I said it in the initial game recap, and I’ll say it again: for the first time this season, we’ve seen glimpses of talent from the Bengals we hadn’t seen since early 2015. Sunday’s matchup with the Browns was a gift from the scheduling Gods after the Bengals opened the season with one of the most, if not the very most, difficult opening six-game slates of any team.
Fortunately for Cincinnati, the Bengals — at least prior to last week — had the easiest remaining schedule of any team in the NFL, according to this simulation:
Remaining strength of schedule (by opponent average MAVPY index) for each NFL team. The Broncos, Giants, and Ravens moved a lot this week: pic.twitter.com/7FxeaMWjZO— Ethan Young (@NFLDrafter) October 20, 2016
Up next: a London matchup with the Washington Redskins. But before we get to that, here’s what we learned in the Bengals’ Week 7 win which will hopefully get them back on track:
Jeremy Hill is back.
This, of course, is a completely opinion-based statement, but I’ll lay out my argument as best as I know how. Prior to facing Cleveland, the Bengals averaged 3.4 yards per carry, good for 28th in the NFL. Per Pro Football Focus, 61 percent of those yards came after contact. In other words, the Bengals’ struggles running the football were more on the offensive line play than the performance of the running backs. After a 2015 sophomore slump, the third-year runner appears to be back in 2014 form. With nine carries on Sunday, the running back brought his yards per carry average from 3.6 to 5.2. He notched three runs of 20+ yards, including two of 40+, in just nine total carries. With nine carries, 168 yards and a touchdown on Sunday, Hill recorded the Bengals’ first 100-yard rushing game since Week 2 of the 2015 season.
Even after removing the 74-yard touchdown run, 40-yarder and 20-yarder, the running back still gained 34 yards on six carries (with an additional nine-yard run negated by penalty), even adding two catches for 24 yards. That’s a heck of a game.
But don’t just credit Hill; the running back made his plays when the guys in front of him made theirs:
Just excellent blocking here by Hewitt, Zeitler, Ogbuehi and Bodine.— Joe Goodberry (@JoeGoodberry) October 24, 2016
(False start by Boling not called) pic.twitter.com/4vRnR3yjkP
Hill’s biggest plays have come when the guys in front of him are doing their jobs. That’s not necessarily a shot at Hill or the line, but it’s just important to understand who Hill is and the dynamic between he and the line. When things click, Hill is one of the best in the NFL. When they don’t, he’s just another guy. Now that we’ve seen things click, it’s now on the Bengals’ coaching staff and personnel to ensure things continue to click throughout the season.
A.J. Green is the best wide receiver in the NFL.
He’s not going to put up 150+ yards every week, but he’s a guy who has the capability of completely taking over a game. Pair him up with Andy Dalton, who is currently Pro Football Focus’ third-highest graded quarterback, and that’s a lethal combination. The Bengals are 3-0 in games when Green catches a touchdown pass, and they’re 0-4 when he has not caught one. This statistic is purely coincidence, but it’s worth mentioning, simply because when Green has been on his game, the Bengals’ offense hasn’t been able to do wrong — 522 of his 775 yards on the season have come in wins.
Not only did Green’s Hail Mary catch spark conversation about the play potentially being the best catch of the season, but it also moved the conversation back in the right direction about whether he truly is one of the best, if not the best, receivers in the game. At the very least, Green deserves to be in the conversation. At the most, he’s the best in the NFL.
Consider this one stat: Over the past two years, the Falcons are 7-6 in games Julio Jones tallies 100+ receiving yards. In that same timespan, the Steelers are 8-4 when Antonio Brown does the same. The Giants are 4-6 when Odell Beckham does it. Since Week 1 of last year, the Bengals are 6-1 when Green has a 100-yard game, with the only loss coming in the game Dalton left after fracturing his thumb on the first drive. During his career, the Bengals are 20-7 when Green tallies 100+ receiving yards.
Statistically taking over the game is one thing, but the difference between Green and his competition is that when the wide receiver makes plays, his team wins games. We saw that yet again on Sunday.
The offensive line is a talented, yet inconsistent, unit.
