The season started very grim for the Cincinnati Bengals, as the offense was anemic. However, the past three weeks have brought a stark contrast and the playoff talk has returned in The Queen City.
Of the positives that have occurred this year, some have been expected, while others have been pretty big surprises. Here are five in the latter category for the Bengals in 2017.
The quick trigger on Ken Zampese:
Cincinnati has long been a conservative franchise that doesn’t make rash or splashy moves. However, just two games into the season and 18 games into Zampese’s post as the offensive coordinator, the powers-that-be made the tough decision of letting him go. Zampese had some nice moments in his 15-year Bengals tenure, but it was time for a change.
Look, we don’t like to celebrate someone losing their livelihood, but there’s no doubt that Bill Lazor’s promotion has turned the season around. After going 0-2 with just nine points scored in the first two games under Zampese, the team has gone 2-1 and is averaging 25 points scored per game. This turnaround wouldn’t have happened if the Bengals stuck with the status quo.
The effectiveness and creativity of the pass rush:
Cincinnati has been able to get to the quarterback frequently under both Mike Zimmer and Paul Guenther, but there was a noticeable dip last year. To remedy the situation, the Bengals selected Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson in the third and fourth rounds. Even though they were promising prospects, there were lingering concerns that Cincinnati’s pass-rush might remain a bit stagnant.
Well, Willis has a sack, while Lawson has 3.5 and has been a Pro Football Focus favorite so far this season. Meanwhile, the Bengals have come up with a great plan for Michael Johnson by kicking him inside and he’s grabbed three sacks in 2017. As it stands, Cincinnati is No. 2 in the NFL with 18 sacks garnered on the year.
A couple of second-year defenders:
The Bengals rolled the dice a little bit when they gave a prominent role to linebacker Nick Vigil this year, but they were relying on his excellent pre-draft workout numbers for production. He’s been one of the more active players on a stout Cincinnati defense in 2017. He’s notched 43 total tackles, a sack, an interception and three passes defended in the first five games.
Meanwhile, last year’s first round pick, William Jackson III, has gotten his feet wet and made some nice plays. The biggest, of course, was the pick-six against Aaron Rodgers, but he’s also stepped up when injuries hit both Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick.
Giovani Bernard as the most explosive back:
Everyone believed that by this time of the year, we’d start clamoring for more time for Joe Mixon. While he’s had a few “wow” moments this year, it has been Bernard who has popped the bigger number of chunk plays.
He has two receiving touchdowns, including a 61-yard gallop and is averaging 16.4 yards per reception. He also has 4.6 yards per carry, which is best of the trio of the team’s star running backs. Making this especially impressive is Bernard is doing this after spending the offseason recovering from a torn ACL late last year.
The kicking and punting games:
Yes, Randy Bullock missed a pretty big kick against Green Bay, but he’s been perfect on every other attempt and on extra points. It’s a pretty stark contrast to many of the issues we saw from Mike Nugent last year. Oh, and he’s been putting some nice boots on kickoffs to limit big returns as well.
Meanwhile, Kevin Huber has been pinning teams inside their own 20-yard with extreme regularity this year. He already has accomplished this feat 13 times this season and while we should expect this type of solid performance from a former Pro Bowler, he’s been a weapon for the team.