It took seven weeks, but we’ve finally seen glimpses of an early-2015 looking Bengals team. It figures we’d see this performance in a game against the Browns, but Marvin Lewis isn’t the guy who is picking his team’s schedule, so it’s hard to fault Cincinnati for such a remarkable performance. A.J. Green and Jeremy Hill just about won Sunday’s game on their own, though they had plenty of help on both sides of the ball. On eight targets, Green came down with eight catches, 169 yards and a touchdown. Hill contributed 168 yards and a touchdown on nine carries against a Browns defense which had been stout against the run in the previous two weeks, giving up just 67 total rushing yards in Weeks 5 and 6 against the Patriots and Titans. Green’s 169 yards elevated him to third on the Bengals all-time in terms of receiving yards.
Ken Zampese’s offense orchestrated a near-flawless opening drive, marching 85 yards down the field in just under three minutes. On the first offensive play of the game, Zampese dialed up one of the staple creative plays in Hue Jackson’s offense — perhaps trolling the former Bengals offensive coordinator — bringing the offensive tackles out wide as Andy Dalton completed a quick screen pass to Green for an easy first down. After Dalton completed two more passes, Hill broke off a monster 40-yard run — it figures the run came on a play where struggling offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi made a nice block. Giovani Bernard capped off the drive, punching in a five-yard touchdown run to give the Bengals a quick 7-0 lead.
After Cincinnati’s defense forced a punt, the Bengals offense got right back on track, driving down to the Browns’ 22-yard-line before a sack and a missed field goal from Mike Nugent bailed out Cleveland. And as it’s happened seemingly every time the Bengals have given opponents an opportunity this season, the Browns were able to capitalize, albeit just on a field goal rather than a touchdown, thanks to a red zone stop by Cincinnati.
A swing of momentum for the Browns carried on over into the second quarter, making Sunday’s action appear as though it might actually be competitive. A nine play, 80-yard touchdown drive capped off by a one-yard rushing touchdown from Isaiah Crowell gave Cleveland a 10-7 lead, with the Browns out-gaining the Bengals 89-0 in second quarter yards, with just over six minutes left in the half.
It seems as though the Bengals were playing to prove fans wrong, however. Highly criticized (though the criticism hasn’t necessarily been deserved) veteran receiver Brandon LaFell hauled in a deep pass for a 44-yard touchdown — his fourth of the season — despite a defender making illegal contact downfield, giving his team a 14-10 lead. The play came on a solid call from Ken Zampese, who seemed to catch the Browns defense off-guard with the long ball.
And right as fans started to get frustrated with Zampese and Lewis toward the end of the half, as the two coaches seemed intent on kneeling the ball with about a minute left on the clock, Green showed the NFL why he needs to be in the “best receiver in football” debate with an answered prayer in the form of a Hail Mary touchdown. The 48-yard score extended the Bengals’ lead to 21-10 at halftime.
But Hue Jackson’s Browns wouldn’t bow out here. Cleveland opened the second half with an eight play, 75-yard drive to start the second half. Quarterback Kevin Hogan exposed the Bengals’ defense for a 28-yard rushing touchdown to bring his team within four.
The Bengals’ offense, which looked to be in 2015 form on Sunday, simply proved too much for Cleveland’s defense, however. Another long run from Hill — this time, a 74-yarder — gave the Bengals a 28-17 lead. And while Cleveland was still technically in the game, this game was over as soon as Hill broke past the last Browns defender. Running past backup right tackle Eric Winston, as Ogbuehi was sitting out on the play, Hill completed the Bengals’ first 100-yard rushing game since Week 2 of the 2015 season. (Ogbuehi later came back onto the field and surrendered another sack on Dalton).
One made Nugent field goal and another miss gave the Bengals a 31-17 lead. The lead could’ve been even bigger had Shawn Williams not fumbled on his first interception of the season. It’s ironic the first interception he managed to secure in the catching process came out of his hands as he attempted to make a return; at some point, Cincinnati’s secondary needs to start forcing more turnovers (and holding onto the ball). Another player who struggled holding onto interceptions, Vincent Rey, later snagged an interception to secure the Bengals’ win, but the point still stands.
But with the bad comes the good, which should be obvious at this point. The 2016 Bengals, in terms of personnel, are just as talented as last year’s team. Hopefully the early-season struggles stemmed from the team getting used to new starters and coaches. A favorable remaining schedule, with winnable matchups against the Redskins, Giants and Bills in the next three weeks, leaves plenty of room for optimism among Bengals fans. Cincinnati is 3-4, Eifert is back and the Bengals will travel to London next week to face another former coordinator in Redskins head coach Jay Gruden before a much-needed bye week.