Some things never change. But other things do.
Cincinnati’s offensive line had its best overall performance of the season on Sunday against Cleveland, and Joe Mixon went over 100 yards for the first time in his career. The Bengals finally won the time of possession battle, and next up face the Pittsburgh Steelers with a chance to even their record at 6-6.
But not everything that happened on Sunday was good. Here are five more things I think I know about these Bengals following their win over the Browns.
John Ross is heading toward a wasted season
It is becoming painstakingly clear that John Ross was not Marvin Lewis’ choice for the Bengals’ first-round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft. For the second week in a row, the fastest man in the NFL was a healthy scratch.
But who needs that speed, anyway? Cincinnati boasts the 29th-best passing attack in the NFL, averaging a whopping 197.6 yards per game. Quarterback Andy Dalton has thrown 18 touchdown passes, which ranks in the top half of the league, so maybe he really does not need that speed, anyhow. Right? Wrong.
The facts say otherwise. Cincinnati moved into the red zone three of the four times it had the ball in the first half. Yet the Bengals managed just one touchdown and had to settle for field goals on both other occasions. The fourth possession also ended in a field goal. One is only left to wonder whether Ross’ speed could have made a difference on any of those possessions. We have five games remaining in the 2017 regular season and we’re starting to wonder when we’ll see Ross make an impact.
Vontaze Burfict may never learn
I am beginning to wonder whether Vontaze Burfict will ever be able to learn to play the game the way the NFL demands. In the preseason, Burfict was suspended for three games for contact with a defenseless receiver.
Against Cleveland Sunday, Burfict drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for, of all things, contact with a defenseless receiver. Will Burfict get himself suspended, once more for the play?
This is no knock on Burfict. He was taught a certain way to play football, and became very good at it. Now that the game is changing constantly, Burfict is having a hard time keeping up with it.
And he is not alone. Cleveland safety Jabrill Peppers hit Bengals’ wide receiver Josh Malone with a forearm to the chest that caused an incomplete pass and, in any other era, would have been a great play. Instead, Peppers was called for unnecessary roughness and Cincinnati went to score an insurance touchdown.
Burfict’s penalty-provoking hit on Sunday looked a lot like the one against the Chiefs. Don’t be surprised if you hear more about it.
The Bengals need to look to the slot
I have been lamenting the failure to utilize the slot receiver, and the Bengals finally paid attention. Cincinnati’s first touchdown of the game came on an eight-yard strike to slot receiver Tyler Boyd, who may finally be out of the Lewis’ doghouse.
Cincinnati moved into the red zone on two other occasions in the first half, but did not target the slot receiver and did not score. Early in the second half, the Bengals hit Alex Erickson out of the slot for an 18-yard reception and Brandon LaFell, who moved into the slot, drew a pass interference call at the 1-yard line that led to a Dalton-to-Tyler Kroft touchdown pass.
There are no excuses this week for the defense
The defense cannot complain that the offense did not do its job in the first half. Cincinnati’s offense ran off 29 plays in the first half to 33 for the Browns, and the time of possession was virtually even with Cleveland owning a slime 15:28 to 14:32 edge in that category. Cincinnati finished with a slight edge in time of possession at 30:32 to 29:28, although the Browns had the edge in number of plays, 67-59.
The defense continued to allow the opposition to score late in the first half. For the sixth time in the last seven games, Bengals’ defenders allowed the opposition to score points in the last minute of the first half. This time, Cleveland put together an 11-play, 75-yard drive, aided by an inopportune timeout called by the Bengals in an effort to preserve the clock. That resulted in a 21-yard Zane Gonzalez field goal as time expired.
Time after time, the Bengals’ defense allowed the Browns to convert on long third-down opportunities. On the Cleveland drive that resulted in a touchdown to cut the margin to 23-16 midway through the fourth quarter, the Browns converted on third-and-10 (Kenny Britt gained 34 yards on a pass from DeShone Kizer), and got eight yards on a third-and-nine on a pass to rookie tight end David Njoku.
Then, with everyone in the stadium expecting Kizer to run the ball on a fourth-and-goal at the Bengals’ three-yard line, Kizer ran it and easily punched the ball into the end zone. Where was the defense?
The o-line deserves kudos this week
Nearly every week since Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler were allowed to leave in free agency, we’ve talked about the problems with the Bengals’ offensive line. Well, slowly but surely, (some of) those problems seem to be getting resolved.
The last couple of weeks, the insertion of Andre Smith at right tackle has helped Cincinnati improve its pass blocking. Then, against Cleveland, the Bengals finally put together a solid all-around game. The line allowed Dalton to be sacked only one time. Even more impressive, was the line’s efforts in the running game. Despite facing one of the best rushing defenses in the NFL (ranked No. 6 coming into Sunday), Cincinnati’s line opened the holes that have been closed all season long.
And Joe Mixon, the running back of whom so much had been expected, but who was mired as one of the worst starters in the league with an average of 2.9 yards per carry, wasted no time in finding those holes. Mixon went over 100 yards for the first time in his career as he finished with 114 yards on 23 carries, an average of five yards per carry, and scored his fourth touchdown of the season. Among the early afternoon games, Mixon was Pro Football Focus’ number one graded running back with an overall grade of 89.2, which is higher than any member of the Bengals’ defense received for the game.