It wasn't a total walk in the park for the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, but it's about as close as it comes to it in the NFL. The Tennessee Titans continuously got in their own way and paid for it dearly. It wasn't the prettiest, as far as 26-point victories go, but a win with a point differential sniffing four touchdowns is always a pleasant sight.
Even with such a lopsided win, the Queen City crew wasn't perfect. There were some concerning moments that could rear their ugly heads against a higher-quality opponent, but overall it was a game that the team can hang their helmets on. Here is the list of the good, the bad and the ugly in Cincinnati's 33-7 win over Tennessee.
The Offensive Line: The Bengals pushed around the Titans up front on Sunday, allowing their two-headed rushing attack to take advantage. Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill combined for 86 rushing yards, a 4.1 yards per carry average and three touchdowns. It's a glimpse into the formula that offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is looking to employ all season. The entire unit also kept quarterback Andy Dalton clean for the third straight week, which is an impressive statistic.
Center Russell Bodine has been the victim of fans' scorn throughout the preseason and into the first couple of weeks, but he had the highest Pro Football Focus rating of the linemen and submitted some nice pancake blocks throughout the day. Mike Pollak stepped up and filled in nicely for the injured Kevin Zeitler, while Andre Smith continues his solid play. Big No.71 had a moment of brilliance where a Titans defensive lineman jumped offsides causing Smith to jump, an act to show the officials that the lineman drew him to move. It was a penalty against Tennessee that created a very manageable third down situation.
The Running Backs: It's working. The aforementioned stats tell the story and both Hill and Bernard are the keys to this offensive system. Surprisingly, Bernard only had one catch on the day, but they wore out the Titans defense. Hill continues to be particularly effective, aand averaged 5.6 yards per carry on Sunday. The only question is if Jackson will entrust the rookie with more carries in the games ahead. If you look at his stat line in limited opportunities, he definitely has earned it.
A.J. Green: Early in the week, there was a gloomy outlook on the status of the Pro Bowl wideout. As the days wore on, Green looked like he was a go for Sunday, and Mr. Automatic came through with another 100-yard receiving day. He terrorized the Tennessee corners and could have had a touchdown reception if it wasn't for a pass interference penalty on him in the end zone. It's a different offense with Green in the lineup and while the chorus of "sit him" this past week was understandable, you play your best players when they are able to go.
The Secondary: Usually it's a good pass rush that makes corners look better than they might really be. Through the first three games, it seems to be the opposite of that rule with the Bengals defense. This generation's version of "The SWAT Team" smothers, swarms and creates turnovers. Leon Hall was one of the few solid tacklers on the day and the rest of the group frustrated Jake Locker all afternoon. Not too bad for a bunch of outcasts, eh?
Carlos Dunlap: The fifth-year man proclaimed that he was ready for a Pro Bowl berth before this season and he is proving it. Dunlap has been the only consistent defensive lineman thus far, notching a sack in each of the first three games, while playing the run well and also dropping into coverage every now and then. He is also one of the more animated guys on defense who hypes up the crowd and celebrates when other teammates make a play. That contract extension last season looks to be paying off big-time.
Dre Kirkpatrick As A Special Teams Player: Though he has had some disappointments as a corner, Kirkpatrick is excelling as a gunner on punt coverages. He has been a stout tackler and downs punts deep into opponents' territory often (a safety occurred thanks to pinning the Titans against their own end zone, where he and Cedric Peerman combined on the downed punt). Furthermore, he is also blocking well for punt returners--take a look at Adam Jones' lone punt return from Sunday where Kirkpatrick smeared a Titans defender. It's not the ideal niche for a former first round player, but he's making the most of it.
Robert Geathers: He's a big defensive lineman, but this guy has had a knack for some athletic plays over the years for a guy his size. The ageless wonder had three total tackles and a huge, acrobatic interception on Sunday. Aside from that, Geathers also had a pressure that led to a holding penalty on the Titans. Though the line is underachieving as a whole at the moment, Geathers had a solid afternoon as part of a rotation.
Kevin Huber: The team's punter was outstanding on Sunday, notching a 49-yard kick average. Three of his four punts were inside the 20-yard line and he put the Titans' offense in a major hole with poor field position. When Huber is on, he is the team's secret weapon.
The Camaraderie: The players on this team like each other. They celebrate when a teammate makes a play and this team-first attitude shows with the on-field performances. These Bengals don't get in each others' faces when they make a mistake--they edify them and attempt to pick up the slack on their respective unit. One of the most pleasing sights from Sunday had to be Rey Maualuga streaking down the sideline in celebration as A.J. Green caught a ball that he almost broke down the sideline for a touchdown. It's the little things, folks.
"The Play": In the 46-year history of the franchise, no Bengals quarterback had ever caught a touchdown pass. Jackson took a play out of a Hollywood movie and allowed the team's newly-minted franchise guy to catch a pass and run to paydirt. It was clever, scary and entertaining all in one brief sequence of moments, but it also signaled the good fortunes and overall direction of this team right now. Thankfully, Blidi Wreh-Wilson (who had one of the worst days I've ever seen a corner have in the NFL) misplayed the ball and missed out on a big hit on Dalton. The play could have resulted in a pick-six and/or injury to Dalton, but it went the Bengals' way. Furthermore, it shows that they're having fun out there.
Red Zone Offense: It started off ugly once again, but the team's offense bullied their way into the end zone on their next four trips. Settling for field goal attempts been something that has hurt the team a bit through the first three games, but the offense seems to be learning how to put their foot on the throat of a reeling opponent.
Tackling: It's hard to get on a unit that allowed just seven points and is at 11 per game, but Titans receivers, backs and their quarterback all escaped the Bengals tackling efforts. It might be nitpicky, but if this isn't shored up, it could haunt the team against some of the more explosive offenses that are coming down the pike. Perhaps it's because they hit a bit of a "coasting mode" with a big lead, but some issues were early in the contest. Paul Guenther should emphasize this over the bye week.
The Defensive Line: Aside from Dunlap's play and some random good plays from Geathers and Wallace Gilberry over the first three games, the line play has been...blah. Geno Atkins doesn't look anywhere near his old self, notching just an assisted tackle against the Titans and has had minimal pressures this season. Margus Hunt is primarily out on the field in special teams roles and isn't really contributing up front. Though the unit has held opposing offenses to minimal points, there have been some concerning issues.
Some running backs, namely Bishop Sankey and Justin Forsett have gashed the Bengals' defensive unit. The boys up front have also let opposing quarterbacks get loose for big runs on occasion through the first three games. The bottom line: Atkins needs to get his feet back under him and someone else needs to provide pressure off of the edge. The secondary is carrying the entire defensive unit right now.
Dre Kirkpatrick As A Corner: Call it rust if you want, but Kirkpatrick isn't as comfortable on defense as he is on special teams. The third-year man was only out there for 14 defensive plays in garbage time, but was victimized through the first half dozen or so of those snaps. Two personal fouls and the letting up of a big reception that led to the Titans' only touchdown were on Dre's resume on Sunday. He didn't seem to carry over the momentum from late last season when it looked like he was progressing. Let's hope this was a fluke.
The First Turnover Of 2014: It was inevitably going to happen at some point, but once it did, it felt like a punch to the gut. The Bengals' offense had been playing incredibly efficient through the first two and a half games before the interception. What's worse is that it occurred on a play that is considered uber-safe in a screen pass to the running back. It would have definitely led to points if Reggie Nelson hadn't picked Locker off in their end zone.