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What we learned from the Bengals in Week 4: Vontaze Burfict makes the defense elite

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Whether directly or indirectly, the superstar linebacker elevates the game of the players around him.

Miami Dolphins v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images

Tez is back, and so are the Bengals. After dropping back-to-back games against AFC powerhouses, Cincinnati bounced back with a much-needed win over the lowly Dolphins. With the most difficult four-game stretch of the season behind Cincinnati, the Bengals are now looking good, with winnable matchups against the Cowboys, Browns and Redskins sandwiched around an incredibly difficult game against the Patriots in Foxborough. By the time the Bengals rest in their Week 9 bye, Cincinnati should be somewhere between 6-2 and 4-4. If not, it might be time to panic. But for now, let’s just enjoy the ride. Here’s what we learned from the Bengals this week.

Vontaze Burfict makes the Bengals’ defense not just better, but elite.

Whether directly or indirectly, it’s pretty clear the linebacker elevates the game of those around him. Prior to his return to the lineup, Cincinnati’s defense surrendered over 20 first downs per game. In his first game back, Burfict and the Bengals allowed just eight. And that’s not just an indictment of the Dolphins. In the two weeks prior to facing Cincinnati, Miami gained 23 first downs against the Patriots and another 23 against the Browns.

The Bengals’ defense graded poorly in Pro Football Reference’s approximate value grade through three weeks, with grades of -6.23, -3.03 and -6.41 in its first three matchups. But with Burfict back in Week 4, Cincinnati’s defense earned a 13.03 grade, which is the second-best outing by the defense throughout the past two seasons, behind the Bengals’ 24-14 win over the 49ers last year. (In that game, the Bengals forced four turnovers and allowed just 55 rushing yards.)

A.J. Green is still himself.

The wide receiver isn’t going to put up 150 yards on a weekly basis, but he will take advantage of suspect secondaries with ease. And as we saw against the Broncos, a “down week” for the wideout can still result in over 70 yards, even against the best defense in the NFL. Credit Andy Dalton for getting him the ball and Ken Zampese for continuing to dial up plays in which the wide receiver gets wide open.

George Iloka and Shawn Williams need to step up.

The Bengals’ decision to let Reggie Nelson walk wasn’t wrong. Last year’s version of Nelson would certainly be an upgrade over this year’s version of either Iloka or Williams, but this year’s version of Nelson has been just as inconsistent as the Bengals’ two current starting safeties. Both Iloka and Williams made errors on Ryan Tannehill’s 74-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Stills, and while it’s hard to expect either player to have been better on the play — Adam Gase simply caught the Bengals’ defense off-guard on a great play call — both guys have room for improvement. Speaking of...

The Bengals defense cannot afford to keep giving up the deep ball.

Later this season, Cincinnati will face DeSean Jackson, Terrelle Pryor (twice), Marquise Goodwin and Will Fuller, as well as multiple deep threats on the Ravens (who they will play twice) and Steelers. So far, the Bengals have been burned by Sammie Coates, Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and the aforementioned Stills. It will take better coaching and execution for the team to improve in this regard. Iloka, in particular, needs to be better, as he was on the verge of becoming a top-10 safety prior to this season.

The defensive line finally converted pressures into sacks.

Part of this has to be Tannehill’s abysmal pocket presence, but credit the Bengals’ defensive line for finally bringing down an opposing quarterback. The starters on the defensive line tallied four collective sacks, while team sacks leader Will Clarke (tied with Carlos Dunlap) added a fifth. On top of tallying the four aforementioned sacks, Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson combined for seven quarterback hits, two tackles for loss, two pass deflections and a forced fumble. Domata Peko hopped on the loose fumble and also added a pass deflection.

The Bengals’ offensive line is missing something.

If it’s up to my guess, I’m thinking that thing is cohesion. And on the optimistic side, it appears as though the unit is slowly getting better by the week. Check out Braden’s killer piece on the offensive struggles for more in-depth analysis. It deserves your time.

Ken Zampese has been far from bad through four games, but he is fairly predictable.

Opponents seem to know when Jeremy Hill or Giovani Bernard are going to carry the ball, and they always seem to know when to blitz Dalton. Fortunately, Dalton has tremendously improved against the blitz — and as a passer in general — over the past year or so, but predictable play calling is not going to lead to good things. On the bright side, the first-year coordinator showed some great creativity against the Dolphins, finding ways to exploit matchups between Brandon LaFell and the Dolphins secondary. Speaking of LaFell...

In hindsight, the Bengals’ signing of LaFell was highway robbery.

The veteran receiver has looked like his old self through four weeks, which is who the players were hoping he’d be when they signed him to a one-year deal. This season, the number two wideout has put up numbers at a similar trajectory to that of Marvin Jones’ 2015 numbers.

If the Bengals keep winning the games they should win, they will make the playoffs yet again.

Not much else to say in that regard. Here’s to hoping Cincinnati continues to win the winnable games on its schedule, starting with Sunday’s matchup in Dallas.