We saw this yet again on Sunday, as Cedric Ogbuehi made a key block on a long Hill run before later struggling in pass protection, getting replaced by Eric Winston, coming back into the game and giving up a sack to rookie edge rusher Emmanuel Ogbah.
Talking about the struggles of the line is exhausting, and I feel as though I’ve run this point into the ground, so for now, I’m going to focus on the positives.
The Bengals’ preseason matchup with the Jaguars was the most interesting game of the preseason and one of the more memorable games of 2016 for me, because the offensive line put on a clinic. Every player, from Andrew Whitworth on the left to Ogbuehi on the right made plays. Clint Boling, Russell Bodine and Kevin Zeitler all made impressive pull blocks, running backs took advantage and both Dalton and AJ McCarron shredded Jacksonville’s defense. At that point, I believed the Bengals’ line could be one of the better lines, if not the best line, in football. I was, of course, wrong. Issues with continuity and consistency have plagued the line throughout the season. But as we’ve seen in years past, the Bengals are a streaky team. With a win under their belt and a favorable upcoming schedule, it seems this line is due to get back on track.
Geno Atkins is playing well, but he needs to be even better.
There’s no questioning whether Atkins is one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL — he is. But for a player who the Bengals’ defense revolves around, Atkins’ production could be better. The defensive tackle has 2.5 sacks on the season, all of which came in the Bengals’ first two wins against the Jets and Dolphins. Atkins still does plenty — he leads the team in tackles for loss with six and has notched 10 quarterback hits in five games. But that’s simply not good enough for a guy who was previously a consensus top-three (or better) defensive tackle in football. At his current trajectory, Atkins will finish with fewer than 10 sacks on the season, while his teammate, Carlos Dunlap, will yet again lead the team. This isn’t a bad thing, but we’re learning more and more that Dunlap’s production — especially this year — isn’t just a product of the defensive tackle’s dominance like many had originally thought. Rather, the defensive end is carrying his teammates. Atkins, and Domata Peko — who needs to draw double-teams on a more consistent basis — need to get back on track and remind everyone who the best player on Cincinnati’s defensive line truly is.
On that same topic, the run defense needs to be better.
This is on the entire defensive line. There’s no excuse for letting Kevin Hogan run for 104 yards and a touchdown, especially when you know he’s not a threat as a passer.
Dre Kirkpatrick sent us a friendly reminder that he’s still the best defensive back on the Bengals.
Terrelle Pryor’s stat line: four targets, two catches, 18 yards. On the day, Kirkpatrick was targeted seven times, surrendering just four catches and also making a pass deflection and two run stops, per Pro Football Focus. Facing a difficult slate of wide receivers through the first seven weeks, the cornerback has blown through his perceived ceiling and proven why he was once selected with a first-round draft pick.
Shawn Williams can’t hold onto the ball.
The safety dropped multiple potential interceptions heading into Sunday’s action and fumbled away his first interception of the season. He and George Iloka need to step up their game, especially considering they’ll be tested against deep threats DeSean Jackson, Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Wallace and Marquise Goodwin in the upcoming weeks.
Mike Nugent missed two field goals, but his job is not on the line.
I don’t think I’ll ever understand why fans want kickers to get cut after every single miss. Missed kicks happen. Prior to Sunday, Nugent was perfect from inside 50 yards. Now, he’s not. However, the Bengals have one more win. Neither of Nugent’s misses swung momentum, and the Bengals won a game in which they missed two field goals. The misses are concerning, but it’s not time to panic until a Nugent miss significantly impacts the outcome of a Bengals game, especially seeing as though two kickers who are perceived to be better than Nugent both missed kicks inside 30 yards which would’ve won a game in overtime on Sunday night. Like him or not, we all know Nugent has yet to miss a kick that bad. Unless you’re interested in Josh Brown, who recently admitted to beating his wife and treating her “like [his] slave,” there aren’t many enticing kickers on the market (or who will be on the market soon, in Brown’s case).
The Bengals had a great team win on Sunday, getting things back on track. Sunday’s matchup in London isn’t a must-win, but for all intents and purposes, it’s a game they really need to win. Cincinnati is a streaky team, so winning two straight heading into the bye and coming out with a 4-4 record through eight weeks would be incredibly inspiring after a 2-4 start which had many fans looking ahead to 2017.