The Bengals beat the Browns in convincing fashion, bringing their record to 8-0 and winning in primetime for the first time this year. The next two weeks will provide more opportunities to do just that again. Here's what I'm thinking after the Bengals' Thursday night win.
1. Last year's missing players were the difference
It took all of one drive for the offensive Bengals who were missing last year to make their presence felt in this game. Wide receiver Marvin Jones caught two passes on the opening drive, including a 3rd-and-11 catch for 29 yards that put the Bengals on the edge of the red zone.
Dalton and Marvin Jones connect for 29 yards, converting a third and 11, reaching the CLE-22. https://t.co/b6oHBl3L98— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) November 6, 2015
Tight end Tyler Eifert would cap off the drive with a nine-yard touchdown grab to give the Bengals a 7-0 lead. Jones would catch another key 3rd-down pass for the conversion in the fourth quarter before Eifert finished that drive off with a score as well. Eifert finished with three scores in a 31-10 win while Jones caught five passes for a game-high 78 yards.
Neither Jones nor Eifert played in either of the matchups with the Browns last year as they both missed most of the season with injuries. They were the difference this time around and helped power the Bengals to another convincing win.
2. Andy Dalton's ability to improv part of improvement
The biggest strength of Andy Dalton has been his ability to read defenses and make good pre-snap adjustments so that he could get the ball out quickly to open receivers. When the first read isn't there and he needs to improvise, in past years, the results haven't been great. This year, he has improved in that category. That was on display on the goal line late in the first half.
The play looked like it was meant to be a play-action pass in which Jake Fisher would leak out and be open in the corner of the end zone, but he was held on the play, forcing Dalton to scramble out of the pocket and improvise. He rolled to the sideline and waited just long enough that he was able to hit Tyler Eifert for the score.
#Bengals take a 14-3 lead with 4:34 remaining in the second on another Dalton-to-Eifert connection. https://t.co/vvOCNVN9i1— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) November 6, 2015
There were several other plays in which Dalton had to go off his first read and find other open receiver or scramble for a nice gain. He would end up having easily his best game ever against the Browns with three passing scores and no turnovers. He continued to play the best football of his career and add to his best year in stripes.
3. Bengals' defense has found its groove
Admittedly, I was expecting a letdown effort from the Bengals in this one, particularly on defense. They were the reason why the Bengals won in Pittsburgh on Sunday, and on a short week to go with Rey Maualuga missing and Carlos Dunlap banged up, the setup was perfect for a lackadaisical effort against an inferior opponent.
Instead, they picked up right where they left off and held the Browns to just 10 points while suffocating them in the second half. The Bengals' defense looked great to open the game by forcing a Browns punt after they'd given up opening drive touchdowns in their last three games. Though Cleveland scored 10 first-half points, they were shutout in the second half and had a whopping seven second-half yards going into their final drive with three minutes left in the fourth quarter.
This defense simply has taken it to another level these past two games to compliment what's become one of the NFL's best offenses. As the weeks roll on, this team continues to look more and more like a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
4. Vontaze Burfict keeps making his presence felt
Adding to the above, Vontaze Burfict being back has certainly helped this defense find its swagger in the past week. He just started practicing last Thursday, and already has two games under his belt this season after missing the first six while on PUP. He made his presence felt early in this one on a key red-zone play in which he helped blow up the run:
Vontaze Burfict disrupted the f*** out of this. Brandon Thompson cleaned up. https://t.co/OiIGN2C9S0— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) November 6, 2015
There were several times in which Burfict was unable to get off his block and make the tackle near the line of scrimmage, allowing Browns' backs to bust off bigger runs. It's clear he's still a ways away from being all the way back to his old self, but Burfict is still making his presence felt and is having a positive impact on this defense.
5. Backfield is split, but Bernard is better option
The Bengals continued to distribute carries fairly evenly between Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard while controlling this game on the ground and through the air. That allowed both backs to get their fair share of touches with Hill gaining a respectable 52 yards on 15 carries.
However, it was Bernard who was once again the clearly-superior back as he rushed for 72 yards on just 13 carries while chipping in a 14-yard reception. He was far more decisive when he got the ball and hit the hole with much more authority and explosion than Hill.
It was clear late last season that Hill was the better back then, but right now, Bernard looks like the best back on the team. That's perfectly fine as long as they're both playing well like they did in this game.
6. Balance is key
Going with the above point, the balance in this offense on the ground and through the air is what's making this unit nearly impossible to stop. Andy Dalton completed passes to eight different receivers in this game while targeting no one more than six times.
In fact, Dalton only targeted A.J. Green six times (four catches for 53 yards) as he's no longer forcing the ball to Green like he used to. Dalton has now had five games this year in which he targeted Green eight or fewer times. That happened just four times in all of 2014 in games in which Green wasn't injured.
Then again, there have never been so many viable pass-catchers in the Bengals' offense during the Marvin Lewis era as there are now. As long as this offense stays healthy and Dalton remains efficient, this unit will keep rolling and be hard for any defense to stop.