Even though the Bengals dominated for nearly three quarters of a game, they Ravens still managed to hang around and make it a bit of a barn-burner. After jumping up to a 15-0 lead, the Bengals took their foot off of the gas and before they knew it, were down by a point in the fourth quarter.
Nevertheless, the team didn't get rattled and pulled out a solid road win against a division rival. It was a sight for sore eyes for a club that's seen so many similar games slip through their fingers in years past. Perhaps this win was a microcosm of a true culture change and signaled a true change of guard in the AFC North, for a club that has been successful the past three seasons. Or, maybe it's just Week One and it isn't the time to look too much into it.
Regardless, we take a look at some of the high and low-lights of the Bengals' 23-16 win at M & T Bank Stadium on Sunday.
Hue Jackson's New Offense:
It was creative at times, controlled and methodical. Quarterback Andy Dalton looked calm and often got the ball out quickly. When Dalton wasn't dropping back, Giovani Bernard was shucking and jiving his way for positive yards and the game plan put Dalton in a position to succeed on Sunday--he took advantage. The only thing preventing this from being 'great' was the inability of the offense to get touchdowns instead of field goals. We'll chalk that up to being the first week in a new offense and playing an always-stout and aggressive Ravens defense on the road. The best part? Zero turnovers.
Yes, he had a field goal blocked at a critical moment late in the game, but Nugent was the Bengals' best offensive weapon for a while, springing them to a 15-0 lead. One was a 49-yarder early that set the tone and had the Ravens playing catch-up for the majority of the game. This guy continues to have a renaissance after injuries and keeps producing when his number is called. It was an impressive performance for a kicker in a tough atmosphere in the opener.
Dalton has been great in the regular season in his career, save for those uber-important games against the Steelers and Ravens. The Ravens were 8-0 in home openers in as many opportunities and Dalton was 0-3 when playing in Baltimore. The primary culprits responsible for Dalton's poor play were panicky moments and turnovers. Neither seemed to occur Sunday, as Dalton went turnover-less (one of our big keys to a victory last week) and never seemed like his composure faltered, even after the team gave up a 15-point lead. Kudos to this seemingly "new" quarterback for the Bengals, who seems to love Jackson's new system.
Unfortunately, Bernard didn't improve that much off of his preseason 2.5 yards per carry average. The Bengals, who were supposedly committing to the run full-bore this season, only had their primary back carry the ball 14 times, in which the sedon-year back netted 48 yards (3.4 YPC). Still, the offense's spark plug did some damage as a receiver with six catches for 62 yards, including a 32-yard bolt. Though it wasn't Pro Bowl material per se, Bernard's abilities play perfectly into Jackson's offense.
Though many had high expectations for the young linebacker in his first year as a starter (second, if you count that he was slated for such before a preseason season-ending injury last year), some were unsure of what the output would actually be. Lamur didn't disappoint against the Ravens with 11 tackles and an interception. He looked right at home in Paul Guenther's system.
To some fans' surprise, Gilberry was the starting defensive end, not Margus Hunt. All Gilberry did was continue the positive momentum he created since joining the team during the 2012 season. He had 1.5 sacks on Sunday, including the game-clincher at the end of the fourth quarter on fourth down. He is a valuable member of the defensive line, as he can play at the end position, or kick inside on passing downs.
The "Anti-Chad" also displays a specific difference in big divisional games--he shows up. Green was bottled up a bit for most of the game until he made a circus catch that ended up being the difference in the game. Last season, Green hauled in an improbable Hail Mary in Baltimore to put the game into overtime, but he didn't take any chances with this one. The 77-yard bomb was just another play in a ridiculous career highlight reel.
A Vontaze Burfict-less Defense:
When the Pro Bowl linebacker was in the game, the focus and performance was notable. The defense stymied the Ravens offense for much of the game and helped to cement a 15-0 lead. Once he left the game with a concussion on a hit to Joe Flacco, the defense didn't have its same swagger and many missed tackles occurred. Initially, it looked like one of those familiar Burfict injuries in which he'd return a couple of plays later, but it wasn't the case on Sunday. The unit should still be applauded for allowing only 16 points and grabbing two turnovers, but his absence hurt the team.
Defending Tight Ends:
How many times has this bit the Bengals in the you-know-what over the years? Largely due to Burfict's absence, the Bengals allowed Dennis Pitta and Owen Daniels to pick their defense apart en route to what became a 16-15 lead. They combined for 14 catches for 117 yards and much of their work was done in the middle of the field and shorter routes. With the defense facing so many good tight ends this year, it's crucial that they clean this up.
Third Down Efficiency/Red Zone Offense:
The Bengals' offense didn't execute on third down on Sunday afternoon, nor did they take advantage of golden opportunities to put their foot on the throat of a reeling division opponent early on. They were only 4/14 on third down conversions and the five Nugent field goals speak to the lack of the ability to punch it in the end zone. If either of these areas came anywhere close to the 50% mark, this game would have been out of hand before halftime. Unfortunately, the Bengals wanted to keep everyone entertained and decided to keep the game close.
Trust me, I hate to pile on the guy. He's talented and has many "wow" moments. But, in game one of the 2014 season with the Bengals needing someone to step up after Tyler Eifert left with an elbow injury, Gresham simply didn't do what many thought he should. He didn't contribute in the red zone where the team struggled all afternoon and had some familiar bug-a-boos. He had an early false start penalty and a drop that should have been a first down on top of his lackluster two catch, 16 yard effort. Gresham will need to get his head on straight going forward, should Eifert's injury force him to miss significant time.