The Bengals’ 32-14 victory over the Eagles was great to watch, both from the perspective of a fan who wants the team to succeed and as a viewer who enjoys watching a team dominate a football game. Cincinnati was just that — dominant — on Sunday, exposing the Eagles’ lack of offensive playmakers with Ryan Mathews and Jordan Matthews sidelined. Cincinnati also dominated what had previously been a very good Eagles defense, this despite injuries to A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard. The Bengals outplayed and out-coached the Eagles in every phase of the game, in the team’s most dominant performance of the 2016 season, Browns game included.
A lot went right in the Bengals’ Week 13 victory. Things clicked for the offense, defense and even special teams (minus one play); players avoided costly penalties and the coaches called a great game. Here, we’ll discuss what went right this week in comparison to weeks prior, and we’ll also examine a few areas in which the Bengals still need to improve.
Vontaze Burfict was easily the MVP of the game, but if not for his terrific performance, Andy Dalton would be a shoo-in for MVP. After a poor four-game stretch, the quarterback bounced back in a giant way, passing for 332 yards and two touchdowns, earning a passer rating of 130.0. The quarterback can still be better, but for a guy without two of his top three weapons in the passing game and a still anemic rushing attack, it’s hard to ask for more.
Some of Dalton’s success has to be attributed to the offensive line. Granted, Dalton’s mobility and awareness were both huge reasons why he wasn’t sacked on Sunday, but nonetheless, the Bengals’ offensive line avoided giving up a sack for the first time this season. And the line managed to do so against one of the NFL’s most talented defensive lines, which boasts Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Connor Barwin and Bennie Logan. The unit has been underperforming, but it still has the talent to wreck a game plan. Keeping that unit in check, especially with the Bengals’ season-long struggles, is an accomplishment, no matter how hot or cold the Eagles’ line has been.
The Bengals’ receivers stepped up in the win, too. Dalton connected with nine different players on Sunday, including Jake Fisher. Brandon LaFell had a huge day, gaining 95 yards with a score on five catches. Tyler Boyd added 66 yards on four catches. He’s been phenomenal, leading all rookie receivers with third-down conversion catches. Cody Core reeled in his first NFL pass, a 50-yard bomb, and ended the day with 58 yards on two targets and catches. James Wright and Alex Erickson contributed, adding 36 yards on three collective targets and catches. And Tyler Eifert, of course, added 25 yards and a touchdown.
The offense registered a third down conversion rate of 50 percent on Sunday, demonstrating an ability to move the chains, which hasn’t been seen with much frequency throughout the 2016 season. Post-bye, the Bengals had been 15-for-41 on third downs, good for a conversion rate of just 36.5 percent.
Dalton’s play had a very significant impact on the Bengals’ third down conversion percentage, allowing the team to sustain drives. That’s huge, as the Bengals have been terrible when it comes to sustaining drives for the duration of the season.
In the three games heading into Sunday’s action, the Bengals put together drives that went for five plays or more on only 18 of 35 opportunities, meaning just under one in two drives went for five or fewer plays, an unacceptable rate for a team that had boasted one of the NFL’s best offenses just a year ago. On Sunday, the Bengals’ first seven drives all went for five plays or more, six of which resulted in points on the board. Sustaining drives generally yields points, so it’s important Cincinnati continues its success in this regard.
One biggest caveat on offense
The Bengals’ red zone efficiency remained an issue on Sunday. Cincinnati’s red zone percentages had been slowly improving throughout the season — granted, they were abysmal toward the start of the year, so it’s hard not to improve — but on Sunday, the team left several points on the board yet again, going three-for-six in the red zone. Part of that has been kicking, some of it has been fumbles and some come from factors unrelated to those variables. But with Dalton, Eifert and Jeremy Hill still in the lineup, there’s no excuse for a lack of weapons in the red zone. The Bengals have the guys they need; they just need to make plays. This is especially true as the Bengals aren’t in a position to trust Mike Nugent.
As mentioned, Burfict’s streak of dominance continued on Sunday. That wasn’t very much different than what he’d been doing in previous weeks, as Burfict has been one of the NFL’s best linebackers in 2016.
What made Sunday’s performance different, however, was the linebackers’ two interceptions, along with Shawn Williams’ pick. Cincinnati forced multiple turnovers on Sunday, something the team hadn’t been able to do with consistency throughout the year. Prior to Week 13, the Bengals had forced multiple turnovers in four of 11 games. With a season-high of three forced turnovers, the Bengals’ defense put the team in a position to win.
