The Bengals have won by 40 or more points three times in their history. They beat Houston 61-7 on 12/17/89 at Riverfront in a game in which Sam Wyche was using a late onside kickoff and FG in order to embarrass hated rival Jerry Glanville. They also beat the Oilers 55-41 in Houston on 11/6/83. So today was the third largest margin of victory in team history and the largest in the Marv era. If you haven't noticed, Marv Lewis does not like running up scores and embarrassing opponents. A simple win for Lewis will do. So a blowout win like this is simple domination that is so profound that it couldn't be tempered down even a little bit.
Marvin Jones, if you hadn't heard, also set a new team record with 4 TD receptions in a game. That beats the record formerly held by several Bengals (according to the team's 2013 Media Guide) with the last to do it being Chad Johnson on 11/25/07. Dalton's 5 TD passes tied second place in team records behind the 6 TDs Carson Palmer had in the 51-45 loss at Cleveland in 2007. At his current pace Dalton would set a new team season record for passing yardage and tie the record for TD passes.
This is the kind of game that allows fans to beat their chest and wonder what the heck is going on (in a good way, of course). What was going on? I'd say that we watched the best of the Bengals and the worst of the Jets all on one day. I'd also say that we saw today how good this Bengal team currently is. The Jets are only 4-4 right now, but they had the 4th best Defense in the league anchored by the best D against the run and a middle-of-the-pack pass D. Maybe the run D is particularly good (rated by yards per game) because it is so easy to pass against them? Maybe Andy Dalton, Jay Gruden, and the Bengals O are really turning the corner? Maybe some of both.
I've been critical of the Dalton-Gruden duo in prior weeks. It's not because I have anything against either guy. In fact, I want to see them do well and prove my negative hunches incorrect. The last three weeks they have illustrated a trend that hopefully becomes a new standard. Time will tell, and we'll discuss that below.
We have a short week to get ready for Miami, and injuries are now mounting. That's another discussion below. One other thing that continues to be a bright spot is the leadership and chemistry this team is showing.
Last Weeks Top 5 Considerations
1. DB injuries
2. Mohamed Sanu lack of production
3. Running Game lack of production
4. Need for more big plays and turnovers on D
5. Dalton-Gruden: Is the jury still out, or was I just wrong?
This Week's Top 5 Considerations
1. Injury Meter / Roster: It's time to reassess the roster for depth and STs. We have lost thus far LDE Robert Geathers, CB Leon Hall, Nickel WILL LB Emmanuel Lamur, and rookie LB Sean Porter. Andrew Hawkins might return to the roster this Thursday to replace Leon Hall, and that would give us 7 active guys at WR (when we usually only carry 6). We have seen a continued trend in injuries to CBs Dre Kirkpatrick and Brandon Ghee. We've lost Safety / STs guy Jeromy MIles in our early season roster shuffling when the Ravens claimed him. Today we sustained injuries to Andre Whitworth (knee), Rey Maualuga (knee/concussion), Taylor Mays (shoulder), and Mohamed Sanu (shoulder). We'll have to wait this week to see the relative seriousness of these as they might impact the next game and/or the rest of the season. We should mention that we are relatively light at LB, Safety, and QB where an injury to any of these starters puts us at a real disadvantage with a backup playing. If Maualuga misses the Miami game, I'd think that we would bring JK Schaffer back onto the roster and hold off from activating Hawkins. If Mays misses the Miami game, we're really hurting on passing downs where Mays has played very effectively in a LB/S fusion role. Since Sanu's production hasn't been overwhelming, his absence would be manageable. We really didn't get to see Kirkpatrick or Ghee be challenged today, so those outcomes remain to be seen. The team reportedly would love to find another CB or LB. However, a trade seems unlikely, while available talent at this time of the year is very limited. I think it is very accurate to say that at this point of the season given our current depletion from injuries that any further injury on D would be very detrimental to this squad. On O we have a lot more depth at most positions. A further injury at OT (if Whit misses any time now) would be tough to endure, but we're pretty thick at TE, WR, and Interior OL. We can't replace Dalton or Bernard. On STs the coverage and return teams have struggled compared to 2012 with the thinning of some of our core guys and the injuries to guys like Miles, Hawkins, Ghee, Kirkpatrick, Lamur and Porter.
2. Team Identity: We know what we are on D, right? We put pressure on QBs, manage the run reasonably, and cover man-to-man primarily. Can we add to that description that Vontaze Burfict has become one of the top Interior LBs in the NFL? I'm going with that after watching this guy play like an All-Pro this year. He quietly just gets it done and is starting to get notice around the league. I think he is now our identity on D as the heart and soul of the unit. How about the O? We weren't sure for a while. When the year started, we were going to throw it all over and use all sorts of formations. That had some early problems, and then we were going to become a run-first team. But Andy Dalton then has thrown for over 1000 yards in the last three games, so what are we now? I want to think that this team can beat you either way depending on what you want to take away. This will be helpful during the regular season, but will we be able to run on bad fields come playoff time? Finally, STs have been steady, but they aren't impacting games in 2013 in either a positive or negative manner.
