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Bengals’ biggest surprises and disappointments through first 4 weeks

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A 2-2 start to the Bengals’ 2016 season wasn’t completely unpredictable, but performances from certain players have been.

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals are 2-2 after a difficult four-game stretch to start the 2016 season, and while there’s always hope the team can be better, Cincinnati has looked pretty good through four weeks. The Bengals managed to beat the Jets in Week 1 and the Dolphins in Week 4, with losses to the Steelers and Broncos sandwiched in between. But despite the record, the Bengals have played very well, especially considering their offseason losses. Here are the biggest surprises (in a good way) and disappointments from the season, so far as we’ve reached the quarter-season mark.

Surprises

Andy Dalton: 2015 wasn’t an anomaly.

The quarterback was an MVP candidate pre-injury last season, but once he missed time, pundits expected the signal-caller to regress to pre-breakout form. That hasn’t been the case, as Dalton has tallied 1,234 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions with a 66.4 completion percentage and 8.5 yards per attempt. Playing with a new offensive coordinator behind a shaky offensive line which has already allowed Dalton to be sacked 13 times this season, that’s pretty good.

A.J. Green: He has been otherworldly through four weeks.

Even in a “down week” against the Broncos’ secondary — the NFL’s best in 2015 — the wide receiver still notched 77 yards. With 32 catches, 468 yards and two touchdowns through four games, the wideout is on pace for a career-highs in catches (128) and yards (1,872). The NFL’s best deep threat would need nearly 125 yards per game over the rest of the season to catch Calvin Johnson’s elusive single-season receiving yardage record, but right now, that’s not necessarily out of the question, especially considering how the wideout is playing and his upcoming competition.

Jeremy Hill: He hasn’t been great, but he’s shown the explosiveness he once had in 2014.

The running back needs to be more consistent in terms of gaining positive yards on every run — and some of the blame in that regard can be placed on his offensive line — but I expect things will start to click in the near future. Last season, Hill didn’t notch a run of more than 15 yards until Week 13 against the Browns. This year, he already has runs of 50 and 19 yards, as well as three touchdowns.

Russell Bodine: There have been improvements from the center through four games.

I’m no offensive line expert — and I’m not a huge fan of Pro Football Focus — but aide from the Jets game, Bodine has looked much better in 2016 than he has in past years. The former fourth-round center has looked much more powerful, and he hasn’t been a liability in the passing attack or run game, Week 1 excluded. He’s been among the top-five graded offensive players on the Bengals in each of the past three weeks and hasn’t surrendered a sack since a disastrous performance against the Jets. As previously mentioned, the run game — which revolves around the Bengals’ center being successful — needs work, so there’s some left to be desired, but as of now, it’s hard to pin the line’s struggles on the third-year center.

Carlos Dunlap: He’s been insanely dominant so far.

Despite tallying just three sacks so far, the defensive end has generated pressure better than almost anyone in the entire NFL. Along with the sacks, Dunlap has two tackles for loss, six quarterback hits, a forced fumble and a team-leading five pass deflections. For reference, the defensive lineman with the next-most pass deflections — two more than the any other defensive lineman in the NFL. If Dunlap’s production can translate into more sacks, he could be looking at an All-Pro nod this season.

Margus Hunt and Will Clarke: Each have been great rotational players on the D-line.

Virtually the entire Bengals fan base was infuriated with the Bengals’ front office for not bringing in additional “talent” to compete with Hunt and Clarke, but the front office’s vote of confidence in the two backups has yielded massive dividends. Through four games, Hunt has recorded two run stuffs, a quarterback hit, two pass deflections and two blocked kicks. Clarke, meanwhile, shares the team lead with three sacks. He also has three quarterback hits and two tackles for loss.

Karlos Dansby and Vincent Rey: Each played fantastic in Vontaze Burfict’s absence.

No one expected either of the two to dominate, but both players have been extremely effective through four weeks. Dansby leads the team with 26 tackles to go with three tackles for loss, two pass deflections and a fumble recovery. Rey, meanwhile, has tallied 23 tackles and a pass deflection. Beyond the numbers, both players have been great in coverage and look much quicker than the Bengals’ linebackers looked last season.

Dre Kirkpatrick: He’s playing like the best member of the Bengals secondary.

The cornerback has been as close to a shutdown corner as it gets through four weeks, with dominant performances against the Steelers and Broncos along with an above-average outing against the Jets. Aside from giving up a contested touchdown to Eric Decker in Week 1 and two questionable penalties, Kirkpatrick has been near-flawless, tallying three pass defenses and an interception. Ben Roethlisberger and Trevor Simien rarely looked Kirkpatrick’s way in Week 2 and 3, and when they did, they paid the price for doing so.

Disappointments

Execution on both sides of the ball has been severely lacking.

The offensive line’s struggles have been well-documented, and as a result, Dalton has been running for his life on occasion. The run game has also stalled, which is an indictment of both the offensive line and the running backs themselves. Drops have plagued the Bengals on both sides of the ball, as Tyler Boyd and C.J. Uzomah dropped could-be touchdowns and Shawn Williams has dropped multiple could-be interceptions.

Bengals safeties need to step up.

During the offseason, I wrote a piece about why the defense would need Williams and George Iloka to step up, especially in regards to helping the defense force turnovers. So far, the duo has combined for 37 tackles, two tackles for loss, two pass deflections and zero interceptions. Both players were also responsible for Kenny Stills’ 74-yard touchdown catch in Week 4, as Williams blew coverage and Iloka failed to pick up the receiver deep down the field. There’s plenty of time left in the season for these problems to get fixed, but they’ll need to get fixed quickly. Iloka has top-10 safety potential, so the defense needs him to start making plays.

Health has been an issue.

On top of the obvious injury to Eifert, the Bengals have seen a multitude of injuries this season, particularly in the secondary. No play does a better job of highlighting these struggles than the play in which Iloka launched himself into Josh Shaw’s head, doing some serious damage to the cornerback and forcing him out of action in Week 4.

Aside from the field goal kicking and blocking units, the Bengals’ special teams have struggled.

Mike Nugent has been virtually automatic and Hunt’s blocked kicks have been huge for Cincinnati, but aside from that, there’s work that needs to be done. Alex Erickson hasn’t been the electric return man he was in the preseason. In fact, he’s made multiple misjudgments in the return game, setting his team up with poor position. Kevin Huber shanked a punt in the Steelers game for the first time in what seemed forever (but is having an otherwise solid year yet again). The Bengals haven’t been winning the battle of field position, and as a result, they’re not winning games they can win.

Again, there’s plenty of time left in the season to work these issues out. The Bengals are 2-2 through four games, and only one of their four matchups was a gimme victory. With a softer middle of the schedule, Cincinnati is in good shape.