We are winding down the regular season here in the editing department of Conclusions and wanted to begin looking with a balanced scorecard at both the big and small term pictures. Give yourself one point if you got a chuckle on that one.
If you started to feel dread during the Philly game around halftime, then consider yourself one who is haunted by Bengals of Christmas past. The ghost of Paul Brown showed up sometime around the second quarter to remind us how the franchise has looked under his son for a little more than two decades. And the Eagles were dominating the Bengals in almost every facet (except that they couldn't put the ball into the endzone). Their defensive front four was killing us. That continued into the 3rd Qtr until the ghost of Bengals present ushered in a nice drive featuring some grinding runs by the Law Firm, a nice throw to AJ Green and a gutty cutback TD run by Andy Dalton. At this point maybe you were feeling the force of a new day in which the Bengals can stay in games based on pure athletic talent even when things aren't clicking. Well, somewhere in the waning moments of the 3rd Qtr the ghost of Bengals future made an appearance to illustrate that there is something different about this team and this season. The team converted a drive and three turnovers into 17 more points in about three and a half minutes that included a sack-strip-return for a TD and an ingenious pop up kickoff that was muffed by an isolated DT on the Eagle second line of the return team. This was not your Bengals as usual, folks. Here was a game in which the Eagles front four dominated the Bengals and yet the result appeared to be a cakewalk in favor of the folks in stripes. This is what good teams can do on a bad night.
So now it's all about whether a good team has a good night these last two weeks. Savor this moment when the Bengals had a national audience and were able to produce a dominating type score on a below average performance that left fans scratching their heads and saying, "How did they do that?"; where run blocking saved the day for a guy called "the Law Firm" who somehow managed to forge yet another 100-yard rushing game; and how Andy Dalton took a bad song and made it better.
Now onto our talking points:
PRIOR 5 OVERRIDING THEMES
1. Where we are: This is, I believe, the anticipated point in which we could have lost one game to an NFC East team (of the Dallas and Philly contests) and still would have our own destinies in our hands. We'll be watching closely today to see how the Steelers fare in Dallas and how the Ravens manage the Broncos in Baltimore. One Raven win gives Baltimore the AFC North crown as does one more loss by both the Bengals and Steelers. A Steelers loss to Dallas leaves us in the #6 spot for the Wild Card. Regardless of what happens this weekend, a lot of stock goes into who wins when we visit Pittsburgh next weekend. A win there for us combined with a Raven loss to Peyton Manning this weekend followed by one to Eli Manning next weekend would leave us playing for the AFC North title at PBS in week 17. A loss to Pittsburgh next weekend could leave us out of the playoffs or praying that the Browns win in Pittsburgh, the Jets lose in Buffalo and the Bengals beat Baltimore. This all boils down to the fact that really good teams don't leave their fates in the hands of others and don't spend their time waiting to see whether train wrecks like the NY Jets can beat the Buffalo Bills in arctic temperatures two days before New Year's. So in the short term, we're about to find out whether we have a hemi under the hood. Yep, just like in that Dodge Ram commercial.
In the longer term one now wonders whether this franchise is going anywhere. People again are mentioning that Mike Zimmer deserves a sniff at a Head Coaching position, and that should frighten Bengals fans who see what the guy has done with a season that started with marginal LB talent and a lot of injuries in the secondary. Fans are wondering whether the front office can lock up key players and how the needs for a second WR and a defensive stopper can be filled. And everyone is waiting to see whether this club can take off the "potential" wrapping to unveil the "production" logo.
2. Injuries / Weaknesses: We mentioned defensive playmakers and #2 WR above. Briefly, we'd still like a guy at Safety or LB who can produce a turnover, stop or momentum generating hit on a regular basis. Lately, Reggie Nelson, Vontaze Burfict and even Rey Maualuga have had one of these on a here-and-there basis... but nothing regular yet. So maybe our #1 pick this year (and/or a single, big-time vet UFA acquisition) should focus on getting that guy for the D who would potentially take this team to the next level? Here's another vote that Mike Brown finally pull the string on moving Marv Lewis to GM and Mike Zimmer to head coach (the relationship here being that losing Zimmer would put the D three steps back).
Will we be okay down the road with Sanu and Marvin Jones at the #2 spot and Hawkins in the slot? I think Sanu is going to be very good at the #2 spot, while Jones will mature into a nice weapon to use in select packages. I don't think we need to sign a big money UFA or invest a 1st or 2nd day pick at WR unless there is a great value that pops up in the 2nd or 3rd Round.
What about trading out Pressley for the Terminator? That's probably not a big deal since Pressley was a 15-20 snap a game guy on O.
What happened to the sack production? Suddenly the last two weeks the team hasn't been able to put the QB on the turf.
