It's a great time to be a Bengals fan. With only three weeks gone by in the season, the Bengals already have three wins. They've now equaled their win total from the first three weeks last year, but the team and the fans will both be hoping for a better follow up. In 2014, the Bengals went 0-2-1 after jumping out to a 3-0 start. You could argue it was a follow up caused by the early bye, playing their fourth game against a jaded Tom Brady, and a critical missed field goal from Mike Nugent. But, those are excuses, and excuses aren't going to help the Bengals continue to win games in 2015.
The lead-up to Week 3 was an interesting situation for the Bengals. They were 2-0 and so many people gave the team top five love in the Power Rankings, yet there wasn't much consensus on who would win as the Bengals traveled to Baltimore for their third game of the season. The Bengals' escaped with a clutch 28-24 win over the division rival Ravens, sending the Ravens to their first 0-3 start of John Harbaugh's tenure and the Bengals to their second 3-0 in two years.
This week, the Bengals return to The Jungle to face a struggling Chiefs team coming off a two game losing streak. Can the Bengals avoid being embarrassed by a team that was just embarrassed on Monday Night Football the previous week, as was the case last year against the Patriots? The guys at Pro Football Focus weighed in with their data, and here's what we took away from it:
Last week: 28-24 win in Baltimore.
Andy Dalton and the Bengals' offense have been playing very well lately. After the Ravens' game, they displayed a quality that we haven't seen from the Bengals in a long time; consistently playing very well. Against the Ravens, Dalton received a very positive grade (+5.8) for his 383 yard, three touchdown, one interception performance. Cumulatively, he's got one of the best grades on the team (+8.3). That's the highest graded start to his career, by a wide margin.
Because of how well the Bengals have been doing, PFF ranked them as their #4 team in this week's power rankings, which lines up pretty well with what most people have been saying. That's led to quite a few people asking, are the Bengals legitimate contenders this time? They've given off the feel of a contender at times throughout the past few seasons, but PFF think that they're the real deal this time.
Why? We've already discussed Dalton's consistent great play, but there's also the return of Geno Atkins to his dominant form. As Cris Collinsworth points out, Geno Atkins is PFF's second highest rated DT in the NFL this year, behind only Aaron Donald. Furthermore, Atkins has a pass rushing productivity grade that is the best in the NFL at his position.
As the video with Collinsworth points out, the Bengals are legitimate Super Bowl contenders right now, and they're going to be a tough force to overcome for opposing teams this season. Which NFL teams are poised to dethrone the Patriots as top dogs in the AFC? You've got to give a nod to the Bengals, as they continue to knock perceived obstacles out of their way. Monday Night Football against a top team to clinch the playoffs? They tackled that last year. Consistently beating a tough division opponent? The Bengals haven't lost to the Ravens since 2013. Showing up and actually winning a playoff game? Stay tuned.
Kansas City Chiefs
Last week: 38-28 loss in Green Bay.
Don't let the 10-point margin fool you, the Chiefs got creamed by the Packers on Monday. Despite this outcome, however, the Chiefs did make a few attempts at a comeback when all hope seemed lost, which was impressive enough for them to land at #8 in PFF's weekly power rankings.That said, it has a lot to do with fielding the third best run defense in the NFL (+14.3). Justin Houston's 14.3 run stop percentage - good for best of all 3-4 linebackers, and Jaye Howard's ranking as PFF's second best NFL DT against the run has a lot to do with it.
That Chiefs' defensive front looks nasty, but their offense isn't scaring anyone. In 2012, Alex Smith was targeting his weapons, on average, about 7.7 yards down the field. That's a conservative approach, but it still holds the potential to move the ball down the field when it's needed. However, by 2015, Smith's average target depth has fallen to 5.8 yards, which is a kind of conservative approach that borders on completely ineffective.
Sure, the Chiefs' offense got it together in garbage time last week, finally recording a touchdown from a wide receiver for the first time since 2013, but they still lost by 10 and did little more than give Chiefs fans that didn't turn the TV off in disgust at the half a justification for their perseverance. It also made the second half of the game almost worth watching, but it certainly didn't inspire any confidence in the Chiefs' offense.
