Who would have thought that going into the last three games of the 2013 regular season that our worst loss would have been to Cleveland, that we would have taken down a number of elite QBs, and that we'd have sustained the injuries that we've had so far? I look back at that Halloween night in Miami and remember my thoughts: "God, this season is over." Clearly, I didn't give enough credit to Zimmer, Newman, Pacman, Crocker, Brendan Thompson, and the Minotaur (#55). After seeing Andy Dalton rebound to have another solid game at home, we're getting a clearer picture on his trends as well. In fact, this season has come into pretty good focus after the good guys went out again and kept doing what many felt they couldn't do.
Let's look at a few trends before we hit the conclusions, which at this point have become redundant (which is a good thing as it represents consistency going into the post-season).
* The offensive line suddenly is running the ball better with the move of Whit for Boling, Collins for Whit, and Pollak for Zeitler. What this represents is more experience and power up the middle. As Josh pointed out in his review of the PFF scores last weekend, Collins did well in Pass Pro but struggled in Run blocking. However, the running game in today's NFL centers on the defense's attempt to clog the middle and keep interior OL off the LBs versus the offense's attempt to clear running lanes to allow a timed sliver of daylight for the runner. So we're probably talking about an experience effect here when we essentially replace two young guys for two older guys and get a quantum leap. I also like the idea of playing 6-7 different OL in a game if you have quality guys, and now we have 8 guys who can contribute (although Boling is out for the season). I hope that we can retain Collins in the off season, but it's probably going to cost us $10-12 mil over 3 years (and he might get a little more from a team that's really hurting for a LT ... like Green Bay).
* The Skill Positions on O are capable of dominating against average talent but can struggle quickly against elite talent, especially from teams with a top end CB. We also see the O generally doing better in home games. It all adds up to Andy Dalton being a rhythm passer and a homebody of sorts. When he's in his rhythm, he's tough to shake. When he falls off that wagon, there is a palpable panic alarm that disables our circuits. We have struggled most against teams that are able to limit AJ Green's effectiveness in the short and intermediate routes. However, if the OL run blocking trend is the real deal, I think we can reverse that CB "bunching" strategy against us.
* The defense just gets it done. Led by Burfict, Zimmer's crew has been able to get off the field enough to achieve a nice time of possession and field position advantage. Essentially, these are our two strongest weapons. When you have depth and better special teams, you can win by attrition over the course of a game. Now the injury issue still is relevant, but everyone has them (and we're hanging in there). We still have a few players who are critical for continued success, but that goes for every team as well. The big tests will come in post-season when we find out whether we can get stops against the game's best QBs.
* Special teams has returned to the high levels we enjoyed the last season or two. Huber's punting has been awesome; Nugent has been solid; coverage teams have limited returns; and Brandon Tate has done a great job in handling the ball with security while occasionally busting a decent return. I think we have to mention here the incredible job that Jayson DiManche has done on coverage teams. If you haven't noticed, this guy is all over the field and looks as if he'll be a future stud when he can get on the field on D.
Prior Prominent 5 Conclusions
1. TO Differential: This has been critical in our success. Against Indy we managed to stay even (0 to 0).
2. Andy Dalton: As Andy goes, so does the team. We suspected this coming into the season, and it has shown to be true. Conversely, when Andy is on, we're tough to beat. The four games we lost, Dalton was collectively 105-179 (58.7%), 1100 yds, 4 TDs, 9 INTs, 13 Sacks, Passer Rating 63.1. In the 9 we have won, Dalton was 185-289 (64.0%), 2319 yds, 21 TDs, 7 INTs, 13 Sacks, Passer Rating 103.0. While we shouldn't consistently expect a QB Rating above 90 for Dalton, that's what he is delivering when we throw less often and keep the pass rush off him. I support that by noting that Dalton averages 275.0 yards and 3.25 sacks in losses and 257.7 yards and 1.44 sacks in wins.
3. Dre Kirkpatrick: We noted that he made two big plays in the SD game, and he made 6 tackles against the Colts. His big test will come this week against Big Ben and the Steelers on SNF. Dre will have a national audience as well as Al & Chris to either pick him apart or applaud him. Count on Roethlisberger putting an "X" on him and testing him a lot. Hope he holds his own.
4. Burfict: Funny that when he leads the team in tackles despite not being able to walk normally due to his severe ankle sprain that we wonder what's wrong with him. He's a damn stud - that's all there is to it.
5. Special Teams: This squad again is a deciding factor in the outcomes of games. Field position has become a huge weapon, and the kicking game can highlight or erase that factor. Recently it has been highlighted.
New Prominent 5 Conclusions
1. Consistency: We now know what we can be, and we have lived up to that level of play in big games more than once. When Dalton has this, we win. Period.
2. Confidence: There is no doubt that the team has been confident since day 1, and now the city is beginning to get that deep belief that hasn't quite been seen since the end of the 2005-06 seasons (and was crushed with the Palmer/Henry injury early in that first playoff game).
3. Character: Just the fact that this team has found a way to keep on truckin' after huge personnel losses and deep struggles on O illustrates that there is a strong backbone on this year's squad. We have seen a change starting in the front office, moving through the coaching staff, and playing out on the field with the team.
4. Capability: Is there any doubt that we have a top 10 D, top 10 STs, and top 10 O? Some may argue the last point (the offense), but statistically we are close to top 10 on O even after a near offensive collapse in November. If you throw in our new weapons and our recent surge from the OL, I'll be content to say that we have a top 10 unit even if some are not.
5. Clarity: Do you sense that things are coming into focus right now? I'm not sure how it's going to end. We've got to go against Big Ben, Adrian Peterson, and the reigning World Champs in the next three weeks to get to the post-season. We probably need to win two of those games to win the division. We need to determine whether we can get some return from DBs who haven't had their say yet this season. We need to see Andy Dalton stay consistent and play well in away games where his passer rating (80.0) is significantly lower than that in his home games (98.9). But doesn't it seem like it's all coming together? When's the last time we saw all the big plays and domination on a West Coast trip late in the year where the opponent's season was on the line? When is the last time we saw domination of a top ranked opponent late in the season with playoff implications in play? When is the last time those things came back-to-back? There is a certain momentum now that is bringing greater belief to all involved. Or as Paul Brown once said, "Winning makes believers of us all."
This has turned into a special season because our team has taken a big step in showing true character and quality of depth while maintaining self-belief in a season in which it would have been easy to give up. Credit goes here to Mike Brown, Marv Lewis, Mike Zimmer, Jay Gruden, Darrin Simmons, Andy Dalton, Andre Whitworth, Domata Peko, and Vontaze Burfict who collectively are the top leadership of this team. Certainly there are many more leaders, and I have probably missed on several. But this year we are not seeing to diversions of seasons past. When Dre Kirkpatrick and Rey Maualuga made critical mental mistakes in the season's first game, the team moved on and did not repeat those errors. When we have been critical of Dalton, he has hung in there, given his best, and bounced back over time. Vontaze Burfict has played when he could barely walk and has inspired his head coach to say he's one of the best players he has ever seen. Ever - that's a long time for Marv Lewis who has coached the great LBs of the Steelers, Ravens, and Redskins in prior lives. It would be rich to end this season on the highest note even if that almost seems to be too much given our personnel losses to date and our long history of self-doubt. What I hope for most, however, is that we can enjoy this ride because it has crossed the line and is now a special time in Bengals history.