One biggest caveat on defense
We’ve discussed this ad nauseam, but one of the Bengals’ biggest defensive issues has been its inability to capitalize on opportunities. Cincinnati dropped another couple of interceptions on Sunday, and yet again, an opposing quarterback — Wentz, in this case — seemed to scramble out of potential sacks with ease, either making a play with his feet or getting rid of the ball through the air. With Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap in the lineup, there’s no excuse for Bengals having one of the worst pass rushes in the NFL.
Many Bengals fans still insist Mike Nugent has cost his team multiple games this year. I’m not going to reiterate why I think the notion of this is flawed, but if you’re curious, here’s my explanation. Nugent’s kicking has been bad. There’s no denying that. There’s no denying he needs to be replaced. But pinning multiple losses on a kicker is a lot, especially considering there are 60 minutes in each game and the kicker is generally on the field for about a minute or so at most. Nugent has been about the same in every game since his cold streak started. On the bright side, the kicker made a touchdown-saving tackle, then preserving the Bengals’ shutout before a couple of garbage time scores. Still, it’s nice to see the effort. It would be unfair to only mention Nugent’s struggles without also mentioning his good plays.
The up-and-down performance from Cincinnati’s special teams is to be expected. But on Sunday, when the Bengals’ special teams had one of its worst games of the season, Cincinnati enjoyed its most decisive victory of the season. With Nugent in place, like it or not, that’s how the Bengals need to win these games. Both the offense and defense are aware enough to understand kicking will be an issue, so they need to be on top of their game to help the team come out with a victory. Again, that’s not a formula for success, but it is what it is with the 2016 Bengals.
One biggest caveat on special teams
Kicking has been an issue, but the Bengals’ issues with punting have been a sneaky big problem as well. For the first time since 2011, Kevin Huber’s net punting average is below 40 yards. His percentage of punts downed inside the 20-yard-line has also taken a hit, at 28.6 percent. That’s the first time since 2011 Huber’s percentage of punts inside the 20 has been below 30. Opponents are averaging nearly 10 yards per punt return, and they’ve already tallied more punt return yards (294) than in any season of Huber’s career, save his rookie year. Don’t just fault the punter. The struggles are certainly related to coverage as well, which has to contribute to the Bengals’ promotion of Cedric Peerman — who has already been making plays — to shore up their special teams units. Huber only punted once on Sunday and it was a 49 yard punt, which was nice and better than his average this season.
The Bengals’ clock management and decision-making in terms of coaching on Sunday couldn’t have been any better. Marvin Lewis not only saved his team a failed fourth down conversion by calling timeout, but he also managed to give some of the younger guys (Darqueze Dennard, Josh Shaw, Nick Vigil and DeShawn Williams) reps while still managing to yield quality production from the defense.
Critics will pick apart the Bengals’ clock management toward the end of the first half, but I’ll counter with this: Cincinnati not only scored a touchdown but managed to do so while keeping only seven seconds on the clock. The Bengals also had an extra timeout they didn’t end up needing to use. Dalton and the offense thrived out of the hurry-up, driving 93 yards downfield (gaining 98 in total, due to an offensive penalty) in 12 plays, taking just over three minutes to do so. That’s good.
One biggest caveat from coaching
With Nugent’s kicking struggles, one has to question why the Bengals are still hesitant to at least try a two-point conversion, especially in a blowout. The Steelers’ struggles in converting two-point tries — a huge reason why Pittsburgh ended up losing to Dallas — are a legitimate reason, enough to sway almost any team away from even attempting a single two-point try. But when you know your kicker has about a 50-50 shot at putting a PAT through the uprights, what’s the harm in being a little more aggressive?
The Bengals played very well on Sunday, better than they’ve played in any game throughout the entire 2016 season. The team’s chances at a 2016 playoff berth are near zero, but this is solid progress for a team that likely hopes this year is an anomaly. With a high draft pick coming in 2017, several returns from injury — including Andrew Billings, Marcus Hardison and William Jackson, who all missed out on the entire 2016 season — and a still-talented roster, the Bengals still look like a team that can contend in 2017 and, hopefully, attain legitimate playoff success and perhaps a Super Bowl at some point in the near future. Only time will tell whether Cincinnati’s hopes at a title come to fruition, but for now, it’s time to enjoy a quality win.