Raiders vs Bengals ; Paul Guenther allowed himself a subtle reference as he settled in behind a podium for his weekly news conference Thursday afternoon.
“It was a good week for us, obviously,” Guenther said. “We’re on to Cincinnati this week.”
In 2014, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick repeated “On to Cincinnati” throughout a memorable news conference in the wake of a 27-point loss to the Chiefs. The following Sunday, the Patriots scored 43 points on a Bengals defense coordinated by Guenther, who was in his first season on the job.
In a twist, it’s following one of the Raiders’ better defensive efforts of the season that Guenther returns Sunday to Cincinnati, where he coached for the previous 13 seasons, including his last four as defensive coordinator — a visit he said will “naturally” evoke emotion.
“Those people were real good to me,” Guenther said. “I spent a lot of time with those players and the organization, the Brown family. The coaching staff means a lot to me, they still do. When toe meets leather at 1 p.m., it’s business. I root for those guys every week, and I hope they do good except for one game, which is this one.”
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis brought Guenther to Cincinnati in 2005, and Guenther held a series of roles before replacing Mike Zimmer as defensive coordinator in 2014. Guenther defenses ranked in the top 10 in fewest points allowed in two of his four seasons as he helped develop standouts such as Geno Atkins, Vontaze Burfict and Carlos Dunlap.
“Paul did a fine job here,” Lewis told Cincinnati reporters this week. “Since he came here … he hustled, did a lot of different things here and did a good job at all of them.”
Lewis said it appears the Raiders have “morphed around defensively this year with the things they’re doing, but they’ve kind of settled in. Obviously (Guenther) had great experience coaching against Pittsburgh, so I thought they did a nice job of getting guys to understand, and they played well.”
The 340 yards the Raiders allowed in a 24-21 win over the Steelers last Sunday is their third-lowest total this season — albeit against a Pittsburgh offense that played without running back James Conner and saw quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sidelined because of a rib injury for most of the second half — and included a season-low 40 rushing yards allowed.
The Bengals are coming off a 26-21 loss to the Chargers in which they rushed for a season-high 144 yards. Second-year back Joe Mixon, an Oakley native, had 26 carries for 111 yards.
Guenther might be more inclined to account for backs Giovani Bernard and Mixon as Cincinnati has lost starting quarterback Andy Dalton and top receiver A.J. Green to injuries. Jeff Driskel has replaced Dalton and, in his past three games, has completed 60 of 94 passes for 561 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
“I know they’ve been putting an emphasis on trying to get (Mixon) more touches,” Guenther said. “So we’re going to have to deal with him, and that’s not an easy task.”
Statistically, at least, Sunday does not present an inspiring defensive matchup.
The only team allowing more points per game this season than the Raiders (29.8) is the Bengals (30.5). They also rank 31st and 32nd in run defense, respectively, and 28th and 32nd in total yards allowed per game. Cincinnati fired defensive coordinator Teryl Austin after allowing 51 points in a loss to the Saints in Week 10, with Lewis reportedly taking over the coordinator duties.
Guenther’s unit is allowing the most yards per play (6.5) in the NFL and is last in sacks (11), though he and head coach Jon Gruden have both been encouraged by improvements in the secondary — specifically the play of former first-round picks Gareon Conley and Karl Joseph, as well as cornerback Daryl Worley.
Guenther said he also still sees positives in the Bengals’ defense, even viewing from afar.
“Structurally it’s very similar,” Guenther said. “They’ve got a good group of guys over there. I know the season hasn’t gone like they wanted it to. But they’ve got a lot of talented, veteran players over there. So a lot of respect for those guys.”