If we’re picking a theme for Cincinnati’s wins this year, I’m going with “Go big, or go home.”
At least this has been the pace that A.J. Green, who posted 173 yards receiving during Thursday’s 22-7 win over the Miami Dolphins, has set this year. When he goes big, the Bengals win. When he doesn’t, they go home. Against the Jets and Dolphins this season, Green has been targeted a combined 25 times, posting 22 receptions for 353 yards receiving; he accounts for nearly 50 percent of Dalton’s completions, 53 percent of his yards and 67 percent of his touchdowns.
Alternatively, while Green’s explosiveness has rocketed Cincinnati’s offense into the stratosphere during their wins, his production and execution has undergone a significant decline during defeats, posting 10 receptions for 105 yards during both losses combined; though those games were against significantly tougher defenses. For his part, Green carries the weight of those losses, including a dropped third-down pass against Denver midway through the fourth while Cincinnati was still only down by one score.
“I hold myself to a very high standard. I know what I’m capable of, and when I don’t perform to that level, I’ve got to refocus myself,” Green said after Thursday’s win. “This week, I had to refocus myself on a short week. Coming off of last week, which wasn’t my best, tonight I had to make plays whenever the ball or the opportunity presented itself.”
It started at the six-minute mark during the first quarter from the Bengals’ 17-yard line on second-and-three. Andy Dalton, after faking the handoff to an underutilized Giovani Bernard, was flushed out of the pocket. Feeling a momentary reprieve, Dalton launched one of his familiar prayers toward Green, who out-jumped cornerback Xavien Howard for a 51-yard completion.
“That was just Andy giving me a chance to make a play on the ball. Like I said, my job is to go out here and make plays, and that’s what I try to do every week,” Green said.
“I’m not surprised, that’s why I threw it,” Dalton said when he was asked if he was surprised Green caught it (was anyone actually surprised after it happened... I mean, really?). “We trust him to make those plays, and I trust him. When you get the ball up and in the air, he’s the best at making those types of plays. I’m not surprised at all. “
Several plays later, Green glided across the middle as the defense scrambled to defend his crossing route, picking up 19 yards on a third-and-four. Two plays later, Green took a quick shot from Dalton, sidestepped one tackle and scored the team’s lone touchdown, despite reaching Miami’s 30-yard line six times.
Naturally, there’s concern with the team’s red zone offense, scoring only one touchdown in three attempts on Thursday. “Yeah obviously (the red zone offense) is a big emphasis for us. We have to score touchdowns when we’re down there, we can’t keep kicking field goals,” Dalton said. “We’ll look at the tape and try to find a way to score touchdowns rather than settling for three points. It’s a big emphasis because we haven’t been very good in the end-zone.”
Tyler Eifert encourages an obvious outlet for these struggles, considering that of his 13 touchdowns in 2015, 11 came from within the red zone. “Yes. Tyler’s so good; he was so good down there,” said Dalton. “I would expect he would definitely help in that.”
Green obviously agrees.
“Tyler is a great tight end,” said Green. “In the red zone, he’s unguardable. So whenever he comes back, it’s going to help.”
However, Marvin Lewis tempered expectations, adding that Eifert’s return isn’t “that simple” while calling for better execution. “One person doesn’t make anything that simple. We need to do better,” Lewis said. “We had a tipped ball, a bad snap – we have things we need to do better.”
While the offense was a fixture on SportsCenter on Thursday night, it was their defense that carried the bulk of Cincinnati’s domination.
Of Miami’s 11 possessions, six didn’t produce a first down while the defense forced three turnovers (including a turnover on downs), allowed only two (of 11) third down conversions, and held Miami to 21:58 in time of possession.
The pass rush woke up with five quarterback sacks, including an MVP-like performance from Carlos Dunlap, who ranked second with five tackles while generating a team-high two sacks, a tackle for loss, two passed batted at the line of scrimmage and a forced fumble. “We knew they had a couple issues with the offensive line but as a defensive line, we want to go in there and try to expose that,” Dunlap said.
His line-mate, Geno Atkins, resumed his normal mode of destruction with 1.5 sacks, including one where he threw an offensive guard into Ryan Tannehill.
“Yeah. I heard some people questioning our (pass) rush, but they can’t say that now. (Carlos) Dunlap, Geno (Atkins), Will (Clarke), Michael (Johnson) – guys were just rushing the passer very well. And conversely, we’re doing a great job covering and making the quarterback hold the ball,” said linebacker Vincent Rey.
Clarke has experienced decent growth this season, having generated a sack in three straight games and had a hand in Dunlap’s fumble that was recovered by Domata Peko.
Save for a clear miscommunication during Kenny Still’s 74-yard touchdown, the Bengals defense was simply dominating. Despite his return from a three-game suspension, it wasn’t Vontaze Burfict, who is still getting back into his regular season routine, that made the most significant impression.
“Football shape is different, but I think I did alright,” Burfict said via Bengals.com. “I felt I could have done more, but the coaches had a plan for me and switched me in and out with Vinny [Rey] and Karlos [Dansby] and they did a good job of that. At the end of the game, I started to feel my wind catching up, but every game I’ll feel like I’ll get better and better and get my legs up under me.”
Burfict generated three tackles and a pass deflection during 34 snaps played on Thursday. He’ll gradually recover that bone-crushing-swag that we’ve come to love him for.
Despite Cincinnati’s struggles against higher-caliber squads, like Denver and Pittsburgh, the Bengals 22-7 win over the Miami Dolphins should be classified as a game that we expected them to win. Interestingly, this is a Dolphins squad led by a defensive coordinator who spent his previous two seasons in Cincinnati. Winning games against lesser teams, like the Dolphins is equally as important, but these are the victories you need, putting yourself into a position to take on the bigger squads later in the season.
And while deficiencies exist, such as the running game and a passing game outside of A.J. Green, Thursday’s win was a nice reprieve from the Bengals’ two-game losing streak.