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The Armchair Quarterback: “The Cardiac Cats” are back

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The Cincinnati Bengals just keep finding creative ways to win. Sunday against Miami was no exception. We dissect the victory over the Dolphins and the issues facing the team ahead.

Miami Dolphins v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images

Through just five games of the 2018 season, this has become one of the most memorable seasons in recent Bengals history. Comeback wins and explosive plays have been the norm, which is a stark contrast to the past two seasons.

Here are some of the big takeaways from the Bengals’ 27-17 surprising win over the Dolphins.

This team somehow continues to get it done:

For the most part, the Bengals’ offense has been carrying the team this year. This was particularly evident in Weeks 2-4, despite a 2-1 record. Sure, the defense came through with a the game-winning fumble recovery and touchdown in Week 1 and they harassed Joe Flacco in Week 2 on a Thursday night, but they didn’t net a turnover against the Panthers nor did they against the Falcons.

Then, this past Sunday, neither the offense or the special teams units were pulling their weight. An uncharacteristic red zone interception from Andy Dalton, a blocked field goal and constant pressure given up by the offensive line made for tough sledding against the Dolphins defense.

Did we mention that a should-have-been back-breaking punt return touchdown was given up right before the halftime gun?

But, “no worries”, said Bengals defensive coordinator, Teryl Austin. His crew stepped up in a huge way, logging two defensive touchdowns off of turnovers, as well as an additional interception to essentially seal the game.

His name and reputation had been dragged through the mud over the past couple of weeks, but his unit recognized the need for them to be the catalyst to a win and they stepped up. The talent on all three levels of the defense showcased itself with “old man” Michael Johnson coming up with arguably the biggest play of his NFL career and the youngster behind him on the depth chart, Sam Hubbard, grabbing his first career touchdown.

Back in 2009, the club was dubbed “The Cardiac Cats”, given their knack for coming back in dramatic ways against quality clubs. 11 years later, the moniker is once again apropos.

The moral of the story? Even when it looks the bleakest this year, we shouldn’t count the Bengals out of any game. And, if the Bengals can learn to consistently play solid football in all three phases of the game every contest, look out.

A continuing A.J. Green versus Chad Johnson debate:

This offseason, we counted down the top 10 Bengals players in the Marvin Lewis era and there was great debate on the positioning of some of the names. Based on what we had yet to see from A.J. Green this season (AKA a fantastic five-game stretch), we had him No. 2 and Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson at No. 1 over the past 16 years.

Before this incredible start to the season from Green, it was easy for some to point to eighty-five as “the guy” in Lewis’ renaissance of the Cincinnati Bengals. However, with Green’s franchise-record 32nd 100-yard receiving game logged on Sunday, his dominance just can’t be denied.

In truth, it’s a difficult argument to have a side on, as both were great players and both were very different receivers. I think it’s fair to say that Green has a bit more on his side in the ways of “raw talent”, as he has three inches of height on Ocho and just seems as if he can do a little bit more as a receiver than Chad.

Still, younger Bengals fans readily forget Johnson’s big-play ability, his insane route-running skills and quick feet that would have rivaled Antonio Brown’s. But, Green has been more productive in big games and either owns or is nipping at Johnson’s heels for most of the significant franchise receiving records.

Regardless, both will rightfully garner Hall of Fame consideration. We’ll let Green say a bit more on the subject.

Teryl Austin’s seat cools down:

Going into this offseason, Austin’s name actually had some NFL head coaching buzz. Instead, he was brought in as part of an overhaul to Lewis’ underlings.

Excitement was high with the hiring because of his aforementioned reputation and preaching of turnovers and other big plays on defense. However, it’s been a mixed bag through five games this year.

Austin’s unit failed to net a turnover in Weeks 3 and 4, while the Bengals had a non-coincidental 1-1 record in the span. As mentioned above, the Bengals needed a spark from the defense and multiple players on Austin’s unit rose to the occasion.

Let’s be honest: the sub-header above is a bit tongue-in-cheek, as Austin wasn’t truly in trouble of losing his job this year. Still, his group needed a big performance this week.

His group is a work in progress, given the new faces and influx of youth at many other spots. There will inevitably be some rough patches in the days ahead, but as guys like Hubbard, Jordan Willis, Jessie Bates III, Andrew Billings, Carl Lawson and others continue to integrate themselves into the game plans, we should see vast improvement later in the year.

A big day for a great guy:

Aside from Russell Bodine, it’s hard to point to a bigger Bengals fan-favorite whipping boy than Michael Johnson in recent years. It’s a shame, really, given the fact that he’s No. 6 on the team’s all-time sack leader list, coupled with the immense community impact he’s had in his nine years in The Queen City.

But, as was the case with Austin and John Ross the past few weeks, it was great to see Johnson make a huge play to get people to appreciate his skill set once again. Sure, he may have a bit of Lewis’ “Robert Geathers’ Lifetime Achievement Award” vibe, in terms of his current roster status, but No. 90 still provides value on defense.

It wasn’t just the big pick-six, either. He had a huge tackle-for-loss in the comeback and, though he’s lost a step, his rotating in with others makes for an effective front.

And, if you’re all in on Hubbard (which is understandable) and his huge play on Sunday, guess where he gives credit?

