As expected, it was a hard-fought game between the San Diego Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium Sunday. Those wearing the orange-and-black will say the better team won the day, and it very well might be true, but tips of the cap should go to the Chargers and their blossoming squad.
Both teams had moments of excellence and others of hair-tearing frustration, but ultimately, the Bengals just made a few more plays than the Chargers. Let's recap the best and worst from Cincinnati's performance in their 24-19 win against San Diego.
Andy Dalton: Has the fifth-year quarterback officially turned a corner, or is he simply on one of his patented hot streaks? Either way, fans are ecstatic with his first two weeks and he was nearly impeccable against the Chargers on Sunday. Each of his three touchdown passes were beauties, giving only his receiver the chance to make the catch. He missed a couple of throws, but there's a noticeable difference in his game this year in his preference to throw the ball away instead of forcing it into coverage. If he continues doing so, we may have seen the last of "Bad Andy" in 2015.
Giovani Bernard: After being a good soldier last year when he lost his starting job to Jeremy Hill, Bernard put his head down and kept working. It didn't look great this preseason, but he has shot out to a great start to the season. His 123 rushing yards were the second-highest in his career, topped only by a game that went into overtime last year against the Panthers. He added three catches for 16 yards and was a nightmare for Chargers defenders in the open field.
Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones being back: It was proclaimed to be the cure-all to any offensive issues this offseason, and so far it's making believers out of many. Through two games, the two returners have combined for four touchdown receptions (three by Eifert, one by Jones), with each hitting pay dirt on Sunday. The great thing about each of their scores is how it displayed their respective strengths. Jones stretched the field for a 45-yard bomb, while Eifert worked magic in the red zone.
Pass rush and effect of Geno Atkins: In case you were wondering, big No. 97 is back. Though he was going up against a backup right guard on Sunday, he continually blew up plays and pressured Philip Rivers. His counterparts did their part too though, with Carlos Dunlap getting 1.5 sacks, Wallace Gilberry getting one of his own, another half-sack from Will Clarke and Atkins getting one.
Cornerback Play: Adam Jones led the team in tackles once again and he teamed up with Dre Kirkpatrick to quell the highly-efficient Chargers' offense. We knew Rivers likes to dink-and-dunk until a big strike, but the secondary only paid the price for a big play once on Sunday, and it may have been a blown assignment from safety Reggie Nelson. Kirkpatrick confirmed after the game there was a miscommunication on the play. After grabbing 16 catches in the opener, Keenan Allen was held to two catches and San Diego's leading receiver of the day was running back Danny Woodhead. Kirkpatrick also had two touchdown-saving tackles on two big plays, while Leon Hall had a huge tackle on a two-point conversion try after he read the play to perfection.
Kevin Huber: Rarely does a punter have a huge impact on the game, but Huber's play was totally clutch in a tight contest. He boomed three kicks to the tune of a 47-yard average and landed two inside the 20; the third that was a touchback was pretty close to getting downed deep as well. His 54-yarder early in the fourth quarter pinned the Chargers at their own five, led to a three-and-out and the subsequent winning touchdown drive for the Bengals, as they started with good field position.
Jake Fisher and Offensive Creativity: Hue Jackson is a mad wizard, coming up with wacky formations and pre-snap movement to frustrate a defense. There are a couple of hiccups in the form of burned timeouts and confusion among young players, but it often works wonders. The rookie was tackle-eligible in the middle of the third quarter and Dalton sailed a pass to his wide open tackle. Fisher, a former high school tight end, caught it and ran 31 yards to help set up a Mike Nugent field goal.
The Vinny Rey Redemption: The backup linebacker didn't play very well on Sunday, especially early when Melvin Gordon was gashing them. However, with the game on the line and "Captain Comeback" Rivers getting the ball with just over a minute left, Rey stepped up. He was covering the 6'5" Malcolm Floyd and out-lept him to come down with the game-clinching interception.
The Offensive Line: We can't ignore the big uglies up front. All five starting linemen graded well in Pro Football Focus' metrics, while not allowing a sack for the second straight week and paving the way for 175 team rushing yards. They are cementing their status as an elite NFL group.
Playing 60 Minutes: It's a tired cliche, but it was one that rang true on Sunday. To pat myself on the back, a certain contributor here at Cincy Jungle noted it as a key to victory, especially with Rivers executing so many comebacks in his career (24 to be exact, with two against the Bengals). The Bengals hung tough, and made at least one big play offense, special teams and defense in the final quarter.
Melvin Gordon and Missed Tackles: Throughout the first half, the rookie running back channeled his days at Wisconsin and had some nice runs. On a few, Gordon appeared to be stopped for a loss or minimal gain, but poor tackling allowed him to elude Bengals defenders and gain good yardage. The only reason this wasn't in "the ugly" is because it tightened up in the second half and Gordon didn't crack the 100-yard mark. The linebackers and safeties were the big culprits on a lot of those issues.
Certain Efficiencies Becoming Deficiencies: The Bengals offense did quite a few good things on Sunday, but executing in the red zone wasn't one of them. They were just 50 percent on goal-to-go efficiency (1-for-2) and were 2-for-4 in the red zone altogether. This trend can't keep up against other NFL big boys, or the postseason, should they make it there once again.
The Officiating: What a mess. Ticky-tack calls, other ones that were missed and a slew of other mistakes were made by Jeff Triplette's staff. On Jones' 45-yard touchdown catch, the ref had to move out of the way at the last moment to avoid contact with the players and on another occasion one referee signaled "incomplete" while another said catch and keep the clock moving.
Penalties: Though Triplette and Co. were flag-happy, there were some big mistakes made. The Bengals had an uncharacteristic nine penalties for 75 yards. The only thing that made it bearable was the Chargers' eight for 64 yards. This is a trouble spot needing clean-up.
Nugent's Missed Field Goal: What is it with Nugent and 36-yard attempts? After missing one from 36-yards out against the Panthers to shore up a tie last year, he missed another one on Sunday from the same distance. The veteran kicker did come through with another big one later on and hit all three of his extra points, but the miss made the game far less comfortable than it should have been had he made it.
Jeremy Hill's Fumbles: Even though the defense bailed him out by allowing zero points for the two huge mistakes, the issue is carrying (pun alert) over from last year. Hill had supposedly focused on getting better with ball security, but it reared its ugly head again in the second week of the season. He was basically benched, but to his credit, he was contrite and eager to contribute.