Why are Bengals fading? $34M in injured players is a start

CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals are leading the league in injuries this season.

The team placed tackle Jake Fisher on injured reserve on Thursday, bringing its total number of players on IR to 14. The Bengals have placed 11 players on IR since the regular season began. Almost $34 million of their salary cap is tied up in injured players, a figure that ranks third highest in the league behind the Washington Redskins and San Francisco 49ers, both of whom also lost their starting quarterbacks.

Three of those Bengals players (quarterback Andy Dalton, linebacker Preston Brown and tight end Tyler Eifert) were starters. Three (Ryan Glasgow, Tyler Kroft and Carl Lawson) were significant role players. The Bengals had to sign tight ends off the street after quickly losing three of the four with whom they started the season.

The Bengals have been ravaged by injuries, ranging from Eifert's broken ankle to Dalton's injured throwing hand, which he hurt on a scramble trying to pick up a bad snap. That's not to mention significant missed time from A.J. Green (injured toe), Darqueze Dennard (injured shoulder) and Nick Vigil (injured knee).

How much do these injuries hurt?

The 5-6 Bengals have missed a combined 44 games due to injury from players on the active roster (not counting the players on IR), most of them significant contributors. Vigil, Dennard and Green were just three of the players on that list.

Joe Mixon, Giovani Bernard, John Ross, Billy Price, Vontaze Burfict, Dre Kirkpatrick, Cordy Glenn, Alex Redmond and Michael Johnson have all fallen victim to the injury bug as well.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis refused to blame the current injury situation as a reason for the team's recent tailspin.

“I wouldn’t answer that -- that’d be an excuse," he said.

Green, who has missed the past three games but looks to be on his way back, seemed to disagree, especially considering some of the offensive struggles lately.

"If I play these last two games, we win those games," he said.

Green explained: "I feel like teams play me differently and it's a whole different game when I'm out there. I felt like if I was out there, we have a better chance."

It's not surprising that Lewis refuses to use the injuries as an excuse, but it does speak to the lack of depth at key positions. The Bengals have struggled to piece their offensive line back together ever since Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler left in free agency.

The Bengals had to know that 2015 first- and second-round picks Cedric Ogbuehi and Fisher were not the answer, but they didn't address the tackle position in the draft, instead electing to trade for Glenn and roll the dice with Bobby Hart. Fisher got hurt last week after filling in for Glenn and it became clear that the Bengals no longer trusted Ogbuehi, instead deciding to bring recent free agent Andre Smith back to the fold for a third stint with the Bengals.

The lack of depth at linebacker also became apparent early in training camp. The Bengals drafted Malik Jefferson in the third round this year, but they appear to see him as more of a project and have yet to give him significant defensive snaps. Reuben Foster was a strong possibility in the first round of the 2017 draft, but the team backed away from him in the days leading up to it due in part to his off-the-field issues.

The Bengals instead selected wide receiver Ross and did not put in a claim for Foster after he was waived by the Niners last week following an arrest on charges of domestic violence.

It was clear the Bengals made the right move in staying away from Foster, but bad luck and poor depth planning kept their linebacker situation from working out this year. Brown, who never missed a game before signing with the Bengals in free agency, dealt with multiple injuries this year. Burfict has been unreliable due to yearly suspensions and injuries.

While it looks like the Bengals could get Vigil back this week, the linebacker outlook still looks fairly bleak. Brown, Burfict and Vigil never played in a game together due to a combination of injuries to all three and a four-week suspension for Burfict.

The Bengals instead have resorted to moving Burfict to middle linebacker so Jordan Evans could play outside over the struggling Hardy Nickerson. Outside of longtime Bengal Vincent Rey, there isn't much reliable depth there.

A similar situation could occur with the offensive line, with the possibilities including moving Clint Boling, a left guard, to left tackle, or immediately plugging in Smith at left tackle from off the street.

Essentially, the Bengals are limping to the finish behind a new quarterback in Jeff Driskel, a patchwork offensive line and a struggling defense that has injuries all over. It doesn't look like the Bengals are going to be able to rectify the situation until they get to free agency and the draft. Linebacker and offensive line will have to be a strong priority at that point.

“It’s part of what we deal with. It’s unfortunate, but it’s part of what we deal with," Lewis said. "We as coaches have to continue to find a way to put the players who are out there in a position to make plays. We just hope they can make the plays when they’re at the point of attack. We’re due to have some of those happen the correct way now."