Andy Dalton struggled but he's not out
Performances like the one against Cleveland is down-right maddening because there's an obvious feeling of reversion when dealing with Dalton. One of his worst career performances on Sunday followed up an amazing second half against the Packers, where Dalton helped lead Cincinnati from a 16-point deficit that set the stage for Terence Newman's game winning touchdown. After Green Bay took a 30-14 lead last week midway through the third, Dalton completed nine of his final ten passes for 132 yards passing, two touchdowns, and a perfect passer rating of 158.3. Without that production, the Bengals are 1-3 right now.
Against the Browns, he was errant, lacked confidence, and struggled to get on the same page with his primary receivers. I'll say this again to drive home the point... the inconsistency and roller coaster production is maddening.
Yet calls for Josh Johnson are even more maddening. Though he had good production against defenses that played second-teamers during the preseason, Johnson was still turnover prone (two fumbles, interception) while completing passes at a 55.1 clip. For his career, Johnson has thrown twice as many interceptions than touchdowns and his career passer rating (57.7) is actually worse than Dalton turned in on Sunday (58.2).
Maybe there's a point to using Johnson to spark a little life in this offense. Doing so could lead to complications (such as a locker room division), so if the team is planning to move into that direction, then you better be ready for distractions. And you better be ready to field the feeling that you've abandoned Dalton, which could impact younger players. In the end, Johnson isn't the type of player that's worth taking that risk.
The issue with Dalton is consistency. He has his good and bad games. You're not going to eliminate that with Johnson. There's a reason why he wasn't in the NFL for 16 weeks last year.
Time to focus on greater distribution
The above point might be viewed as a defense of Andy Dalton; when in reality it's simply a vote against replacing him with Josh Johnson. However, when the Bengals go into pass-happy mode with Dalton, they're at their worst. Dalton and Green aren't the cohesive duo that we've seen them develop into and maybe that's related to the quarterback's attention on Green. Last year, Dalton targeted Green on 31.1 percent of his 528 attempts -- nearly ten points higher than the 22.3 percent in 2011. This year that number has ballooned to nearly 38 percent.
What are his options?
Mohamed Sanu and Jermaine Gresham have been targeted a combined 48 times (compared to Green's 50), posting more receptions (34) and yards receiving (327) than Green combined. Obviously you use your best players, but right now the team needs to redistribute with a little more balance. If they want to pass 40 times a game, fine. But there are two first-round tight ends that have proven to be productive players and Sanu is on the verge of being a constant producer (once he's given the opportunity).
Why not give Dane Sazenbacher an opportunity?
Marvin Jones isn't producing much this season, posting 80 yards receiving through four games -- including no catches against the Browns. But we're not offering a suggestion to replace him on offense. Not yet. How can we when the offense just doesn't use him as much.
But why not move Sanzenbacher into the role as a punt returner? Obviously Adam Jones' participation on special teams is on hold after playing with an abdominal against the Packers. Now he's forced to focus entirely on defense with Leon Hall out with a hamstring.
Brandon Tate isn't getting it done in the return game; as the world universally responds, "told you so." Through four games, he's returned six punts (and fair caught six more) for a 6.0 yard/return average. Of the eight kickoffs that he's returned, only one has been returned longer than 30 yards.
So why not Dane Sanzenbacher?
Against the Atlanta Falcons during the preseason, Sanzenbacher returned a 71-yard punt return for a touchdown and then added another 53-yard kickoff return against the Dallas Cowboys. There's no regular season sample size for him right now, but what's the problem in checking that out?
It's time for a change.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis' struggles justify Giovani Bernard's increased role
Through the first two games, Green-Ellis averaged 43 snaps on offense per game. During the final two games against the Packers and Browns, Green-Ellis has 41 offensive snaps... total.
The reason? Giovani Bernard.
The rookie back out of North Carolina has generated a 4.6 yard/rush average on 32 carries with a workload that's steadily increasing -- his snap counts: Chicago (22), Steelers (29), Packers (30), Browns (50). Bernard's influence in the passing game is improving as well; targeted only twice against the Steelers, followed by four targets against the Packers and six against Cleveland. Over the past two games, Bernard has 10 receptions for 87 yards receiving.
On the other hand, Bernard's increasing workload isn't entirely a desire to play him.
Green-Ellis just hasn't done much to warrant the team's confidence. While many complained about Green-Ellis during his time in Cincinnati, the overall truth is that he was signed to convert short-yardage situations. Unfortunately, that lack of production has shaken Cincinnati's confidence. He fumbled the football on third and short against the Packers and failed to generate a yard on fourth down against the Browns (admittedly, not entirely his fault).
However, Green-Ellis has failed to surpass 30 yards rushing in three of the team's four games this season. Against the Bears, Packers and Browns, Green-Ellis is averaging 22.3 yards/game with a yard/rush average of 2.2.
Iloka continued development and Atkins slow start
Safety George Iloka is definitely worth observing. He's an aggressive safety that's not opposed to the big hit but has done a fine job covering the opposing team's tight ends. Perfect? No. Shutdown? Hardly. The right choice after a prolonged training camp battle this summer? Yes. It's a progressive thing for Iloka, but if those developments continue throughout the season, the Bengals may finally have their foundation piece at safety, opposite Reggie Nelson.
Until his dominating production against the Cleveland Browns, Atkins hasn't had the type of production that we expect out of him now. If this were in regards to any defensive tackle in the NFL, then he'd be on some "we're impressed with" list. But he's one of the best in the NFL and the production (and salary) should reflect that. Instead, Atkins has 2.5 quarterback sacks and four tackles this season.
There's no reason to be concerned about Atkins; he's doing his job, even though we expect more out of his production. With Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap having good starts this year, the opposing offense's attention will balance out and give Atkins more single-man matches. And when that happens, fire and brimstone will be the only currency that Atkins accepts.