By: Andrew Kramer
Four games into the regular season, the Cincinnati Bengals are an uninspiring 2-2. At this, the quarter point of the year, it seems that there are more questions than answers for the AFC North contenders.
Can the Bengals rival the Steelers and compete for the division title? How will the offense recover after the departure of coordinator Hugh Jackson and wide receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones Jr.?
On Thursday night, the Bengals thoroughly outplayed the dismal Miami Dolphins by a score of 22-7. The score, though, could have been further in Cincinnati’s favor, as the Bengals had the ball for sixteen more minutes than the Dolphins.
But the Bengals settled for five field goals in what was career day for kicker Mike Nugent. The game was perhaps a microcosm for the season so far–glimpses of brilliant play sandwiched by frustrating inefficiency and self-inflicted errors.
To take stock of the season so far, the Bengals won in a thrilling week one game at the New York Jets. The game, and season, started as many around the league thought. Cincinnati showed they were a strong team with playoff aspirations, but were still adjusting to some changes: a new offensive coordinator and receiving options, as well as playing without linebacker Vontaze Burfict, the leader of the defense, and tight end Tyler Eifert, a red zone savant. However, the Bengals pulled out a gutsy win in preparation for a showdown with the divisional rival Steelers.
In a gritty game, both offenses struggled in mucky conditions. Specifically, quarterback Andy Dalton was inaccurate all game, missing open men and throwing into tight coverages. Near the midpoint of the fourth quarter, the Bengals were down 22-9.
The offense had floundered all day, and the defense had begun to tire after defending short fields on short rest. All of a sudden, Dalton and the passing game came alive, destroying the Steelers defense through the air. After a score by running back Gio Bernard, the Bengals cut the deficit to eight.
The defense got a stop and the offense had their chance. Again, Dalton and the passing game flashed brilliance. However, a fumble by rookie wide receiver Tyler Boyd ended the hopes of a comeback. Reviews showed that the call was wrong, but the officials decided it was too close to call and upheld the ruling, ending another Bengals-Steelers matchup in referee turmoil.
The next weekend, Cincinnati hosted the defending Super Bowl Champions, the Denver Broncos. Again, the game was close–until the end. Dalton and the offense sputtered against insatiable linebacker Von Miller and the mighty Broncos defense.
At crunch time, as is often the case, Dalton fired an interception, ending any hope of a comeback in front of the home crowd. This time, however, the concerns were also on the defensive side of the ball.
New Denver quarterback Trevor Siemian carved the Bengals secondary for over 300 yards and four touchdowns. The defensive line struggled to rush Siemian, and the secondary was gashed for large gains repeatedly.
That all led to Thursday night’s win against the Dolphins. Cincinnati fixed many of the problems that plagued their first three games–the defense had five sacks, the defensive backs provided solid coverage, and Jeremy Hill and the running game were prominent. However, this all came against what appears to be a far inferior opponent.
The Bengals began the season against three playoff teams, and like we have seen time and time again in the Marvin Lewis era, they failed to rise to the occasion. For all that was made about the offseason changes, the Bengals are essentially the same team from a year ago.
Their play is characterized thusly: Andy Dalton, under a large contract, is inconsistent, making great throws but failing to execute simple screens and dump throws. The offensive line, thought to be an asset, has struggled to protect the quarterback. The receivers have been good, headlined by the sensational A.J. Green. The defensive line is the strongest unit on the team, anchored by Pro Bowlers Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins. The linebackers and cornerbacks are talented, but play with their hearts and not their heads.
Lastly, the ground game duo of Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard is one of the best in the NFL, but only time will tell whether they fumble when the spotlight shines (see the 2013 and 2016 playoffs).
There is a suspicion among experts, and one held by this writer, that last year’s version of the Bengals may have been the best, and the path is downhill for the quality of Marvin Lewis’ squads. How many chances does one team get to win a playoff game?
In order to earn another chance, this team will need to find its identity. After the loss to the Broncos, A.J. Green said, “We are still trying to find ourselves.” Green and his teammates better hurry, and they better find the good version.
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