clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Hue Jackson’s losing is infecting the Bengals now

New, comments

Why did the Bengals hire a former offensive coordinator to bolster their league-worst defense?

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Hue Jackson is having an awful time as a coach of an NFL team in the great state of Ohio. Only this time, it’s not the Browns he’s dragged into a nosedive — it’s the Bengals.

Cincinnati has relinquished its place in the playoff picture thanks in part to the porous defense Jackson was brought aboard to fix. Head coach Marvin Lewis rehired his former offensive coordinator to help oversee a unit in peril after the firing of defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.

It was a strange move, but an explainable one; Lewis needed help once he assumed control of the team’s defensive playbook. While Jackson was primarily known as an offensive mind, the former head coach no doubt got his share of defensive reps in while spending 2.5 seasons with Cleveland, and his offensive background would give the club a base from which it could reverse engineer a defensive strategy.

At the very least, he’d help the Bengals in their two remaining games against the Browns in 2018. And, if things went well, Cincinnati would also have a viable (at least for a owner who has deemed the last 15 years of Lewis’ coaching acceptable) head coaching candidate on their sideline should Lewis finally ride off into retirement after the season’s end.

So far, none of that has worked out, and the results have been embarrassing in southwestern Ohio.

Jackson’s presence has been like trying to repair a burst dam with Scotch tape

Jackson was brought in mid-spiral for 5-4 Bengals team that had started its season 4-1, meant to bolster a defense that completely painted the bowl in a 51-14 loss to the Saints. This was the football equivalent of trying to stop a tidal wave with a bucket and good intentions.

Cincinnati had fallen to pieces in the three weeks pre-Jackson. A rebuilding unit had given up 1,636 yards of total offense in its last three games. Useful players like Carl Lawson, Preston Brown, and Nick Vigil all missed extended time due to injury. And while Austin took the fall, it seemed unlikely there was any quick fix in store for a defense that was deficient against both the run and the pass. In the three-game stretch that culminated in Austin’s firing, the club gave up 5.5 yards per carry and 9.2 yards per pass. That’s bad!

But the crumbling hasn’t stopped in the two-plus weeks since, and many of the team’s newfound problems can’t be pinned on the former Browns punching bag. While a team with A.J. Green and Andy Dalton at their peaks could possibly overcome a putrid defense, the Bengals may not have either for the stretch run. Green hasn’t played since before the Saints rout due to a toe injury. Dalton left Sunday’s blood-letting with a thumb sprain and was shut down for the season on Monday, leaving Lewis’ offense in the hands of Jeff Driskel and the newly signed Tom Savage. And they might not be much of a dropoff! Dalton had passed for 153 yards or fewer in three of his last five games.

The post-Hue maladies didn’t stop there. Three more players hit injured reserve in the space between Weeks 11 and 12. Cornerback Tony McRae left Sunday’s game with a scary-looking injury of his own. Dre Kirkpatrick didn’t play against the Browns because of a shoulder injury. Their left tackle, Cordy Glenn, was out and his replacement, Jake Fisher, also left the game with an injury.

Whatever specter of awful luck specter had haunted Jackson in Cleveland had followed him to Cincinnati. That system was now combining with the one that’s followed Lewis throughout his career to create a perfect tornado of shit bearing down on Paul Brown Stadium Sunday afternoon. In true Bengals fashion, it formed a wobbly spiral before touching ground.

But Jackson isn’t blameless in the Bengals’ awful fortunes

This is all to say the deck was stacked against Jackson from the start — probably a familiar feeling after spending 2.5 years in Cleveland. A midseason hire meant he’d have to struggle to get in sync with a coaching staff that had spent most of the season together and he was tasked with transforming a borderline hopeless group. But he also had an advantage — his first two weeks on the job pit Cincinnati against a pair of rookie quarterbacks.

One, Lamar Jackson, would be making his first NFL start. The other, Baker Mayfield, was the player Hue Jackson had ostensibly groomed into a starter in Cleveland. On paper, it looked like the perfect runway for Jackson to rehabilitate his image as a coach while adding some much needed value to the Bengal defense.

