We knew it wasn't going to be the prettiest of outputs by the Bengals in AJ McCarron's first NFL start, but getting a win with a backup quarterback was huge for this team. Going on the road way out west where the team hasn't traditionally played well, while going up against a team that has owned Cincinnati in the biggest of stages proved to be a huge test--even if the 49ers only had four wins to their name in 2015.
As many predicted, the overall roster strength was the key to which team would win, as the Bengals emerged victorious over San Francisco, 24-14. Here are some of the best and worst from the Bengals in their win in the Bay Area.
Tipping the Turnover Scale in Their Favor: While Hue Jackson didn't necessarily stay true to his word about not changing the offense for McCarron, as evidenced by their 36 total rushing attempts, the backup quarterback did what was necessary to keep the Bengals in the fight. Though he had happy feet at times, McCarron made enough plays to keep the 49ers at bay and didn't commit the dreaded turnover. Running back Jeremy Hill did cough up a fumble, but with the defense securing four turnovers from the anemic San Francisco offense, the Bengals built too big of a hill for the 49ers to climb.
Carlos Dunlap: Pro Football Focus is a funny instrument to gauge players' performances at times. For some reason, Dunlap hasn't been one of their top guys in their metrics, despite being No. 7 in the NFL in quarterback sacks, contributing to the run defense and a myriad of other factors. On Sunday, Dunlap didn't bring down Blaine Gabbert, but he stripped and recovered a fumble from Anquan Boldin and blocked a field goal, his second of the season. He's truly one of the best all-around defensive ends in the NFL.
The Defensive Tackles: A big reason for Dunlap's single-season high in sacks has to do with the play of the interior linemen. After wreaking havoc the past two weeks, but not having the stats to show it, Geno Atkins added two sacks of Gabbert on Sunday, putting him at 10 for the year. He also blew up run plays, while Domata Peko grabbed his fifth sack of the year--a career-high for him as well. Throw in the fact that the Niners only ran for 55 net yards, it was a dominant performance up front.
Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict: Maualuga has always been known as a pretty solid player, but does anyone else notice his game step up when he's flanked by Burfict? Maualuga was the leading tackler on the day with 10 total and made a couple of big hits at the line of scrimmage to stop run plays in their tracks. Meanwhile, Burfict seems to have his legs back under him, as he was flying around everywhere on Sunday. He had seven total tackles, an interception and a sack. It was a great game by these two.
Tyler Kroft: You have to love depth. After it looked like the game was too big for Kroft through the first few weeks, as evidenced by his having more penalties accrued than catches, Kroft has really taken the next step in his career the past few weeks. While Tyler Eifert is awesome, the injury bug is still hitting him, causing Kroft to have a bigger role. He stepped up on Sunday with three catches for 31 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown reception--the first of his career. McCarron has found Kroft pretty often the past two weeks and it's been a pretty successful connection.
Marvin Jones: He has to be a Bengals fan favorite at this point, right? He plays the game with a fun spirit and makes really nice plays for this offense. One was a diving 19-yard scoop, while another was a great catch on a deep ball with great coverage. He finished the day with four catches for 89 yards, as the leading receiver.
Big Legs: Mike Nugent and Kevin Huber had nice days at the office, with Nugent accounting for six points and making all field goal and extra point tries. Huber booted punts at a 41.6 average, including a 62-yard wallop.
Shawn Williams: If we're giving a tip of the cap to Kroft his fill-in duties, we have to give one as well to Williams, who started in place of the injured George Iloka. Williams grabbed a critical interception late as the 49ers were trying to make the game interesting after they pounced on an onside kick. It basically sealed the game and it was Williams' second big interception this year, both of which led to huge wins.
Clinching a Fifth-Straight Playoff Berth: Say what you want about the ugliness of the game and the concerns about some facets of the offense, but the Bengals are in the dance once again. They marked their 11th win of the season with a backup quarterback, but their path has wins against Pittsburgh and Seattle. After so much bad news and hard feelings last week, this welcomed news provides some solace.
Vanilla Offense and Lack of Sizzle: It's McCarron's first professional start and he's on the road--we get it. Still, there was a lot of talk and hope that not too many beats would be missed in Andy Dalton's absence and it just wasn't the case. McCarron had got skittish at times, took sacks when he should have got the ball out and big plays came at a premium. Let's see what he does when A.J. Green's back is at 100 percent and Eifert comes back, but he'll have a big problem next week in Denver against their defense if they don't clean things up.
The Offensive Line: Sure, McCarron may have ran himself into a sack or two, but protection broke down at times and the big guys up front offered nothing in the way of running lanes for backs (more on that later). This unit seems to be a feast-or-famine group, where they can look like the 1980s "Hogs" of the old Washington Redskins or a mediocre group. There was a lot of the latter on Sunday.
Brandon Tate: You know the deal by now. It's expected that a poor performance by him in the punt return game pops up every couple of weeks and it did on Sunday with two punt returns for minus-two yards. Next.
Rushing Offense: Whether it was tentative running by Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, a lack of push by the offensive line or a back putting the ball on the ground, it wasn't a good day at all for this facet of the offense. It was clear that Hue Jackson wanted to make life easier on McCarron by having his team run the ball against the No. 31-ranked rushing defense, but it was just a deplorable effort all-around. Even Hill's two touchdown runs were a chore--just look at the drive with his first touchdown run where he ran five times for six yards to finally get the score.
Third and Fourth Down Efficiency: Keeping with the theme of a boring and rather impotent offense, what made the team's offensive effort so miserable to watch was their constant failure on third down. They were just 4-of-14 on the afternoon (28 percent), and 0-for-1 on fourth down tries. This is an area needing improvement over the next couple of weeks--particularly if Dalton isn't back for the postseason.