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7 things we learned from the Bengals’ first 6 games of the 2018 season

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The Bengals are 4-2 after in their first six games of the regular season. What have we learned?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images

The Bengals are 4-2 and currently sitting at the top of the AFC North, so a lot of experts out there probably feel like idiots right now.

Even though many of the players this year were also a part of last years’ disappointing 7-9 team, there is a different feel to the Bengals in 2018. By this time last season, the Bengals were 2-3 going into their Week 6 bye, and had only recently started scoring touchdowns. Their breakout game came against the Browns, who would go on to win zero games by the end of the year.

This season, the Bengals have scored 90 more points than last years’ team. This season, the Bengals already have 22 touchdowns, which is a mark that took the 2017 Bengals 15 games to reach.

But why bother comparing a good team to a bad team? Compared to the rest of the NFL, the Bengals are sixth in points per game, fifth in receiving touchdowns, third in total touchdown, and leading the league defensive touchdowns. Andy Dalton is fourth in passing touchdowns, Geno Atkins is third in sacks, and the nine receiving touchdowns between A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd are tied with Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce for the most by any duo in the NFL. So the AFC North-leading Bengals are doing pretty well this year.

What does this mean? Are the Bengals as good as advertised? Are they going to make a deep playoff run?

Its hard to say. But here’s what we have learned:

The offense is Lazor-focused

Saying that Bill Lazor is an improvement over Ken Zampese would be like saying Skyline Chili is an improvement over Gold Star Chili. At some point, you have to wonder why you ever though Gold Star was a good idea.

It was evident in Week 3 of last season that newly promoted offensive coordinator Lazor would be an improvement over Zampese when Lazor’s offense did something that Zampese’s couldn’t do in two games—score a touchdown.

But even with the new offense, Lazor was still handicapped. He couldn’t just change the offense overnight, so he was calling plays out of someone else’s playbook. The offense looked better, but not great.

In 2018, Lazor had a whole offseason to design the offense to his liking, and it has paid dividends. Dalton looks like one of the best quarterbacks in the league. John Ross has not one, but seven catches and two touchdowns. Boyd is playing the best football of his young career. Joe Mixon is having success for once. This offense, though containing many of the same players, looks completely different from the one that Lazor ran in 2017.

The offense just has a different feel. In 2017, they were held to 21 or less points nine times. This year, they have not been below that mark. The Bengals have even overcome their inability to score late in games.

The Bengals have become the “Cardiac Cats” again because of their ability to keep games close enough to give their fans heart attacks. Before, a Marvin Lewis-led team to lead three fourth quarter comebacks in six weeks would be unheard of. But now, the Bengals seem to do it every week. They would have had four late game comebacks, but the defense was asked to stop Ben Roethlisberger while fielding five backups on the final drive, so that was a tall order.

But the Bengals are scoring points like never before and they are showing no signs of slowing down.

Tyler Boyd is destroying his bar of expectations

Obviously, A.J. Green was going to be the focal point of the Bengals passing offense. So far this season, he leads the team with 494 yards and 5 touchdowns, on pace for another Pro Bowl season. But in a plot twist that very few saw coming, Tyler Boyd has been playing at the same level as Green.

Boyd has four more receptions this season than Green, and only trails Green by 44 yards and one touchdown. It would not be hard to imagine a scenario where Boyd finishes out the year with more receptions, yards, and touchdowns than Green, which is not something a teammate of Green’s has ever done in his college or professional career.

Boyd is currently on pace for 98 receptions, 1,213 receiving yards, and 11 touchdowns. Even if he failed to reach those marks, he would still put together a Pro Bowl winning season.

But what is remarkable about Boyd’s season is his chemistry with Dalton. The Red Rifle loves to look for Boyd under pressure, whether he is scrambling out of the pocket or if he is passing on third-and-long. Dalton used to look for Green exclusively, but has found a new favorite target when an incomplete pass is not an option. This should give opposing defenses all sorts of trouble when they have to defend both receivers in tight situations.

The veterans on the defensive line showing no signs of slowing down

Several years ago, it would have been deemed foolish to sign two defensive linemen to expensive contracts that would last into their mid-thirties. But the Bengals have kept their old guys around, and it has proved to be a winning strategy.

