My, what an October it was! Shortly after halftime in Week 4 against the Buffalo Bills, the Bengals decided they weren't gonna dress up as a bad team for Halloween this year. They were going as playoff contenders and divisional threats and no one could convince them otherwise. So they started to play the part.
Once Halloween passed, the Bengals still refused to take off their costume and return to their normal selves. A crucial road game against a lingering Titans team formed on the horizon and served as the best test since Buffalo. The going got tough in the first half. The defense softened, the offense sputtered and the team once more found themselves down by two scores coming out at halftime.
This stretch of five wins in a row is nicely bracketed thus far by two impressive displays of effective halftime adjustments. Unlike the Bills game, the Bengals comeback in Tennessee wasn't all that surprising. The defense put on the clamps, Woody Dalton got in a groove and the rest is history. It wasn't a blowout, but it really wasn't all that close either.
This team doesn't know any better. Never have I seen such a focused team under Marvin Lewis. They're quiet, unassuming winners who seem to believe in themselves, each other, and the system as a whole. You can see Marvin's personality bleed through to his players. The egos are minimal; these men are workers.
A lot of that stems from discipline. On defense, the gap-discipline against the run game is topnotch. The front four stay in their gaps, the linebackers flow to the football, and gobs of tacklers are constantly swarming around ball carriers. The tremendous depth along their defensive line allows for a constant wave of fresh, large bodies, and the whole defense appears very well conditioned right now. Many other teams have complained about how the lockout has produced poor tackling, but the Bengals have had no such problems. They are a very good tackling team. They are strong and immovable and each player has been impressive by sticking to their own individual tasks rather than playing outside of the scheme.
Mike Zimmer continues to make a name for himself in this league by not only crafting excellent game plans, but also crafting die-hard relationships with his players; these guys would jump off cliffs for Zim. Their discipline not only physically, but also mentally, has kept Cincinnati from blowing games late. Defensive penalties is the secret ingredient to a bad loss. The lack of them has allowed the Bengals to beat the teams they should.
The discipline is evident on the offensive side of the ball as well. Jay Gruden's scheme has the signature element every effective game plan needs: when starters go down, the offense produces just as well with backups. Mike McCarthy did it last year with the Packers and they did okay. The Patriots have done it for years, even without Tom Brady. Good offenses adjust and carry on undeterred by injury. A nice side effect of that is that backups get more productive experience and become better players and eventually even starters. Gruden's scheme isn't as complicated as other coordinators around the NFL, but, to me, that's the beauty of it.
We Bengal fans were subjected to a needlessly sophisticated scheme for years with Bob Bratkowski. It probably illuminated upon the chalkboard when he wrote it up, but in reality, it confused the players and the team lost games as a result. With Gruden, everyone knows the plays well and the difference has shown up in the wins column. It's a modest scheme that, for the most part, is based around conventional tried-and-true football philosophy. The coaching discipline to make the right call rather than the brilliant one, and the player discipline to avoid turnovers and penalties, has allowed Marvin to play his coveted field-position game and win with good defense and Mike Nugent.
Gruden and Dalton came into this thing tied at the cerebral cortex and are now on the same frequency when it matters the most. Look around the league at the truly great offenses, and most times you find a strong mental bond between quarterback and play-caller. Woody has shown himself to be an intelligent, able-armed QB with excellent pocket presence and decent mobility. I think Gruden will continue to protect him as much as he can with a good amount of run plays, heavy power-formations with extra blockers and a ball-controlling short passing game. Gruden will have to install some new stuff along the way to avoid blatant predictability, but I think the character of this offense has already been defined as a safe and disciplined one.
Overall, it's damn-near impossible not to be impressed by the second-quarter of the Bengals season. Sure, we can nitpick about the easy schedule, but Cincinnati was supposed to be bad too, remember? If you aren't daring enough to call them a playoff contender yet, fine, but at least we can all agree that they're good enough to wear the costume for a while longer. This upcoming stretch of divisional games is like a dark and scary country road straight outta Scooby-Doo, and the Mystery Machine may take a wrong turn at some point, but if the Bengals remain this disciplined and the scheme continues to be fully understood by the players, I think they will come out just fine.