For those familiar with the Cincinnati Bengals, a 30-0 win against a division rival simply doesn't happen often. That kind of result is especially infrequent when it's on the heels of a wildly popular story line, a la one Johnny Football Manziel. Aside from it being against the Browns, it's the dodging of a narrative that makes the Sunday beat-down in Cleveland extra sweet.
There were many positives for the Bengals on Sunday and the fashion with which they took it to the Browns, was AFC North-esque. Pound the ball and play stout defense - that's what works in the division. It was tough, beautiful and hideous in the span of about three and a half hours.
The One-Back System That Used Three Effectively: Hill was the star on the day, who backed up his post-game trash talk from about five weeks earlier to the tune of 148 yards and two rushing touchdowns. He was physical and nimble all at once, evoking an image similar to a hulk-ish ballerina throwing punches at any defender that came his way. When he wasn't plowing through or stiff-arming Browns tacklers, he danced around their feeble tackling attempts with ease. Giovani Bernard contributed late with most of his 79 yards coming late, as it was with Rex Burkhead and his first career touchdown with a half-minute left. The usage of the Hill/Bernard tandem was perfect, as they accounted for 227 of the team's 244 rushing yards on the day.
Ryan. Freaking. Hewitt.: Hi, children--can you say, "fan favorite"? I knew that you could. At the end of every Bengals season we give out our yearly awards, appropriately called "The CJs", with one of those being "Most Improved Player". With each passing week, Hewitt makes a strong case for that designation. He's big, physical and can catch. Hewitt grabbed three catches for 34 yards, while also being open for a touchdown that Andy Dalton underthrew for an interception. He was also a critical lead blocker on many of Hill's big runs, moving linebackers and defensive backs out of the way with ease.Watch him here, as he moves Browns linebacker Craig Robertson (No. 53) back a few yards and then continues to hustle and look for more opposing players to destroy:
Pollak and Whitworth pull left to right, opening a gap for Hill, who gains 21 yards w/ 13:06 remaining in t... https://t.co/xzUI4GHT1M— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) December 14, 2014
The Run Blocking: Obviously, if a team runs for almost 250 yards in a game, things are going right up front. Hewitt was just a cog in a behemoth running lane-making machine. Andrew Whitworth and others pulled, while a rotation at right tackle and multiple "jumbo" packages allowed Clint Boling, Marshall Newhouse and Eric Winston to contribute in the fun. In this regard, the Bengals were dominant.
Mike Nugent: It has been an awful week for the Nugent family after the loss of Mike's father, and it wasn't a certainty that he would even suit up on Sunday. "Nuge" did though, and had a fantastic game. He kicked three field goals, two from 44 yards, and three extra points. He received the game ball from the coaches after in the locker room, which was an emotional moment. Remember when people wanted Nugent's head after missing that game-winning attempt against Carolina? He hasn't missed a single kick since, going 11-for-11.
The Run Defense: After getting absolutely throttled by three different backs in their first meeting, the Bengals really clamped down on this area on Sunday. It was especially impressive because of the added dimension of Johnny Manziel and the read-option, which has been a problem area for this defense lately. No runner cracked 25 yards, as the unit stifled the Browns for 53 net rushing yards.
The Pass Defense: Part of this has to do with poor decisions on Manziel's end, but the guys charged with the back end of the defense were phenomenal. Guys were swarming everywhere, allowing Johnny Football to throw for only 80 yards, while tossing two picks. No Browns receivers seemed to get open, and when they were, the defensive front didn't allow Manziel to make a throw. It was one of the most dominant defensive performances in recent history, all-around.
Converting On Fourth Down In First Possession: It was a precarious situation that the Bengals were staring at after a pretty solid drive. They stalled out at the Cleveland 32-yard line with a fourth and four. Ask Nugent to kick a long field goal in less-than-ideal conditions, or go for and try to take the spirit away from the stadium? On one of his few crisp throws on the day, Dalton hit Green on a 10-yard strike with a slant route. The Bengals scored a touchdown a few plays later and never looked back.
Backing Up The Talk With Quality Play And More Talk: Toward the end of last week, I posted a piece saying the Bengals' needed to "walk the walk" against the Browns. The rationale behind that was with all of the chatter coming from the Bengals side of the fence. Marvin Lewis used a slur to describe the stature of Manziel, while Hill stood behind his statements that slighted the talent level of the Browns. With Manziel attempting to take on the label of Cleveland's savior, it seemed like the familiar perfect storm that the Bengals seem to often run into. The high level of play made those comments fade into the background, while also giving Cincy the opportunity to talk more smack. About a half-dozen mocking "Manziel Money Maker Signs" as well as a Hill touchdown celebration resembling the other Cleveland savior, LeBron James, and the Bengals finally decided to play the role of bully. It was a day that would have made even Chad Johnson proud of the Bengals' behavior.
Mohamed Sanu: It's not entirely his fault, but some of the total disappearing act he's done for the past few games has to lay at his feet. He hasn't had any kind of significant impact since the Week 12 match-up in Houston and this Sunday was no different. The Cleveland Browns do an outstanding job of taking A.J. Green out of the equation on a relatively consistent basis, so a second receiving option is needed. Sanu had just one catch for four yards, which didn't help much with Green only amassing 49 yards on the afternoon. Now, I distinctly remember seeing Sanu open a couple of times, only to not get the ball thrown his way, but Sanu, Dalton and Hue Jackson need to all start getting on the same page.
Rey Maualuga's Taunting Penalty: Late in the second quarter, the Browns were trying to get something going on offense. Manziel dropped back to pass and a leaping Maualuga enveloped the pass and celebrated. Unfortunately, using the "Manziel Money Maker" while standing over the quarterback drew a taunting penalty. It ended up springing the Browns to a long drive, which almost ended in points.The only reasons that this one didn't land in "the ugly" was because I can respect the passion that came with it, and Maualuga did his best to make up for the mistake with a nullified interception (Bengals were offsides) the next play.
Andy Dalton's Passing: In truth, I struggled putting this one here, as most of Dalton's day through the air was deplorable. He wasn't anywhere close on a number of deep shots, though the coverage was pretty tight, and threw a poor pass to a wide open Hewitt that turned a would-be touchdown into an interception. While there was some pressure on the afternoon, Dalton also held the ball too long on at least one of the two sacks. With a stat line including 117 yards passing, and with 250-yard rushing days not exactly growing on trees, it's hard to fathom team success as the playoffs loom. Still, Dalton leaned on the run and did make a couple of drive-extending throws, which were the keys to the offense.
The Fumbles: Though none were lost, three footballs put on the ground will bite any team in a postseason run. The Bengals lucked out that they either went out of bounds or were able to dive back on them--two of which were Hill's responsibility. Though he's only lost one fumble on the year, he's had a penchant for getting it knocked out in 2014. Marvin Lewis called him out for it at his Monday press conference, so it's being observed as an issue.
The Angry Browns Fan: The guy in "The Dawg Pound" is a prime example of why teams have been struggling to sell out games in recent years. Aside from weather and in-home experience, unruly fans that seem as if they should be wearing a "this is MY HOUSE" t-shirt, tend to ruin the stadium experience for others. As Jeremy Hill cruised in for a 16-yard touchdown, his second of the day, he saw a few Bengals fans run to the wall to greet him. Hill obliged and jumped up to them, which angered a Browns fan to the point that he was shoving and borderline punching Hill in the head to get out of there.
To which Bengals fans would likely respond to the Cleveland's fan's classlessness with a simple phrase from two and a half decades ago.