At the end of the season, it doesn’t matter who you beat. The only thing that matters is how many wins you have compared to the rest of the conference. The Bengals picked up another win on Sunday against the Browns. Believe it or not, the Bengals have a shot at a .500 record. Each win is important, but no game will be more crucial than the upcoming clash against the division-leading Steelers. As the Bengals prepare for this game, here’s what we learned from last week’s Battle of Ohio.
The offensive line is less bad than it was
Earlier this year, the Bengals offensive line looked it was bad enough to hold the team back. In fact, the only thing the line was blocking was the Bengals’ playoff chances. But last week, the line did well enough keep a clean pocket for Andy Dalton and open up some running lanes for Joe Mixon. Pro Football Focus gave several linemen some positive feedback.
Per @PFF Andre Smith allowed 2 QB pressures today & Cedric Ogbuehi allowed 1. Those were the only pressures on Andy Dalton today. Smith did well in the run game & @pff_cincinnati graded him with a 76.9 overall grade. Ogbuehi, not so much. He had a 35.0 grade.— Rebecca Toback (@Rebecca_Toback) November 26, 2017
In addition, Clint Boling received a PFF grade of 88.4, which was third-best on the team.
But we’re used to Boling anchoring the line. We’re not used to Ogbuehi carrying his own weight. Despite his low PFF grade, this was still one of the best games he has had all year. He and Russell Bodine, who are two of the worst starters at their positions in the NFL, showed a perfect picture of their improvement on Mixon’s touchdown as they were out in front of—and behind—him making holes.
Ogbuehi didn’t magically turn into Andrew Whitworth overnight, as he gave up the only sack of the game and a QB pressure. He still may not be (and likely isn’t) the long term answer at one of the most important positions on the offense. But the offensive line might actually become helpful instead of hurtful down the stretch.
The Browns defensive line is probably the best unit on the team and their run defense was one of the best in the NFL. So, no, the Bengals did not only look good because they were playing the Browns. Back in Week 4 in Cleveland, Mixon ran the ball 17 times for 27 yards for an average of 1.9 yards a pop. Thanks to an improved line, Mixon’s performance on Sunday was far better.
It’s Mixon’s offense now
The rookie out of Oklahoma did just about everything right on Sunday. With holes to run through for a change, he displayed his elusiveness, power, vision, and blocking. His 114 yards on the ground was far better than his previous season-high by 51 yards. His average yards per carry was the second best of the season, behind his 6.9 average in Pittsburgh.
One part of Mixon’s game that won’t show up on the stat sheet was his pass protection. Just as the line helped him on the ground, he helped the line pick up blitzes for the pass (with one exception).
For the second week in a row, he set a new season-high for carries. As one of only two running backs active this week, Mixon was in the backfield for 75 percent of the offensive snaps. With Jeremy Hill on Injured Reserve, Mixon will be getting more and more carries as the season wears on and the weather gets worse.
The highest graded RBs in Week 12! pic.twitter.com/UeB3ixzNfJ— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) November 28, 2017
The Bengals’ pass rush should frighten opponents
With a crucial game against the Steelers coming up and starting tackle Marcus Gilbert still serving his suspension, the Bengals’ defensive line should be licking their chops.
Carl Lawson collected a sack and a half, giving him an even seven on the year. Lawson has not only the rookie lead, but the team lead in sacks, which is more impressive considering the two former Pro Bowlers he plays with.
Carl Lawson's impressive rookie season continued today! pic.twitter.com/ryxwLNBaSS— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) November 26, 2017
Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins are back in their top-notch form, with 11 sacks between them. Dunlap had one of his most productive days this season against the Browns, and Atkins was the second-highest rated player on the team, according to PFF.
Other key defensive line contributors are rounding into form, too. Michael Johnson is having a much better season than he had last year thanks to some new defensive schemes. Chris Smith is also making the most of his new opportunity in Cincinnati with three sacks this year and a forced fumble.
In addition to the defensive line, the Browns ‘offensive line is a very solid unit. Two of their linemen were in the top five players of the game, per PFF. But as good as the line was, the Bengals’ defense had six tackles for a loss, 10 QB hurries and four sacks forcing 32 lost yards.
If the Bengals want any chance of making the playoffs this year, they need to beat the Steelers next week. In order to beat the Steelers, both lines are going to need to step up. The defensive line should be up to the challenge. Is the offensive line a one-hit wonder? We’ll find out.