What a difference a week and a half makes. After looking totally unprepared and frightened by the big Thursday Night stage, the Cincinnati Bengals thoroughly dominated every aspect of the game on Sunday in New Orleans. It's an impressive feat to go into the Superdome and defeat the Saints, as they have just lost there twice (back-to-back games, no less) since 2010.
Everything that the Bengals did poorly against the Browns looked as if it had been completely tightened up in the extended week leading up to this one. It would have been one thing for the Bengals to turn around and just be competitive in this game but it was quite another with the result we saw on the field.
Andy Dalton: After suffering through one of his worst performances as a pro, Dalton got back to work immediately and really focused in this week. It showed with his near-impeccable 143.9 quarterback rating. He looked poised and sure of nearly every throw he made, missing just six passes on the day (a couple were dropped, too). Dalton had zero turnovers and was also cited on the "Dilfer's Dimes", ESPN SportsCenter segment from former NFL quarterback, Trent Dilfer. Two of Dalton's deep balls to A.J. Green were ridiculously accurate, which was something we didn't see against the Browns.
Jeremy Hill: The success level of Hill in his limited starts reminds me of another Bengals back taken in the second round of the draft--Corey Dillon in 1997. Don't get me wrong--the styles of the two aren't the same. But, Hill is showing his value and has quickly become the shining jewel of Cincinnati's 2014 draft class. In his last three games, all starts, Hill averaged 120.3 rushing yards and 5.7 yards per carry. It will be interesting to see how Hill is used once Giovani Bernard returns, but his workload should be increased from the early parts of the season.
A.J. Green: The Bengals' Pro Bowl wideout had a frustrating start to the game, but everyone decided he was set to take over the game in the second half. After catching two deep balls from Dalton, one for a game-sealing touchdown, Green finished with six catches for 124 yards and the score. The 38-yarder down the sideline might have been the play of the game, as the Bengals faced a third-and-18 deep in their own territory, right after the Saints scored a touchdown to inch closer. Green's presence on the field clearly makes Dalton more comfortable and allows the offense to do more.
The Run Defense: The Bengals came in 31st against the run and it didn't look promising with the Saints' No. 6 rushing attack. The depleted unit came in allowing over 100 yards on the ground in each of the last seven games, while the Saints' Mark Ingram had three straight 100-yard rushing games. Something had to give and the Bengals won the day here. He had only 2.9 yards per carry, while the team stumbled to just three first downs via the run and 75 overall on the afternoon.
The Duo From The Pacific--Rey Maualuga and Domata Peko: Maualuga had missed the past four games with a hamstring injury and his physical presence was obviously missed. Peko hadn't been playing very good football for a while, but was huge in this one, with eight total tackles. Though Maualuga was only credited with three total tackles, one was the huge goal line stop to swing momentum for the rest of the game.
Carlos Dunlap: Once again, Dunlap was incredibly active up front on Sunday. Though he had only two tackles and zero sacks, he had multiple pressures, a batted pass and a forced fumble. One of the pressures led to a holding penalty, in which he pushed the tackle back into Drew Brees' comfort zone.
Taking Away New Orleans' Ability For A Big Offensive Play: Credit Paul Guenther for his defensive scheme on Sunday, as he has been much-maligned through the first half of the year. All-World tight end Jimmy Graham was bracketed with multiple defenders most of the day and was held to just 29 yards receiving. Brees normally likes to take more than a few "bombs away" shots per game, but the defense didn't allow players to get open deep. Though Brees had a high completion percentage on the day (81 percent), most were shorter routes that had minimal damage, as evidenced by no receivers going over 60 yards receiving on the day.
Coaching: Major kudos goes to the Bengals' staff for getting the players' heads right after such an embarrassing loss. This was a game in which almost everyone figured the Saints to be the victor, but handing a 17-point loss to the Saints was a beautiful sight for a team needing a confidence boost. The offense was efficient and selective, while the defense frustrated New Orleans all day long. Perhaps best of all was the overall effort by the players, which was on display in examples like diving receptions, goal line stands and the like.
Jermaine Gresham: It was ugly, but somehow No. 84 managed to get two catches for two scores on Sunday. Somehow, after fumbling the football, Gresham kicked the loose ball back around to his vicinity, tuck with the play and dove on the ball for a touchdown. The other was a well-designed play in which he was all alone for a walk-in score. Perhaps the best of Gresham's day came with gestures to two sisters at the game. After todding a ball to a Bengals fan after his score, the ball was ripped away from a young lady by a Saints fan. After the guy refused to give it to Christa Barrett, Gresham told Christa's sister that he'd figure out something nice to do for them. Classy.
The Offensive Line: This unit showed up big time on Sunday after a poor effort the previous Thursday. Marshall Newhouse had far less struggles and the unit paved way for the aforementioned huge day from Hill. They did allow one sack on the afternoon, but Dalton was pretty clean the rest of the afternoon.
Third Down Offense: Dalton led his team to a 69 percent success rate on third downs, with a few being huge key plays to secure the win. The 38-yarder on third-and-18 to Green was a huge play and the Saints defense was visibly frustrated when they couldn't get off the field.
Mohamed Sanu: Though the third-year wide receiver has stepped up big when both Green and Marvin Jones were/are out, he didn't play very well on Sunday. He had just three catches for 23 yards and had at least one obvious drop, maybe two. The Bengals were fortunate to get contributions from Gresham and Green, otherwise the day on offense might have looked much uglier.
Fumbles: Though they recovered both of them, the team still showed a penchant for putting the ball on the ground after committing four turnovers the week before. Had Gresham not picked up his own fumble and scored, this game might have looked completely different. With huge games coming up against Houston, Denver, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, the Bengals will need to take extra special care of the football.
Third Down Defense: For all of the positives that the Bengals defense provided on Sunday, they still allowed Brees and Co. to convert 61 percent of their third down tries. It's understandable, as defenses usually need to give up one aspect to the future Hall of Fame quarterback, but that number is higher than they would like to see, I'm sure.
Big Amount Of QB Pressures, Minimal Sacks: The Bengals defense was able to fluster Brees on the afternoon, but only got him to the ground once. It seemed as if the defensive game plan was to limit the blitz and keep defenders back to defend against long passes. To that point, the team executed that well, however, sacking the elite quarterbacks is something that needs to be done to routinely be successful against the big boys. They only have 13 total sacks this year, good for a tie at 29th this season.
Jermaine Gresham: Yes, two touchdowns, but both were nerve-inducing. Obviously, the fumble on the first catch of his ended in an incredibly lucky result, but the second catch was actually bobbled, even though he was all alone. The little things keep plaguing the veteran tight end and it always seems to be an adventure when the ball comes his way. Still a good game from the big guy, but he was oh-so-close to making the day a disastrous one.
Tony Williams: No, not the former Bengals defensive lineman. We're talking about the Saints fan who had the audacity to elbow a female Bengals fan in the face to get a game ball tossed to her by Gresham. This story is viral now, so we'll just say that the guy acted like a total tool in the situation.