But, what about Jamaal Charles? Surely any NFL team with him in the backfield stands a chance of making an offensive impact! You'd think that would be the case, but you'd be wrong. Charles has only averaged 4.8 yards on the ground so far this season, although he has scored four touchdowns. He's also scored a touchdown as a receiver this year, but he's only averaging 1.01 yards per route run (out of 80 snaps). That's third worst in the NFL out of qualifying running backs. Charles is a rare and fantastic talent to have on your team, but the Chiefs just haven't been using him well, to this point.
Keys to the Game
Attack the Secondary
At this point, we all know the narrative of the Bengals' offense. Giovani Bernard is thriving while Jeremy Hill struggles, the offensive line is much better at protecting the quarterback than the running backs, and Andy Dalton and his arsenal of weapons are putting the rest of the NFL on notice. That's great, but what's the specific game plan this week?
As previously discussed, the Chiefs' defense against the run is performing very well. However, in coverage, it's a much different story. As a whole, the Chiefs' secondary ranks 26th in the NFL in coverage. That said, don't blame the rookie. Despite being the second most targeted cornerback in the NFL, first round pick Marcus Peters has been doing as well as anyone in his position. It hasn't always been great, he's given up four touchdowns, but he's also got two picks and six batted passes.
His counterpart, Jamell Fleming (-8.2), hasn't been doing as well. With Phillip Gaines out for the season and Sean Smith just recently returning to practice. there could be a lot of confusion in the secondary that the Bengals should take advantage of. A.J. Green could have another big game against the erratic rookie Peters, while an effective Marvin Jones could make Smith's return a rough one. Fleming will likely be relied on to cover Mohamed Sanu, which could turn into a great matchup for the explosive, though inconsistent receiver.
With the potential of the Chiefs' defense to be vulnerable to the Bengals' passing game, the running game will likely not need to be relied on quite as much, which is good for a Bengals team that has struggled to create a consistent threat out of the running game. The Bengals have only once seen a 100 yard rusher once in a game this season. But, an effective running game is key for a team that wants to manage the clock. Given that the Bengals have had close calls in both of their last two games, and that the Chiefs gave the Packers a minor scare on Monday Night, a more effective running game is probably on Hue Jackson's wish list.
Last week, PFF put two Bengals players on their worst players at every position list for week three. Who were those players? Tyler Eifert and Russell Bodine. Both players might be a bit of a surprise, given how well they both played in the Bengals' first two games. However, last week, both Eifert and Bodine were consistently beaten when blocking against the run.While Eifert (-5.8) allowed a pivotal sack on Andy Dalton that turned into a fumble recovery for a go-ahead touchdown, Bodine (-8.4) wasn't that bad against the pass rush. However, both players were awful blocking for the run - Bodine playing as bad as to give up five tackles for two yards or less, while taking delay of game and holding penalties when he was beaten so bad that he had no other choice. If the Bengals want to develop and encourage the talents of Jeremy Hill, the run blocking will have to improve significantly.
Protect the Football
Over the last two weeks, the Bengals have given the ball up four times. That includes Jeremy Hill's two frustrating fumbles against the Chargers in Week 2 as well as Andy Dalton's endzone interception and pivotal fumble against the Ravens. Luckily, the Bengals have been forcing fumbles and grabbing interceptions of their own, enough to keep their turnover ratio to +2 (tied for fifth in the AFC). However, you could make the argument that the Bengals have been hurt more by their own turnovers than they have taken advantage of opponents' turnovers.
If you're going to turn the ball over, it's probably best if you take the ball back more often than you turn it over. But, turning the ball over at all is a really bad idea - especially when you cough up the ball in the fourth quarter and allow the opponent to return the turnover for a go-ahead touchdown. In the past, this sort of gaffe would have spelled disaster for the Bengals. They avoided disaster this time, but trying to give the game to opposing teams is not acceptable for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.