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Behind Enemy Lines: Why the Bengals have had a drop-off in 2016

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Steelers vs. Bengals is a fierce rivalry, and we go behind enemy lines to get the lowdown on the game from a contributing writer at Cincy Jungle.

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

To prepare for the upcoming Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals Week 15 game at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, OH, I was able to sit down with Connor Howe of Cincy Jungle (SB Nation’s Bengals website) to get some perspectives on this matchup from the other side of the fence.

In the interview below you’ll see some great detail on A.J. Green’s chances of playing, the future of Marvin Lewis, what has gone wrong in 2016 and a prediction on the game. Check out the interview below, and be sure to check out Cincy Jungle for some quality news leading up to the game from the Bengals’ perspective.

A.J. Green is a monster, and has torched the Steelers on multiple occasions. Marvin Lewis said Green could return to practice this week, but what are the real odds he not only practices, but plays against the Steelers on Sunday? I smell the odor of some gamesmanship here.

I think if you're the Steelers, it's definitely something to prepare for, regardless of whether or not Green plays. But as for gamesmanship, I'll just point out that the Bengals have been one of the most transparent teams when it comes to injury reports this season. In early November, they were the only team that had seen 100 percent of its players with a “questionable” designation play in every circumstance. I haven't kept track of it lately, but I think the case with Green is a bit different. There's no reason for Lewis to try to convince Pittsburgh whether Green will play or not, because ultimately, the Steelers have to prepare for him one way or another.

Vontaze Burfict has had his share of missteps with the Steelers. What is the overall perception of him with the fan base, and do fans believe he plays with malicious intent?

I'm not going to be the one to claim whether or not Burfict plays with malicious intent. Personally, I think every honest Bengals fan will tell you that the linebacker has had his fair share of over-the-line plays, just as many players in the NFL have. Whether or not Burfict's reputation is deserved, it still seems like the guy is held to a pretty unreasonable standard. This season, he's only come up in the news twice for questionable plays -- neither of which was penalized, though he was fined -- while guys like Jarvis Landry, Harry Douglas and others have blatantly tried to injure others with little to no damage to their reputation.

I guess I'm getting a bit off-topic, here. There's a significant percentage of the Bengals' fan base that parrots the media, calling Burfict names and claiming the team would be better off without him. There's also a significant percentage of the Bengals' fan base that LOVES Tez, understanding that he's the motor to Cincinnati's defense and, at least as of this year, one of the top two or three inside linebackers in the NFL.

Here are two quotes from current Steelers that I think encapsulate the reconciliation between Burfict and Pittsburgh following January's playoff drama.

"[Burfict is] an enforcer and he's basically doing what we do," said Stephon Tuitt, per PennLive. (He, Vince Williams and Steve McLendon all stood up for Burfict after fans and the media began to call him and Adam Jones thugs, pointing out that football is these guys' jobs and that thugs could not play in the NFL -- a move I very much respected and still respect today.)

"We play a sport that's violent, it's aggressive," Antonio Brown said per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Sometimes we get hit in the wrong position. I don't make excuses. It's a physical game. I don't think he targeted me to take me out. I think some of the things he does on the field are a little questionable, but that's the play of all linebackers. They all play with reckless abandon."

I think Brown's quote speaks to how both teams have moved on after the wideout claimed Burfict was trying to kill him following January's playoff matchup. Granted, players on both sides did things I'm sure they regret, but I think the drama should be in the rearview -- that is, unless the media tries to milk the rivalry and rile up fans like it was able to do late last season.

Marvin Lewis' time with the Bengals has been an interesting journey. If the Bengals don't win out, is there a threat of Lewis losing his job?

It's definitely an interesting conversation to have, but I think Lewis's job is ultimately in his own hands. I and many Bengals fans, would love to see Lewis resign for his own sake. He could have a great future, whether in the Bengals' front office or as the head coach for another football team (I fully believe he could take a team like the Jaguars and turn around ship like he did in Cincinnati). But with the Bengals' value of continuity and view of the people in its building as family, sometimes guys stick around for just a bit too long -- take Mike Nugent, for example, who was just cut this week although he'd missed an NFL-high six extra points along with six field goals.