3. What Players Seem to Be Missing Expectations: We mentioned Sanu last week, and we have to still wonder about him a little. I think the problem with Sanu is that we're expecting too much from him. He's a possession and slot guy who can feed off his teammates. He's still learning the game and trying to figure out how to best contribute, while Gruden is trying to figure out how to use him. Meanwhile, draft peer Marvin Jones is obviously figuring it all out and is taking advantage of the 1-on-1's that he gets when lining up opposite A.J. Green. When we get Hawkins back and add that great speed to the slot, we might be toxic with the trio of Green, Jones, and Baby Hawk. We can also dominate in short yardage situations with double TEs or with inclusion of route runners like Sanu, Sanzenbacher, and/or Hawkins. At this point it seems that Whalen may be on the bubble once Hawkins returns to the roster. Moving over to RB, we see that the Law Firm has had trouble with consistent production this season. This seems to be a function of run blocking on our OL where we struggle sometimes especially on the left side with Cook and Whit. I would be incomplete here if I failed to mention the sudden non-use of Orson Charles as the FB/H-Back and the lack of Rex Burkhead on the game day roster thus far.
On the other side of the ball, some note that Geno Atkins hasn't had quite as many sacks. However, he is getting a lot of pressure on QBs and is on target for 10 sacks this season. Opposing QBs have gone to 3 and 5-step drops to beat our pass rush, and this has limited sacks while also reducing opponents YPA. Overall, this helps us quite a bit on D even though it is not as exciting as putting the QB on the turf. Speaking of reduced production, however, we have to mention Michael Johnson who only has 1.5 sacks this year. Where is the difference from last season in this regard? I'm open to suggestions here but think that it's a combination of scheme (Zimmer likes to play run-first in many downs for the DE) and the fact that 2012 was a probably a peak year for MJ with respect to sacks (just as 2006 was for Robert Geathers). At LB the one mention goes to James Harrison who had his second sack today but hasn't been as dominant a factor as he was in Pittsburgh's 3-4 for so many years. What we need to face with respect to Harrison are the facts that he is nearing the end of his career and that the Bengal SAM role limits a LBs ability to make plays as he functions to seal the end on runs and blitz only occasionally vs. the pass. As for DBs, we all are anxious to see whether Ghee and/or Kirkpatrick can stay healthy and can contribute. One or both eventually will need to contribute significantly before the end of the season with Hall out for the year. As well as George Iloka has done at Safety, Shawn Williams has been a disappointment at the same spot. Maybe that expects too much from a 3rd Round rookie draft pick? Maybe Iloka just has played so well that Williams won't get a chance for a while? With Crocker back and contributing heavily though, Williams might not get any chances in 2013 barring major injuries at that position.
4. Team Chemistry / Leadership: In today's game Reggie Nelson showed his leadership in stopping Pacman from retaliating against a Jet cheap shot. We saw a couple of big plays from Crocker and Pacman. Burfict has taken the defensive play caller role. Newman is a calming influence. The Fisher Price kids bring energy. Whit is the elder statesmen. The Law Firm leads by example. Andy Dalton is a guy who sets a great example for teammates. There aren't a lot of show-offs or big talkers. Guys are bad mouthing others in the press. It's fun to be a Bengals fan right now.
5. The Dalton-Gruden Axis: After an erratic start to 2012, Andy Dalton has settle down nicely the last three weeks. Are there mistakes still? Sure. Are the deep balls consistently underthrown? Yes. But the bigger picture isn't the limitations. It's that Gruden is starting to figure out who to use and how to use them most effectively. Dalton has started to take a few more chances by getting the ball into crowds and letting athletic players make plays instead of sticking to very conservative throws on every down. This has resulted in a very slight increase in INTs but also a dramatic increase in explosive plays. All together this represents a huge positive improvement as Dalton has spread the ball around more effectively and has found niche players to fill certain roles that complement the do-it-all guy A.J. Green. Last week I stated that Dalton would not be an elite QB, and many objected stating that we really don't know this. I based my comment more on physical abilities that are unlikely to improve rather than mental knowhow that definitely can get a lot better. Many have pointed out Joe Montana as a QB who didn't have the great athleticism but was a Hall of Fame winner. I'll also point out QBs Ken Anderson and Bob Griese who each made Super Bowls while playing the QB spot without a lot of flash or athleticism. Dalton showed today against a good D that he can produce, and Gruden did a nice job for the most part of mixing up the calls and using the passing game as a weapon when the running game was very limited. We'll have to wait and watch as Dalton goes back up against top 12 pass Defense teams such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Indy over the next 2 months. In the end it takes consistency to be considered elite, and I'm not sure that Dalton can dominate against upper tier coverage. We're about to find out, though, whether Dalton has taken a permanent step forward or whether he's just on the crest of a current wave.
The Final Word
The Bengals dominated today to go 4-0 at home for the first time since the 1988 Super Bowl season. This follows two last second road victories and illustrates that this team can win in a number of different manners. However, the common denominator is that the team is winning, and we'll definitely take that. Andy Dalton seems determined to prove me and many others wrong. While there will always be complainers regardless of the level of success, it will take consistency for Dalton to have me riding his bandwagon. Maybe Dalton will struggle against the top 5-10 pass Defensive teams. Is that a crime if you're doing quite well against the other 20-25 teams in the league? Thinking about this, I drift back to the thought that Andy Dalton is the 15th or so best QB in the world. In the end that's pretty damn good no matter how you slice it. Still, there is room for improvement and need to continue looking into the mirror for faults. Dalton needs to get the body language improved, be consistently accurate on the short stuff, throw the long ball as early as possible to avoid underthrows, and limit the number of sacks he takes. One other thing that seems inconsistent on O is the use of Eifert and Bernard. Maybe we're just taking what is given, and this week that was the outside stuff rather than that up the middle. We have to question whether we're peaking too early (as we did in 2012) and whether we can sustain this energy. I remember the Super Bowl year of 1988-89, and the energy build up was monumental as the season wound down. I'm not sure that we're ready for something like that in Cincy right now, but it would be nice to give it a try.