Just off the top of my head, I'd say that the Bengals pretty much dominated the Steelers on the field but weren't able to show it as well on the scoreboard even though they won without much late drama.
Where to start?
Last week against Chicago my five prevailing themes were probably these:
1. Passing game / Total WR package / Lack of "Open" Offense
2. Pass Rush: Where Is It?
3. Coaching: Critical Mistakes
4. STs: Not yet hitting the cylinders
5. Familiar Names on the Hot Seat: Maualuga, Kirkpatrick
In the Steelers game we saw better use of the full complement of WRs, but there was a noticeable lack of downfield passing. Marv talks about getting yardage in chunks, but we mostly nickle-and-dimed them (save for one Eifert seam route). The pass rush was consistent, and we learned post-game that they focused on a bull approach to keep Roethlisberger from getting into scrambling lanes; I think it worked even though the sacks were limited. I only saw one major coaching mistake which I felt was the failure to use one of the remaining three timeouts just before Pittsburgh had their 43-yard pass that set up their only TD right before halftime. On that play they went no-huddle after a third-and-short conversion, caught us with Vinnie Rey and Kirkpatrick on the field, and were able to convert that into a big play. Special Teams didn't give us an edge although Huber and Nugent did mostly maintain decent field position. However, the one 40-yard punt return for Pittsburgh along with our failure to do anything on punt returns probably gave the STs edge to the Steelers. Finally, Maualuga didn't make any major mistakes and was mostly consistent in run support (although we gotta face that he's a liability in pass coverage).
The good things we saw were the continued emergence of our early draft picks. Bernard took it to an entirely new level and appears to truly give us something (speed & quickness) that we haven't had consistently in a RB for 20+ years. Eifert continued to give great reps both in the receiving and blocking parts of his game. We saw all sorts of alignments that made Jon Gruden salivate. Again, Maualuga played a solid game as a run stopper, and he made at least one nice stop on a short pass to a RB. Pacman was again inconsistent in pass coverage but made the biggest play of the game in stripping the Steeler TE of the ball in the Red Zone after a long gain. Whit came back and held his own, while the entire OL looked solid. Gresham also had a nice receiving game.
The negative things for me included Dalton's very shaky performance, AJ Green's multiple lapses on choice routes, the inability to find a way to get James Harrison contributing, the inability to generate inertia at the start of the game, and the failure to dominate the score in a game the opponent was clearly dominated on the field. Let's hope that the Dalton-Green miscommunications are related to a lack of pre-season reps. I really feel that Dalton was pressing a lot (I suspect due to his first appearance on MNF). When he settled down after about 1.5 quarters, he played a much more efficient game. Let's also hope that the ramp up process on this season continues to bulld - it's better to be a playoff team and max out in January than it is to limp into the playoffs as we have done four times in the Marv era.
Now onto the five current over riding themes:
1) Dalton: This is the big one, folks. We saw Gruden go extensively to the short passing game against Pittsburgh. That worked in racking up yardage and time of possession. Unfortunately, we never really put Pittsburgh away in a game that probably should have been 21-3 at halftime. I have chronicled some of the problems between Dalton and Green above, but there still is a general lack of momentum on O that has left the team stale the first two games. For me, that's Dalton's responsibility. Dalton had a great efficiency game against Chicago but did not carry the game as Cutler did for the Bears. Against Pittsburgh Dalton was all over the place in the short game during the first half, and nearly was picked off 3-4 times. If we're going to play this short passing game, we probably need to run more often and see Green-Ellis be more effective in his carries. Dalton really has to be close to perfect in his short passing routines since his deep ball and scrambling abilities are both very limited. In essence, all Dalton has is a short game, so he better be great at it every week.
2) Gruden: It's not all on Dalton, CJ. Gruden is calling these plays and is prepping Dalton during the week. And I just don't think Jay is as good as his big Bro Jon builds him up to be. There is a lot of good stuff in Gruden's approach, but there's also too many errors. Tons of pre-snaps stuff. Messing up the hard count 2-3 times. Look, the OL appears to be dominant. We should be running more and for a higher average. That means more carries for Giovani and less predictable stuff for the Law Firm. If we're gonna go deep to Green, let's be more clear about the route, and let's throw something in bounds. Some of that is on Dalton, but Gruden did not set Dalton up for the deep wins as he did in Chicago. Or maybe Ike Taylor had a lot to do with that - Taylor played a great game against Green.
