Bengals back to break even, problems still holding them back

CINCINNATI (AP) — The Bengals’ defense got better with linebacker Vontaze Burfict back in the middle of everything.

Now the defending AFC North champions need to fix their offense, which gets stuck in place near the goal line.

The addition of one missing piece could go a long way in that area, too.

A 22-7 win over Miami on Thursday night at Paul Brown Stadium got the Bengals (2-2) back on even footing in many ways. Burfict returned from a three-game league suspension for his illegal hits and made an impact on a defense that had given up four touchdown passes only four days earlier.

The biggest remaining problem is with the offense’s inability to get into the end zone. The Bengals dominated in yards and time of possession, but managed only A.J. Green’s touchdown catch and five field goals by Mike Nugent.

That problem has to get fixed, and fast. Cincinnati’s next two games are at Dallas (2-1) and New England (3-0), two places where they haven’t fared well.

“For whatever reason, every time we get in a scoring position, we have a little hiccup here or there,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “The reality is our red zone percentage has to get better if we’re going to have a chance to get where we want.”

The Bengals have gotten inside the opponent’s 20-yard line 13 times during their four games, but managed only four touchdowns. That’s the fourth-lowest percentage in the league at 31 percent. Only Minnesota (28.6 percent), Washington (21.4 percent) and Houston (14.3 percent) are worse.

For comparison, division-leading Baltimore (3-0) has scored touchdowns on 60 percent of its red zone chances. Pittsburgh (2-1) has gotten into the end zone on 71.4 percent of its opportunities. Even the winless Cleveland Browns with their injured quarterbacks have done better, scoring touchdowns 42.9 percent of the time.

It’s a huge drop-off from last season, when Cincinnati ranked sixth at 65 percent.

“Occasionally you’re going to get stopped, but we have to make sure we’re not doing things to stop ourselves,” coach Marvin Lewis said.

The biggest change has been in the passing game. Receiver Marvin Jones had 14 touchdown catches in the last two seasons before heading to Detroit as a free agent. Tyler Eifert caught 13 touchdown passes last season, a club record for a tight end. So far this season, Green has two touchdown catches and running back Giovani Bernard has one — and that’s it through the air.

Eifert tore a ligament in his left ankle during the Pro Bowl and missed all of camp, the preseason and the first four games while recovering. He has practiced on a limited basis for the last two weeks and will likely be back for the game at Dallas, barring a setback.

Lewis said the problems are bigger than one player.

“Nothing is that simple,” he said. “One person doesn’t make anything that simple.”

Lewis’ players see it otherwise, noting that the 6-foot-6 Eifert is a huge advantage in goal-line situations with his ability to outjump defenders and make difficult catches.

“Tyler is a great tight end,” Green said. “And in the red zone, he’s unguardable. So whenever he comes back, it’s going to help.”

Notes: Lewis said there were no significant injuries from Thursday night’s game. RB Jeremy Hill hurt his left shoulder and came out of the game in the first half, but returned and finished with 71 yards on 21 carries. Guard Clint Boling came out in the third quarter with an injured left shoulder, but returned. He sat out most of the fourth quarter with Cincinnati comfortably ahead. … Burfict was on the field for more plays than any other Bengals linebacker — 34 out of the 45 overall — to help him get back into playing shape. “Part of getting back into football conditioning is playing football,” Lewis said. “When we had the two-score lead, we were able to get some more plays in there for him, which is good.”

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