Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Midseason Report: Cincinnati Bengals
By Coley Harvey
The first half of the Cincinnati Bengals' season went about as well as anyone around the club could have imagined. The team has a 6-3 record with wins over the Packers, Patriots and Lions. They clearly were one of the NFL's top teams.
But now that the second half has officially begun for the Bengals (Thursday's 22-20 overtime loss at Miami was game No. 9), will they be able to return to the winning ways that defined the season's first two months? Or will they revert to their old losing ways?
Before the Bengals take on the Baltimore Ravens this weekend, we take a look at how they have fared so far in this position-by-position evaluation:
GRADING THE CINCINNATI BENGALS
The Bengals' quarterback play has been mostly stellar. While Andy Dalton's good games outweighed his bad ones -- he had a three-game stretch of topping 300 passing yards and throwing at least three touchdowns that earned him AFC Offensive Player of the Month honors in October -- the occasional bouts of inconsistency kept him from earning a higher mark. His performance against Miami last Thursday, one in which he posted a season-low 13.5 QBR, kept his score in the B-range.
Since rookie Giovani Bernard has been such a vital piece of the Bengals' offense, particularly in the passing game, the running backs deserve a passing grade. Overall, though, the group hasn't lived up to its promise in the run game, gaining an average of 106.8 yards per game. Ahead of Monday night's game between the Bears and Packers, that was good enough for a No. 19 ranking. Veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis has 424 of the team's 961 rushing yards.
Though the running backs have struggled to truly balance the offense, the receivers have been mostly good in what has proved to be a diverse passing scheme. A.J. Green enters Week 10 leading the NFL in receiving with 862 receiving yards. Two weeks ago, in the final game of the first half of the year, Marvin Jones caught a franchise-record four touchdown passes.
Cincinnati's tight ends have been among the team's most consistent playmakers. It took seven games before Jermaine Gresham recorded a drop. Both he and Tyler Eifert have receiving touchdowns as they've proved to be key pieces in the offense. Gresham's untimely knack of drawing holding and false start penalties, though, prevents this grade from being higher.
One of the best units on the team, the group entered the Week 8 game against the New York Jets as the top pass-protecting unit in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. However, the Bengals surrendered five sacks to the Dolphins in Week 9 and now have given up 21 on the season. Not all of those sacks were due to line breakdowns, though. Some were the result of missed running back blocks or Dalton taking too long to find options downfield.
This grade could easily change by the end of the season, given the season-ending injury Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins suffered at Miami last week. Through the first eight games, the overall unit was strong. When rushing four players, the Bengals had been giving up just 5.71 yards per play through those first eight games.
All things considered, the Bengals' group of linebackers has been about as good as the team could have hoped. Cincinnati came out of the preseason needing serious help at the position after nickel linebacker Emmanuel Lamur was lost for the year to a shoulder injury. To account for his absence, they moved Taylor Mays around and tweaked Rey Maualuga's and Vontaze Burfict's responsibilities. Now, with Maualuga out for at least two more games, the Bengals will need Burfict and veteran James Harrison to lead an extraordinarily thin group.
Although individual players have been burned a couple of times on long touchdown catches, the Bengals' secondary performed well in the first half of the season. Terence Newman's game-winning fumble recovery for a touchdown against Green Bay was a key play for the secondary. So was Reggie Nelson's pass rush of Detroit's Matthew Stafford that forced an incompletion and led to the Bengals getting the ball back. Once in field goal range on that ensuing possession, Cincinnati won on a 54-yard Mike Nugent kick as time expired.
Nugent, punter Kevin Huber and return specialist Brandon Tate have been among the unsung heroes of the season's first half. In addition to the game winner at Detroit, Nugent had another in overtime at Buffalo. Huber has been one of the league's most consistent punters, routinely punting the Bengals into advantageous field position. Tate's 29-yard punt return in overtime at Buffalo helped set up Nugent's winner.
It's mostly been the Bengals' talent and depth that have been difference-makers so far, but timely coaches' challenges and schematic tweaks helped lead to the Bengals' 6-3 record. Marvin Lewis finally has a team built for a long postseason run, but how well he manages it following the onslaught of injuries will be key in determining how deep that run can be.