Bengals' defense needs to make a big turnaround in second half

A.J. Green continues to be among the league's best at wide receiver. AP Photo/Gary Landers

The Cincinnati Bengals finished the first half of the season with a 5-3 record. Here’s a look at how they have fared and what’s ahead:

First-half rewind: The Bengals' grade for the first half of the season is based on two factors. Their record is certainly better at this point than it has been the past two seasons, and the offense has made a marked improvement from 2017. They've also closed out some tough games they might not have closed out before. However, it certainly teeters between the above average/average grade when their defense comes into consideration. The defense gave up a last-minute touchdown to the Steelers and has given up at least 480 yards in each of the past three games. That's a big problem. Grade: Above average

Biggest factor in making a deep playoff run: Injuries and defense. If the Bengals can get some players healthy and improve their defense significantly, they should be able to get to the playoffs. But as always with this team, the question is, what can they do once they get there? Marvin Lewis' 0-7 playoff record looms large, and the defense is going to have to make a remarkable turnaround to get to the playoffs and knock another team out.

MVP: As always, A.J. Green remains one of the most important players on the team. If the team has to make a last-minute drive to win the game, Green has always been the go-to guy, and that's why it's so concerning he could miss at least two games with a toe injury that occurred before the bye. The offense is already depleted enough, and none of the receivers have stepped up outside of Green and Boyd. The offense could struggle in a major way without him.

Biggest surprise: Tyler Boyd. The third-year wide receiver has taken a big step forward and has continued the upward trend he began in the final game of the 2017 season. Surprisingly, he leads the team with 59 catches and trails only Green with 620 yards and five receiving touchdowns. Outside of Green, Boyd has been the biggest contributor to the offense and has had a fantastic year.

Hurdle to overcome: The linebackers need to play better, and that starts with Vontaze Burfict. Burfict hasn't done much this year after starting the season on suspension and getting injured right before the bye. Burfict needs to live up to the contract extension they gave him last year. The Bengals need to get Nick Vigil healthy, and the unit overall needs to take a step up if they're going to be able to stop the run, which has been one of its issues this year.