3. Special Teams: Huber looks good still in his punting game, but the coverage and return teams are neutral at best. This isn't the teams effort we got in 2012.
4. Defensive Playmaking: An old issue here, we're just not getting enough big plays from the heart of our D. We haven't found a way to make Harrison relevant and aren't getting anything dramatic from Iloka or Maualuga. Burfict has been all over the place, and Reggie Nelson has been visible. I thought Leon Hall played a great game, and Newman was very respectable. We know that the DL graded out well, and the Run D stifled the Steelers. So we're just missing now on the splash plays, big hits, and turnovers. You expect that to come from the LBs and Safeties who are involved in almost every play, and we're just not getting that. Maybe we expected too much from guys who are young or who haven't been able to produce historically? Probably our off-season planning here was weak. We need another vet ILB who can take some snaps away from Maualuga and can cover better on passing downs. But the pickings are slim. This has been talked to death by many of us, but the problem really hasn't changed for a few years now. We just haven't done well in our personnel staff in hitting on LBs and Safeties who consistently produce.
5. Are we a good team or is it "smoke up our butts"?: With GB coming in this week, we're about to find out. What we can expect is for Aaron Rodgers to put up a lot of yards and a lot of points while also taking at least a few sacks. This means that our CB health has to make a move. Kirkpatrick got hurt (again) last night, while Ghee (again) remains on the "hurt list" with a concussion that won't go away. I'm ready to throw the towel in on Ghee who will be a UFA next spring and who hasn't stayed healthy for more than a week or two through his entire career. He is just hexed here. Meanwhile, Kirkpatrick has been too unhealthy to develop any sort of pro game, and he is fast earning the BUST label. Sorry, but you only get so much time as a #17 overall before you run out of time. Dre, time is running out on you. Our D is our strength they say, and we have the #7 rank at present. But we're not dominating games to the point that it's the key factor in the game. The D will have to make a statement of some positive sort to beat the Packers. We're allowed to start slowly, but we have to improve each week if that's the case. Dalton and Green took a step back even when the rest of the O pretty much all took a step forward. The fact that the O fizzled shows how much Dalton and Green mean to the overall offensive production.
I've said this for a long time, and some CJ'ers don't like it. But here goes again: Andy Dalton pretty much holds the fate of this season in his hands. He's in his 3rd season as a starter, and so far he just isn't getting "it" done. Yes, he has had some decent stats. Yes, he is a nice guy. But No, he isn't consistently being the winning, MVP quality QB that you have to have to win the big ones. The Bengals are caught up in the middle muck. Marv Lewis' career regular season record is 80-81-1. Middle muck. Andy Dalton's QB rating is 88.7. Middle muck. Rey Maualuga has tried hard and has made some nice tackles mostly on run support while mostly failing in space in pass defense. Middle muck. Mike Zimmer hasn't found his magic yet, but we know he's working on it. Middle muck. Marv Lewis finally found his red flag on time and in the right situation; but just barely before Big Ben snapped the next play on something that was pretty obvious to every viewer. Middle muck. The Law Firm's runs look 80% like a nun crossing the street and 20% like Mike Tyson in a barroom brawl. Middle muck. Pacman Jones can't cover my sister lately, but he hustles and strips out fumbles after the catch. Middle muck. Brandon Tate stopped his pre-season magic in the return game and went back to pussy footing. Middle muck. The Bengals brought on the scariest guy in football - the guy who admittedly "wouldn't piss on Roger Goodell if he was on fire". But when they play his ex-team, they can't find a way to even get James Harrison on the field for more than 14 snaps or get him a tackle. Now we know that poor Manny Lawson never had a decent chance. Middle muck. The Bengals stand for mediocrity under Marv. How long must we sing this song?