We gotta enjoy this one regardless of the negatives. At 5-2 the team is sitting about where we had hoped prior to the start of the season. Did we guess the losses would be Chicago and Cleveland with wins against GB, NE, and PItt (while shutting down three Super Bowl QBs)? Probably not.
This week I only had to change the week number and opponent in my header. It's strange when you duplicate the score two weeks in a row. It's even stranger when they're both on the road, and your much maligned QB throws for 380 and 372, respectively. If Dalton's no good, we gotta be happy with the "no good" label.
But bad news... Leon Hall ruptured the other Achilles. Today you read about every other star in the league who was hurt - Sam Bradford, Reggie Wayne, Brian Cushing. Hey, Leon Hall is in that group. Don't kid yourself. And we're about to find out how badly we miss him now that we'll be seeing a lot more of Pacman, Kirkpatrick, and Ghee.
We're nearing mid-season, and how are some of the question marks looking? Let's get the hands together for Mike Nugent (looking strong after a knee injury in 2012), George Iloka (doing a fine job at SS), Carlos Dunlap (earning his contract and really doing a nice job to step in for Geathers), Clint Boling (you never hear the guy's name come up during game day.... that's a good thing for an OG), Tyler Eifert and Gio Bernard (fulfilling their high pick expectations), Marvin Jones (starting to shine), Devon Still (has taken a big step forward this season), Rey Maualuga (giving a more consistent effort), Vinnie Rey (has done really well to anchor STs and to get more snaps on D), Taylor Mays (yes, I said it... the injury to Lamur opened up an opportunity for him in a niche role and he has filled it quite well), and Terrence Newman (is this guy really 35 years old?). I probably missed a few. And there are some guys that need to turn it on with their question marks still lingering. How about Mohamed Sanu? He just hasn't gotten any momentum going consistently this year. Kyle Cook? I think he's lost weight and struggles in run blocking. The Law Firm? Has run better the past two weeks - his initial problems might well have been due to stale play selection. Michael Johnson? Guy is really an awesome run stopper but hasn't been the same force in pass rush - I think he'll rue the fact that he turned down the long term contract prior to the season, while we might be able to sign him long term after this season for a deal along the lines of that signed by Dunlap ($40 mil for 5 years). Orson Charles? Orson Who? He has been a ghost since his crappy early performances in the first two weeks. Dre Kirkpatrick and Brandon Ghee - the injury twins. Now with Hall out and another playoff season in line, a lot will fall on these two guys' shoulders. Finally, James Harrison, step to the podium. What gives on Bengal SAM LBs? My guess here simply is that the Bengals SAM scheme limits players from showing up much in the stats section. We all know that Harrison can ball, so this really is the only decent explanation.
A quick look at the coaches and front office before moving onto top 5 current considerations for the team. Marvin Lewis had a nice challenge again yesterday and seems to have improved at this. Lewis is a steady hand but isn't flashy and doesn't make a big presence on game day. Overall, he has been great for this franchise, and I think you have to like him for his greater upside in comparison with the occasional gaffe. Mike Zimmer - what can we say? The guy mostly just kicks butt and gets the max out of his guys. We were blessed to get this guy who is more responsible for our three playoff appearances than anyone else in the building. Jay Gruden - there is an occasional sign of life. We've noted before that his whole rating follows Dalton's performance, so right now he's on an upper. But I remember about one year ago when he went on an upper and did an end-of-season nose dive. Recently Gruden seems to have gotten into the flow of this squad similar to how Zimmer finds his flow about mid-season. With the Broncos suddenly looking beatable and a number of injuries around the league kicking in, the Bengals could make a nice run at a first round playoff bye if Gruden can keep providing 25+ points a game. How is Darrin Simmons doing? This guy really got a challenge this year with the losses of Dan Skuta, Jeromy Miles, Lamur, and Baby Hawk. If you're counting, that's the two gunners on punt coverage and the top tackler on STs. The fact that we're playing about even on STs then is probably a good sign.
Onto the top 5 considerations - I'm going to skip prior conclusions because we skipped them last week:
1. Defensive Backs - Thought I was going to talk about Dalton again first, didn't you? Andy earned a rest after two nice games even though he'll get his number in these five. The DBs are a consideration simply because our #1 guy Leon Hall is done for the year and potentially for his career. I'm not sure whether I have seen an athlete tear both Achilles in separate injuries and, if so, whether the player was ever competitive again. We have to assume that Hall will work hard but that his response will be somewhat slower than the last. If you recall, Hall struggled early in 2012 with some issues in quickness and cutting but was able to get back to his top end play by about mid-season. He may now lose some of his overall leaping ability, and I wonder whether he might think about playing Safety if he does come back. It's early for such conjecture, but we're probably in trouble for 2013 unless Ghee and/or Kirkpatrick suddenly turn into something they haven't been so far - healthy and effective. Big question mark here.
2. Mohamed Sanu - I didn't expect to see this name up here mid-season, but we have to wonder about Mo a bit now with no TD catches and stats that look more like a TE or RB. Thus far Sanu is 24-230 with a long of 32, and that beats Marvin Jones (16-247-3 TDs-long 42) only in number of catches even though Sanu has played more snaps. Perhaps Sanu's possession skills combined with Dalton's arm limitations is a bad combo that allows defenders to sit right on top of him? We should discuss this and how Gruden might get Sanu better involved. Jones is making all the big plays lately at the WR2 spot.
