The Bengals are riding high on an impressive three-game winning streak and gaining a lot of momentum towards a late-season playoff push. Some rookies and other players in new roles are leading the charge, but it's at the cost of some other fan-favorite Bengals' playing time.
When any sports team is on a true hot streak, all of the parts of a whole are working together like a finely-tuned machine. The Cincinnati Bengals are cranking at a near-Leviathan level right now, basically destroying teams that they are facing right now. As someone who has intensely followed this team for the past two and a half decades, I'm hard-pressed to come up with examples where a Bengals squad has played this way for a stretch of time. I can only describe my emotions as a mixture of cynicism, cautious optimism, and elation. We'll have to see how the rest of the year plays out, though.
In this new Bengals machine, there are a handful of new parts that are contributing to the path of destruction that the men in orange and black are leaving. Some of it has to do with the overall health of the team, but a lot of it is attributed to the coaching staff recognizing the needed changes and sticking with some of the "hot hands". Everything about the Bengals organization is slow-moving, from ownership's adverse attitude towards change, to Marvin Lewis' reluctance to give rookies some deserved playing time. The latter, at least, is changing right now.
The first major spot where we've seen change is at wide receiver. At the beginning of the season, we saw a lot of slot man Andrew Hawkins, along with Brandon Tate and Armon Binns lining up on the opposite side of A.J. Green. Hawkins was productive through the first few games of the season, but it appeared that opposing defenses caught on to the gadgetry that the little guy brought to the Bengals offense. Unfortunately, Hawkins suffered a knee injury a couple of weeks ago in practice and that has paved way for rookie Mohamed Sanu to light things up. Sanu has made a bunch of tough catches and put up four touchdown receptions in the past four games. He also lines up as a halfback at times and can run between the tackles productively. In short, he has bee fun to watch over the past few weeks.
Tate and Binns had been relatively unproductive, which also helped Sanu get his opportunities and now that Marvin Jones is finally healthy, we're likely to see him more often as well. Is it just me, or does it seem that every corner that has lined up against Jones this season has been burned on one of his deep routes. The two rookies have a ton of promise and we are likely to see more of them in the weeks and years ahead. Going forward, we still expect to see some contributions from Hawkins and a catch here and there from Tate, but the future appears to be now with Sanu and Jones asserting themselves.
With some of the changes going on at wide receiver, we're seeing good things out of the team's tight ends. Though he's had his frustrating moments this season, Jermaine Gresham is poised for a quality season. He is on pace to surpass his numbers from last season, which led to him being named as a second alternate to the Pro Bowl at his position. He currently has 47 catches (ten away from a career-best), for 558 yards (39 away from a career-best) and four touchdowns (three away from a career best). He still isn't on the level of a few of the tight ends in this league, but he has seemingly improved every season and emerged as one of Andy Dalton's top targets.
What's great to see besides Gresham's production at the position is the team's willingness to put two tight ends on the field at the same time. We're seeing little glimpses of Orson Charles out there and he's making plays when called on. Charles is a very athletic player and we can't wait to see more two tight end sets in goal line formations. We expect Charles to play a bit of a bigger role down the road, but he's still raw so the coaching staff is likely easing him into his role.
Then there has been the turnover at running back. When Bernard Scott went down for the year, Bengals fans shuddered at the idea of how pedestrian the running game would look for the rest of the year. After their four-game skid in the middle of the year, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was tired of seeing a lack of production on the ground and decided to integrate fourth-year man, Cedric Peerman. He was primarily charged with a role on special teams, but when given his chance this year, he has shined as BenJarvus Green-Ellis' backup. In the last three games, Peerman has amassed 157 yards on a 7.1 yards per carry average. He's been both tough to tackle and explosive, breaking off two 30-plus yard runs in consecutive games.
With Peerman's emergence (along with the above-mentioned wide receivers and tight ends), Brian Leonard's role has been reduced in recent weeks. A clutch performer and fan favorite since 2009, Gruden hasn't seemed to find much use for him lately. We expect that Leonard and Peerman will both have roles on special teams going forward, but Peerman will continue to take time away from Leonard on offense if his hot streak continues.
Of course, there would be no running game without the big boys up front. We already knew about the Bengals' bookend tackles in Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith. We even knew early on in the season that the Bengals would have to rely on unproven guards to help the offensive line. What we didn't know was how well Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler would play to this point. Zeitler has been a great pickup for the Bengals and when you don't hear a rookie offensive lineman's name called during the course of a game, that's usually a good thing. We never hear a peep on him or Boling and they're holding their own. In fact, the Bengals have amassed over 400 yards rushing in the last three victories combined and the play of those two guards has to be noted.
But we would be remiss if we left out the undrafted rookie center, Trevor Robinson. Is it any coincidence that the running game picked up immensely when the coaches decided to replace the struggling Jeff Faine for Robinson? We don't think so. We know how much this team values Kyle Cook, and rightfully so, but the guys up front seem to be gelling nicely right now and we're not sure that anyone wants to mess with that. We expect the Bengals to remain loyal to Cook when he's able to return (which sounds like it's going to be very soon), especially since he signed a big extension last offseason, but if we see a slump in the running game again you can expect the Robinson chants to be heard.
The secondary has been a game of musical chairs all season. The Bengals have never been able to replace the talent that they lost in Johnathan Joseph, yet defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has kept the secondary together with glue, band-aids and whatever else. Zimmer not only has had to deal with the loss of Joseph, but he hasn't had the services of the team's top draft pick of 2012, Dre Kirkpatrick, nor has he had one of the team's perceived big free agent hauls in Jason Allen. Terence Newman has provided a solid presence on the field and has acted as one of Zimmer's most effective band-aids. With an aging Nate Clements helping out at safety alongside former castoff Chris Crocker, it's a wonder how the group is getting things done. But they are.
Most people would readily point to Leon Hall as the team's best corner on the team and while I wouldn't disagree with that, one has to have a look at Adam "don't call me Pacman" Jones. His miracles as the team's punt returner aside, Jones has been playing great corner for the Bengals this year. He has been a solid tackler and has been amazing on diagnosing wide receiver screen passes. We would try to guess what's going to happen in this area of the team for the rest of the year, but given the many new faces and interchangeable parts, we expect this group to continue to morph into whatever Zimmer wants it to look like on a given week.
Give the coaches credit for their willingness to make necessary changes. The team wasn't performing to expectations and instead of being stubborn, they tried some experiments. Yes, it's frustrating that the Bengals under Marvin Lewis tend to sit their rookies, have them watch and earn their time--we've seen it before with players like Carlos Dunlap. But, maybe Lewis and Co. have learned from their mistakes and are doing what is needed for the betterment of the team. We'll see over the next month, but it's been one heck of a ride so far.