitt's best game (3 catches for 34 yards) and if not for a poor pass by Dalton which resulted in an interception, Hewitt would have had a long touchdown - his first of his career.
Carlos Dunlap (#96 DE) - Dunlap is a Pro Bowl caliber defensive end but doesn't get a lot of national coverage. Dunlap leads the Bengals with 7.0 sacks, nearly half of the team's 18.0 sack total.
George Iloka (#43 SS) - Iloka is a 3rd year player out of Boise State and is a big safety (6'4" 220 pounds) that can not only give you the big hit you like to see in the secondary, he can also cover. Iloka leads the Bengals with 3 interceptions and will likely be the guy most often on Julian Thomas.
Brandon Thompson (#98 DT) - Thompson is a third year player out of Clemson who missed seven weeks with a knee injury and didn't return to full health until Week 11. Since his return, the Bengals run defense has drastically improved and Thompson is coming off his best games as a pro last week in Cleveland where he spent most of his day behind the Browns line of scrimmage.
7) Who wins Monday night and why?
The Broncos and for two reasons: 1) Peyton Manning. Manning is 8-0 all-time against the Bengals with 20 touchdowns, 5 interceptions and a 106.8 passer rating; and 2) Primetime. With Dalton at quarterback, the Bengals are 2-6 in primetime games and I believe it is in their heads at this point. Until they show me otherwise, I have to pick against them in a game like this. That being said, I think it will be a good and entertaining game with the Broncos pulling away late.
Broncos 27, Bengals 17
Thanks to Scott for taking the time to answer my questions! Regardless of the outcome--hopefully both sides emerge from the game with their health intact.