A different attitude and mantra from the 2018 Bengals:

From an inside perspective, AKA longtime fans and/or the media members in the greater Cincinnati area, a 4-1 start and in the fashion they’ve achieved it gives everyone the idea that this is a much different team than other Lewis’ squads that have otherwise flopped. Whether it’s hanging onto a big lead, winning a last-second thriller, or coming back from a 17-point second half deficit to win, the atmosphere around the club seems dissimilar.

Don’t just ask the Who Dey faithful, though. Once the Bengals started to mount their comeback in the form of a Joe Mixon touchdown reception, even CBS sideline reporter, Steve Tasker, noticed a difference.

For years, Tasker has been involved in CBS NFL telecasts, with many of his assignments being Bengals games. While it may be a trivial thing, Tasker immediately noticed a different demeanor on the Cincinnati sideline, as the Bengals surged to a comeback.

“I’ve done a number of their games. This is a team that, even after that touchdown (Mixon’s 18-yard reception), they slapped hands, but it’s a very serious sideline. It changed to very business-like after that first field goal—it’s a different emotion on the Cincinnati sideline than we’ve seen in years past. A much more emotional and together group between series.”

Good enough for me, Steve.

The offensive line is skating on thin ice:

We can point to the first item in this week’s “Armchair Quarterback” for this one, in terms of the Bengals getting it done, despite certain circumstances. Still, even with four new starters (actually five, including Trey Hopkins) from last year, things aren’t much better through five weeks this year.

Cordy Glenn has been a nice acquisition, but chinks in the armor have shown the past three weeks against speed rushers. Meanwhile, Alex Redmond continues to be a liability at right guard and Bobby Hart has been going through his respective ups and downs.

Billy Price should be returning about midseason from a foot injury, but Cincinnati has decisions to make at right guard, and possibly center, upon his return. Regardless, Clint Boling has predictably been the rock of the unit at left guard.

Like the other facets of the Bengals’ team this year, the offensive line has only one true great, all-around game under their belts. Cincinnati’s big uglies up front will need to be more stable if the team is going to make a viable playoff push.

Geno Atkins is silly good—even in his ninth season:

If there was any concern with the Bengals giving extensions to Atkins and Carlos Dunlap this summer, it was in “Father Time” potentially having his effect on two starts on the wrong side of the age of 30. Given the starts to the 2018 season for both guys, they’ve managed to stave off decline.

Atkins has six sacks through five games and leads all interior linemen in that category, as well as in quarterback pressures. Regardless of the defense’s overall issues, No. 97 is there to count on for continuous impact plays.

Joe Mixon and Vontaze Burfict are the emotional catalysts to the team:

Yes, there are more talented players on their units (A.J. Green, Geno Atkins), but the spark plugs of the team are with Nos. 28 and 55. Mixon is the guy charging down the sidelines to celebrate the touchdowns of others, while Burfict quietly knocks down the defense’s points per game average.

After averaging the allowance of an average of 28 points per game the first four contests, Burfict returns and suddenly Austin’s group lets up just 10 points to a 3-1 team.

Coincidence? Maybe. It’s just one game and it’s and outlier, right? Possibly.

But, seeing other players run up to Burfict for pre-snap read confirmations on Sunday tells me otherwise.

As for Mixon, well, his 117 all-purpose yards per game this season speak for itself. But, his sideline demeanor also remains infectious to his teammates:

The true tests coming the next two weeks:

Look, I think we can all be ecstatic about the start for the 2018 Cincinnati Bengals after the 2016-2017 seasons. Last year, Cincinnati started 1-3, including the giving up of a 17-point lead against the Packers at Lambeau Field.

This year, they pulled a last-minute win out of their rear ends against the Colts, had the game essentially in hand from the get-go against Baltimore, stunned the high-flying Falcons (yes, that’s a term you can use for a 1-4 team, based on its offense) on their home turf, and came from behind to beat a 3-1 team.

But, “they haven’t won the big one”, right?

In the next two weeks, Cincinnati hosts Pittsburgh and then travels to face the currently-undefeated Chiefs. The latter contest has also now been flexed to primetime on Sunday Night Football for Week 7.

Regardless of what you currently think of Indianapolis, Baltimore, Atlanta and/or Miami, the Bengals have a big dragon to slay next Sunday.

Ever since the Bengals charged to a 12-4 record in 2015 and their subsequent embarrassment on national TV in the Wild Card round against Pittsburgh, they’ve been in a tailspin. As of December 13th, 2015, the Bengals are a shocking 0-6 against the Steelers. They were 3-6 in the previous nine contests in the Dalton era against their arch-nemeses.

Whether it’s to be taken seriously from a national perspective, legitimizing what they’ve done so far and/or building their confidence, beating the Steelers would be huge for this team.

And, remember 2003? A then-9-0 Kansas City team traveled to Cincinnati for a solid AFC matchup. The Bengals stunned the Chiefs and started a run that almost led to a postseason berth in Lewis’ inaugural season as the team’s head coach.

This year’s Chiefs team is even more formidable than that of 16 years ago. Patrick Mahomes can’t find a way to lose, as Andy Reid has successfully moved on from the Alex Smith era.

If Cincinnati can go 1-1 in these next two games, preferably with a win against the Steelers for AFC North purposes, this season will continue to seem special.