So to answer your question, no, I don't think Lewis will be fired. I think the best chance the Bengals have at getting a new coach inside Paul Brown Stadium would have to come with a decision by Lewis to step down as coach, something I think he'll ultimately be forced to consider at the end of this season (though I don't know whether he'd actually resign).

To say the Bengals 2016 season has been disappointing is likely an understatement. What has gone wrong with the Bengals which has led to their demise this season?

I think it's easy to blame the Bengals' off-season losses -- Hue Jackson and several defensive position coaches left for greener pastures, along with Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Andre Smith, Reggie Nelson, Leon Hall and others -- for the disappointing 2016 season, but I don't think that's why the Bengals have performed so poorly.

When you're a team in playoff contention, you need your playmakers to step up -- especially in a year where you have a first-year offensive coordinator and first-year starters on both sides of the ball. The Bengals' single-biggest issue in 2016 (and its second-biggest issue) has been something no fan had anticipated: the offensive line has drastically regressed, from what was a top-five unit last season to one of the league's worst this year. (The second-biggest issue has been a lack of a pass rush, which no one seemed to expect considering the Bengals have Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap.)

I'm not going to pretend I'm an insider or that I know enough enough about offensive line play to determine what exactly has gone wrong for the Bengals' offensive line. All I can say is that virtually every starter, save Russell Bodine, has underachieved this season. Andrew Whitworth has been good -- really good -- but hasn't been the near-flawless stalwart he was last season and in years previous. Guards Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler, like Whitworth, have been pretty good but haven't played close to where their ceiling is which, when healthy, is as one of the NFL's best guard tandems. The right tackle position has been an absolute nightmare, with Cedric Ogbuehi playing so poorly he was benched. Last week, in Ogbuehi's first week on the bench, the Bengals surrendered four sacks to the Browns, the NFL's worst pass-rushing team. Needless to say, the position has been a disaster regardless of who has been taking snaps there.

The defensive line, like I mentioned, has also been an issue. The Bengals' run defense, or lack thereof, is the reason why this team has yet to win a playoff game in the Andy Dalton era, and it hasn't improved as of late. Atkins and Dunlap have been good but not great, while Domata Peko and Michael Johnson are clearly on their last legs. (Andrew Billings' season-ending injury certainly didn't help on that front.) Without a reliable pass rush, the Bengals' weaknesses at linebacker (save Burfict) have been exposed. And while the secondary has stepped up in recent weeks, it took some time for the unit to develop early in the season.

What has also killed the Bengals has been an inability to score in the red zone. For as great a receiver as Green is, he isn't a red zone superstar like the Dez Bryants or even Tyler Eiferts of the world. And with Eifert out earlier, in games where the Bengals competed with some of the best defenses on their schedule, the tight end's presence was sorely missed.

Ultimately, things just didn't bounce the Bengals' way this season. They've dealt with injuries since the preseason, losing two rookies to season-ending injuries early and dealing with Eifert's ankle injury sustained in the Pro Bowl. Most of the teams they've faced (Jets, Broncos, Cowboys, Patriots, Bills, Giants, etc) were at the pinnacle of their respective seasons -- or hot, at the very least -- when facing Cincinnati. I'm not going to try and convince people the Bengals should have a winning record, though. They're talented, but they just didn't get the job done this season. Hopefully, next year will be better.

With the Steelers and Ravens both vying for the division crown and a playoff berth, which team would the Bengals hate to see get into the postseason more?

Just because of the way things played out in January, I think the Steelers are the obvious answer here. Cincinnati has generally had Baltimore's number in years past, while the Steelers have had the Bengals'. I think Bengals fans would probably rather watch the Ravens win the Super Bowl than watch the Steelers make the playoffs, even if they got waxed by the five or six seed in the first round. Personally, I don't care. Both the Steelers and Ravens have been fun teams to watch this year, and I think fretting over the past interactions between these two teams would only rile me up and make the playoffs less enjoyable.

How do you see this game shaking out? What is your score prediction?

Having picked the Bengals every week of this season, I'm sticking to it -- especially because this team is quietly performing very well. I'll go Bengals 24, Steelers 21 with Randy Bullock hitting a game-winning field goal against his former team. I honestly don't know what to expect this week, which I think will make the game more fun.