Geno Atkins was the highest paid interior lineman in the NFL for about 15 minutes, which is remarkable for a 30-year-old at that position. Carlos Dunlap is a spry 29-year-old, but is also got a heavy contract extension before the season started. The two former Pro Bowlers will be playing in Cincinnati well into their thirties, but that won’t be a problem if they keep playing the way they have been this season.

Atkins is a one man wrecking crew and is playing his best football since his All-Pro season in 2015. He leads defensive interior linemen in sacks and pressures going into Week 6. The only way to stop Atkins is to double team him, but that takes some of the pressure off of one of the other devastating defensive linemen.

Dunlap is not the only experienced linemen to put the hurt on opposing quarterbacks. Michael Johnson, who the Bengals released this year and re-signed one day later, has helped the Bengals reach their improved record. Both he and Dunlap were instrumental in helping the Bengals defense score two touchdowns against the Dolphins in Week 5.

Overall, this team would not be the same without their veteran linemen. That isn’t to say the youngsters don’t deserve praise, though.

The young defensive linemen are adding scary depth to the defense

The best unit on the defense is by far the defensive line because of the top-to-bottom talent. Sam Hubbard has been sensational so far, and is having about as good of a season as a rotational rookie can have. Carl Lawson is still destroying opposing offensive tackles, and while his stats don’t jump off the page, the pressure he puts on offenses cannot go understated. The Bengals young edge rushers are not going to miss a beat when the veterans leave town.

In the interior, Andrew Billings and Ryan Glasgow have been putting together great seasons. Unfortunately, Glasgow’s season ended in Week 4, but until that point he had been showing so much improvement in his second year. Billings will be tasked with more responsibility now, but he has proved that he is not afraid of the challenge.

The offensive line is still the worst unit on the team

When the Bengals added Frank Pollack to the coaching staff, acquired tackle Cordy Glenn from the Bills and drafted center Billy Price in the first round, the Bengals wanted you to believe that the offensive line would be much improved over last year. In reality, they put put a bandaid on an injury that really needs surgery.

The right side of the line has been a total disaster this season. Putting Bobby Hart at right tackle was about as bad of an idea as most would have predicted. The Bengals pitted two undrafted free agents against each other for the right guard spot, and Alex Redmond, winner of the battle, has done quite poorly as well.

Price injured his foot in the Bengals’ Week 2 game against the Ravens on Thursday Night Football, so Trey Hopkins has been playing most of the snaps at center this year. He’s actually not been that bad at center, but he’s still a step down from the Bengals’ 21st overall draft pick.

For as good as Glenn was supposed to be this year, he has been anything but the solution at left tackle.

Fortunately, Lazor has been able to draw up some schemes to mitigate the damage that could be done by the offensive line, but it may not be enough down the stretch.

The same problems on defense are still plaguing the Bengals years later

For years, the Bengals defense has had a difficult time stopping tight ends, running backs, and opposing offenses on third down.

So this year, the Bengals have struggled stopping tight ends, running backs, and opposing offenses on third down.

In Week 6 alone, the Bengals gave up 130 receiving yards to the Steeler’s tight ends. Running back James Conner ran for 111 yards and two touchdowns against the Bengals’ defense. To add icing to the cake, the Bengals were unable to stop the Steelers from converting on third down 43 percent of the time.

This is just in one game. The whole season has shown the same trends against this defense, and its a surprise every offensive coordinator in the NFL hasn’t figured it out. But the Bengals have had these problems for years and cannot figure out how to fix it for whatever reason.

Turnovers have become crucial to the Bengals success

Teryl Austin came into town as the new defensive coordinator and immediately began to insist that the Bengals force more turnovers. He seems to be on to something.

During the offseason, Austin got to work putting together an aggressive defense. He drafted ball-hawking safety Jessie Bates and Hubbard on the defensive line. He signed linebacker Preston Brown as a free agent. He even changed a lot of the schemes on defense, adding more blitzes and changing up coverages.

All of Austin’s changes have resulted in the Bengals forcing eight turnovers in six games, which gives them a neutral turnover margin.

So far this season, the Bengals are undefeated when they force at least one turnover and are 1-2 when they do not.

Even though many things about the Bengals need to be improved, some of the changes—like Austin’s changes on defense—have helped the Bengals improve greatly from their poor season a year ago.