In reality, it was an embarrassment. Jackson’s unit allowed the Ravens’ rookie quarterback who shares his surname to rack up 119 rushing yards while throwing for an efficient 7.9 yards per pass an route to a 24-21 win that usurped Cincinnati’s claim to the No. 2 spot in the AFC North.

One week later, Mayfield led his team to the most first half points the Browns had seen since 1991.

The Browns’ revival post-Jackson has been nearly as damning as his 0-2 record with the Bengals

Cleveland led 28-0 at the two-minute warning in the first half. In two quarters against his former coach, Mayfield had 245 passing yards and three passing touchdowns to spark a rout. It was a continuation of a meteoric rise that took off, not coincidentally, with Jackson’s dismissal from the Browns’ sideline. It was the Browns’ first win over the Bengals since 2014 — a stretch that started one game before Jackson took the reins in Cleveland.

The clowning wasn’t limited to the space between the whistles. Mayfield, somewhat sillily, criticized Jackson’s decision to take a job with the Bengals minutes after giving him a chilly reception during the postgame handshake. Damarious Randall intercepted Andy Dalton and made sure to give Jackson the game ball, earning a pat on the helmet for his thoughtfulness.

The game against the Ravens could be explained away by the unpredictability of the former Heisman winner Jackson — which is kinda/sorta how Lewis explained it away. The loss to Cleveland offered little quarter for excuses.

Jackson can point to the stat sheet and find some positives, mostly thanks to the Week 10 thrashing at the hands of the Saints that skewed the Bengals’ pre-Hue numbers. Opponents are scoring slightly less per game on his watch, earning three fewer first downs, and gaining 80 fewer yards since Lewis decided to bring his former assistant back to the fold.

Bengals defensive stats, before and after Hue Jackson’s hiring

2018 Bengals Opponent PPG First downs allowed Total yards allowed Passing yards allowed Rushing yards allowed Turnovers forced
2018 Bengals Opponent PPG First downs allowed Total yards allowed Passing yards allowed Rushing yards allowed Turnovers forced
Without Hue Jackson 32 26.4 454.6 313.3 141.2 2.6
With Hue Jackson 29.5 23.5 372.5 197 175.5 1
Difference: -2.5 -2.9 -82.1 -116.3 34.3 -1.6

But the most important statistic is the most telling one from Jackson’s small sample size. He’s patient zero in a plague of losses that’s extended across the state of Ohio, dooming the Bengals to an 0-2 record in a pair of winnable games. Cleveland, the team who finally excised him like an overgrown boil, is 2-1 since his removal and in the midst of its first winning streak since 2014.

No one can fix the Bengals defense in 2018, but especially not Hue Jackson

Cincinnati’s defense is so bad it got Austin, once considered a rising coordinator who received multiple interviews for head coaching vacancies, fired halfway through the season. Austin’s star dimmed as his Lions defenses declined from a top-five unit to a lower-tier group over the course of four seasons, but he was still able to create the backbone of a team that made two postseason appearances in four years before leaving last offseason.

His replacement is Lewis, a fearsome defensive coordinator nearly two decades ago, and his special assistant Jackson. And while Jackson wasn’t flush with talent in Cleveland, a unit that included useful players like Christian Kirksey, Joe Haden, Joe Schobert, Myles Garrett, Damarious Randall, and Denzel Ward ranked 31st in points allowed twice and 30th or worse in yards allowed twice over a three-season span.

So what exactly was adding Jackson supposed to do to the Bengals defense? If a once-lauded coordinator like Austin couldn’t do anything with a Cincinnati roster what benefit was Jackson, a former offensive coordinator whose Browns defenses were poor at best, supposed to bring to the table? Was he supposed to be the damage sponge that absorbs all the criticism of awful losses like Sunday’s?

So far the answer is slightly fewer points and significantly more embarrassment. And while that may have insulated Lewis from a wave of criticism that’s crashed down on Jackson after a blowout loss, it’s still not the trade the Bengals were hoping to make.