3. Strengths: Running game. This is a good sign moving into the later season. I think our greatest strength on O now is having the dual threat of getting chunks of yardage on the ground versus getting chunks from Green or Gresham. If the D doesn't bring the SS into the box, chances are that the Law Firm will get 4+ yards. If they do bring that guy down, they lose deep coverage to one side of the field and potentially open up some 1-on-1 chances for the big receivers. So now it becomes critical for Dalton to find his guys quickly. More on this below.
But don't forget here the additional strengths of red zone D and special teams. The Bengals have been stingy in the red zone lately and have forced a lot of FGs. The special teams have looked great in almost every facet (if you exclude the single bad decision by Brandon Tate to bring back that one punt in Philly from his own end zone). And what is going on with Dan Herron? I think the guy deflected two punts against the Cowboys and another against the Eagles. He didn't look bad running the ball at the end either. Is he a serious candidate in the equation for 2013?
4. Marvin Jones: Here is probably the biggest question mark in regard to where this team goes in 2012. There remains a problem on O in that Dalton is having a huge problem getting rid of the football early. Is this a problem with not being able to find an open #2 or #3 target when Green is bracketed? Or is Dalton not seeing the field well? One thing that comes with time between a QB and receiver is trust. When the QB knows what and how the receiver will react given a particular call, body position and timing, then he's a lot more comfortable throwing into that area. I think Dalton is a QB who needs a lot of assurance before going into those potential traps. He was getting there with Sanu, who showed great body control and shielding of DBs when the ball was thrown into tight windows. Mike Mayock pointed out during the Eagles game that Dalton was hesitant to throw when small windows were open even with Hawkins and sometimes Gresham. The thing that made Peyton Manning so great in my eyes was the manner in which he continued to produce his last few Colts years with no-name WRs. Manning was able to trust and to teach these guys well enough to produce. Jones and Dalton need to get on the same page quickly, or this train will derail when the games get tight.
5. DBs: These guys have taken a lot of criticism this year, and it's time to recognize how much this unit has improved. At CB Adam Jones is really playing well, while Terence Newman has managed to play very well the second half of the season. I don't mention Leon Hall because he just has had a really great year while coming off a devastating injury. The much maligned Safety crop was stabilized when Chris Crocker came back to town. Much kudos has been earned by Crocker who was essentially run out of town at the end of 2011 after playing half the season on a bad wheel. I too thought the guy was done, but he has proven himself to be the glue of the secondary since returning this season. In the same breath we need to recognize that Nate Clements has also done a great job moving over to Safety and contributing when our young safeties were really struggling. Paired with either of these vets, Reggie Nelson has played quite well in the second half of the season, and Taylor Mays has done much better during his occasional snaps.
NEW THEMES TO CONSIDER
* What does it take to consistently beat the Pittsburgh Steelers? What happens when you add a Pittsburgh venue to this question? Regardless of what the Steelers do in Dallas this weekend, they will be ready to brawl in a week. They'll offer up a steady diet of Roethlisberger passes and some tough runs by whoever they have in the backfield. On D they will bring strong DE/OLB pressure, will hit hard up the middle and will capitalize on turnovers. There will be some wind and maybe some crappy field conditions. To win here, the Bengals must stick to an effective game plan, play very physically and believe they can win.
Game plan: The Bengals have been running the ball well and will need to continue this trend on what portends to be a difficult playing surface. The way to beat Big Ben is by tackling the ball when he's in the pocket, containing him from the roll outs where he buys time to go deep to his speedy WRs and limiting his time in the pocket. Pittsburgh can't win games strictly on the ground, so the Bengals will have to win by forcing Roethlisberger to throw early and short. That means that the DL must have a top game, must force the pocket from the middle and must bring Roethlisberger to the ground when he's in the grasp.
Physical Play: I always remember what Hines Ward used to say when he played the Bengals. He'd run up to defenders after plays, tell they that they sucked and defend that by saying that they were still just "Bengals." The only way to beat that attitude is with actions. In Cincy earlier this season the Steelers won on a very poor Bengal effort. This one will be a brawl with guys shooting off their mouths. The Bengals are the more physical team now and need to bring that message to Pittsburgh.
You Gotta Believe: In Philly on Thursday this team took another step by creating a win from a relatively downer performance. The next step is to bring that attitude into the division. The feeling that you're gonna win goes a long way. It is conveyed by a look on the face during tough times, a tremendous focus and a will to never die.
Pittsburgh Venue: I can't recall the Bengals every whipping the Steelers in Pittsburgh, so this one can't be expected to be any easier than a dogfight.
* What's the Reward for beating the Steelers? Then there comes the Ravens. This is the NFL playoff time brother. There's no such thing as a breather now.