The 2015 regular season is in the books and the Bengals have secured an AFC North crown, as well as a home playoff game. In a year where the Bengals cracked so many milestones, they were part of another as they tied the franchise record for wins in a season with 12 via a victory over the Baltimore Ravens.
Week 17 featured a lot of highs and lows for the Bengals, providing both hope and fear for the Wild Card matchup against the hated Steelers. Let's have a look at some of the best and worst the Bengals gave us on Sunday.
The Running Game: Cincinnati has battled consistency issues when attempting to run the football this year, which is a stark contrast to 2014. They made a concerted effort to pound the ball and take heat off of AJ McCarron, and the offense responded with a resounding 145 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Cincinnati was able to achieve this by using their two rookie tackles in creative ways, basically mauling the Baltimore defense. Jeremy Hill had arguably his best day of 2016 with 96 yards rushing, including a 38-yard score, and a six-yard per carry average. Giovani Bernard also had six yards per carry.
Rookie Tackles Getting time and Making plays: Speaking of the crown jewels of the Bengals' 2015 Draft class, both had extensive time in different roles and played pretty well for the most part. Each had a penalty against them (an issue we'll speak about more later), but Cedric Ogbuehi was often used in the "jumbo package" as an extra tackle, while Jake Fisher took over the lead blocker duties from the injured Ryan Hewitt. Fisher paved the way for Hill's fourth down touchdown run, while Ogbuehi aided on the line.
AJ McCarron: Like the guy who starts at the postiion in front of him, No. 5 can be streaky. There are dry spells with the offense under McCarron, but he also experiences spurts where he looks like a viable NFL starting quarterback. He made a number of throws to both Tyler Eifert and A.J. Green that only they could catch (and did), while throwing a touchdown apiece to each weapon. Only one stat truly jumped off the sheet for McCarron Sunday and it was very important to the team's win: zero turnovers.
Vontaze Burfict and Big-Picture Defense: Though he can frustrate with penalties, Burfict's intensity and ability to make big plays is gigantic for the Bengals' defense. On Sunday he was wreaking havoc everywhere, with 12 total tackles and an interception, while his linebacker-mate Rey Maualuga also grabbed a pick. The defense played well as a whole, allowing just 16 points, while forcing two interceptions and a poor day from Ryan Mallett. The defensive line only forced one sack, but multiple pressures and hits on Mallett forced turnovers and other poor throws. More specific issues surfaced though, which we'll touch on later.
Special Teams: While the Bengals haven't put Adam Jones in the return game recently, other facets are working well. Cedric Peerman was awesome as a gunner/coverage man on kicks and punts, garnering four tackles to stifle any solid returns by the Ravens. Kevin Huber boomed a couple of nice punts, while Mike Nugent nailed a 52-yard field goal and three extra points.
The Offensive Skill Positions: Every one of the big names on offense seemed to get involved in the passing game--even the running backs. Nobody's day was outstanding, but getting touchdown catches from your two best red zone receivers (Eifert and Green), while also getting Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu some work was nice to see.
The Offensive Line: While the group did an admirable job in the run game, by paving the way for 145 team rushing yards, there were many other issues. Some of the three sacks allowed could be pinned on McCarron running into pressure, but there were other times when linemen were just flat-out beat. Andre Smith was the only offensive lineman to not have his name called for a penalty of some sort, and that's saying something given the team's use of seven lineman on the day (if you're counting Fisher that way). The rushing yard total salvaged the unit from being placed in "The Ugly" category.
Offensive Inconsistencies and Burning Timeouts: The first half was pretty terrible for the Bengals' offense, with the unit only scoring seven points. It got better as adjustments were made, but this doesn't wholly look like a lethal playoff group at the moment. Then there is the Hue Jackson staple of burning timeouts because players couldn't figure out the right alignments.This happened once in each half, and with the Bengals challenging two plays on the afternoon, it could have made things tricky. These things just cannot happen in the postseason if they want to advance.
Two Dropped Interceptions: With the score tied at zero in the second quarter and the Ravens finally driving, the Bengals defense pinned Mallett and Co. into a third down from the Cincinnati 10-yard line. Mallett made an ill-advised throw to the sideline where Dre Kirkpatrick jumped it and nearly had an interception and possibly even a pick-six. Instead, the Ravens kicked a field goal for a swing that was anywhere from three to 10 points. Midway through the fourth quarter, Reggie Nelson swooped in on a pass, as he has done so often this year, and let an easy interception get away from him that would have set the Bengals up deep in Baltimore territory. These have to be made next week if the opportunity arises, especially with Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense turning the ball over frequently of late.
Penalties: Rarely can a team commit 11 penalties, while giving up 72 yards of field position and win the game, but somehow the Bengals managed all feats. The offensive line were the big culprits, with pass defenders getting some calls against them, along with an inexplicable offsides penalty on Carlos Dunlap against a punt. You can't have those types of miscues in the postseason and expect a different result than the past five the Bengals have given their fans.
The Gross Disparity on Third downs: Holy cow, was this bad on Sunday for Cincinnati. While the defense was great at forcing field goals instead of touchdowns (a coveted trait), they couldn't get off the field on third down. The Ravens, with their fourth starting quarterback on the year and missing many receiving options, clipped the Bengals defense for a 60 percent conversion rate (12-of-20). The only thing worse was the offense's inability to convert a single third down opportunity on Sunday, going 0-for-9. The two might be distantly related, and if you think that can happen next week for a win, you're sorely mistaken.
Lack of Sizzle: The postseason is about making big plays, sometimes by an unexpected player. While Hill's 38-yard touchdown was nice to see and ended up being the longest play by the Bengals for the day and not many other uber-exciting things happened. The longest pass of the day was a 23-yarder to Marvin Jones where he did most of the work and nothing came in return. The Bengals had just 160 passing yards from McCarron with no receiver getting more than 51 receiving yards and no backs cracking 100 yards. It was just kind of a "meh" afternoon, production-wise. Some of this is completely out of their control, but players are going to need to give the team some sparks in the postseason.