3. Running Game - For what we were told would be a "run first O," I haven't seen that. We're averaging 3.6 YPA, which is lower than opponents' 3.8 YPA. The 57% passing - 43% running mix is a lower passing ratio than the average NFL mix (and is 5% more running than our opponents have done). Our idea is to grind out clock, use play action pass better (to better fit Dalton's skills), and better utilize our big OL and nice 1-2 punch in RBs. We have held the ball about 2:30 longer than opponents on game day, and that is significant. However, real returns are going to come when we can push the run mix up another 3-5 % and still get the 1st downs. That will take our time of possession out another 90 seconds, and now we're talking critical mass TOP (around 34 minutes per game). Can we do that? I like that Gruden has cut down on all the WR screens, shuttle passes and quick hitters but is still keeping the efficiency in the high 60 %'s. If we can combine a more consistent run game with high passing efficiency, we could dominate the second half of this season.
4. Big Plays / Turnovers on D - The big plays in the Lions game were the blocked FG and the nullified strip sack and TD return by Suh. That's a 10-point turnaround, but none of those plays was made by our D. The interesting thing about this, I think, is the difference between the Zimmer strategy of playing the lane, being consistent, and hoping that in the course of a drive that we can force them to miss on a 3rd down conversation and the Chuck Bresnahan approach of high risk, high reward (remember all those INTs in 2005?). In the end both approaches can keep points off the board when they're working. Perhaps the Bresnahan approach was a better fit for those earlier teams where we were 2/3 pass, 1/3 run with Palmer, Chad, and TJ? Figure that the opposing O is then going to throw a lot too and give a lot of chances for INTs. But we're (-2) on the season for turnovers (1 more INT yielded, one less fumble recovered). Given that we've only recorded 3 more sacks than we've made with our dominant DL (18 to 15), and I'm wondering how we're 5-2. The answer is, of course, that we're winning close games (10, 4, 7, 3, and 3 points of margin in the 5 wins) and avoiding the big mistakes in crunch time. We know that the last 4 wins (GB, NE, Buff, Det) all came on big plays made in the last 5 minutes of each game. So is it fair to say that we don't do turnovers well (so far) and that we like to save our big plays for the end?
5. Dalton/Gruden - At nearly mid-season I feel safe saying these things about Andy Dalton:
* His performance is improved in efficiency, and that is a big reason for the improvement in the offense
* He is not and will not be an elite NFL QB. He lacks the arm strength to put him in this category, and the failures are very evident. Yesterday Green salvaged the long ball for a TD even though he came back on the catch and then maneuvered in for the score. Dalton also underthrew Jones when he was open by 3-5 yards resulting in an incompletion instead of a long gainer or TD. Defenses have adjusted to this, and Dalton will struggle against the teams that have a healthy, elite coverage CB.
* He frequently finds a way to overcome. When the game is on the line, Dalton has produced. He has hit the tight windows and has avoided the mental mistakes. Maybe the big moments allow him to overcome the nerves that seem to attack him in early portions of the game?
* The jury is still out. Until Dalton can win at least one playoff game in which he makes a marked contribution, people are going to doubt him loudly. Until he can show that he has consistently overcome the arm strength issue with other qualities, many will doubt him. The fact is that a team in the NFL cannot win consistently without excellent QB play. Game management can take you a decent distance, but it doesn't win close games week-in and week-out. Do you expect the KC Chiefs to be led to the Super Bowl by Alex Smith? It could happen, but do you expect it to happen at the start of the season each year? Nope.
Which takes us to Gruden. He has a tough task in trying to figure out how to run the ball a lot while making first downs, keeping Dalton out of obvious passing situations, and avoiding risky plays. He did all right against Buff and Det, but those are the 30th and 23rd ranked defenses, respectively, in the NFL. This week we get to see the #4 defense from the NY Jets (10th passing, 2nd rushing), and this will be a real test to see whether Gruden and Dalton can move the ball against better opponents. So far in 2013 we haven't fared well from a point total against top 11 D's (Pitt: 20; Cle: 6; NE: 13). We gotta figure that we're probably not going to get more than 14 points against a tough Jet D.
You really can't do better than a "W." And you rarely dominate in the NFL. We were somewhat lucky the last two weeks to win on two walk off FGs on the road. We had better play from QB Andy Dalton, but again the opposition didn't pose the same match up problems we saw with Cleveland's and Chicago's secondaries. The Bengals aren't flashy and have no room to gloat. At 9th on total D and 12th on total O, the team is winning games by playing well in the last moments of games and avoiding the critical mistakes that determine outcomes. Although the team hasn't racked up a huge sack differential against opponents, it is clear from the differential in passing YPA (7.7 us, 6.5 them) that opponents are being rushed to throw the ball earlier against the Bengal DL In fact, this is one of the few stats (along with time of possession) in which we're clearly outperforming opponents. Key play in critical moments is a method by which to be relevant, but it usually has failings in the long run. This team needs to find another edge whether that be a more dominant running game, a better turnover ratio, or a much larger sack differential in order to get on a clear roll for the playoffs. The loss of Leon Hall is going to hurt a lot worse than many realize. The time for a few key young players to step up has come.