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The Armchair Quarterback: Assessing the first 6 weeks of the 2018 Bengals

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The Bengals have made a number of positive changes from the past two years, but a couple of familiar issues continue to linger.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals

If you were to tell most Bengals fans this offseason that they team would start 4-2 in 2018 and be in a tie for first in the AFC North, they’d probably take it. After all, Cincinnati started 2-4 in both of the last two seasons.

For a couple of reasons, we’ve set up this week’s “Armchair Quarterback” a little later than usual. The main one being that we’re not only touching on Sunday’s loss, but also in its taking on of a more macro look at things with the team after six weeks.

This might be the best we’ve seen from Andy Dalton:

Sure, everybody can rightfully point to 2015 as Dalton’s campaign as his best, but with his solid performance against the Steelers (229 yards, two touchdowns, zero turnovers), these first six games have been quite impressive.

A four-interception game against the Panthers (in which not all of those were his fault) notwithstanding, Dalton has led two impressive comeback drives and is largely responsible for the team’s hot start. He’s fourth in the league with 14 touchdown passes, putting him on pace for 37 touchdowns, which would break his own franchise record.

We haven’t seen this type of comfort in an offensive system from Dalton since those Hue Jackson days. He seems far more confident in more of the throws asked of him and in some of the new faces on offense.

He’s performed at this high of a level without regularly having Giovani Bernard, Tyler Eifert and John Ross available, as well as behind an up-and-down offensive line. He also hasn’t had the stout defense to lean on, as has been the case in previous years.

“Resiliency” describes the 2018 Bengals well:

Though they don’t have a perfect record, Cincinnati has shown great resolve and fortitude this season. Three of their four wins have come in dramatic fashion, with varying degrees of difficulty and creativity.

Even this past Sunday, it looked as if the Bengals pulled another rabbit out of the hat against the Steelers. Though some of the same habits reared their ugly heads for Cincinnati against Pittsburgh, they grabbed a lead with under a minute and a half—something they haven’t always been able to do against their divisional foe.

In short, this team seems more mentally strong than in year’s past. The “collapse” against the Steelers on Sunday wasn’t like the mental breakdown the team collectively had in the final minutes of the 2015 Wild Card contest—it was just...different.

Teams who grab a lead of almost any kind against the Bengals don’t seem to be safe. This is because of Dalton’s play and the sporadic times the defense does actually come to the rescue.

They’ll be competitive in every game:

In every contest this year, Cincinnati has either been close or won the game by the final gun. The loss at Carolina was a bit of an exception, but Cincinnati still had the ball in a one-possession game with under four minutes to play in that one.

In a direct turnaround from the last two seasons, this team is pretty fun to watch—even in the losses. They make big plays, the offense is executing at a high level and the 2018 version of “The Cardiac Cats” is in full-swing.

This week against the Chiefs in what appears to be heading towards a shootout may prove to be an exception, but I wouldn’t be so sure.

Even with the wins, they still have a lot to prove:

The stigma for the Bengals under Marvin Lewis has been that they can consistently beat the poor and mediocre teams in the NFL, but mightily struggle against the better teams—particularly on the biggest stages. Their Thursday night win against the Ravens was a nice outlier, but this Sunday once again proved otherwise.

The teams the Bengals have beat so far have a combined record of 11-13, while the teams they’ve lost to sit at 6-5-1. It’s not a big finger pointing back at falling into past transgressions, but it’s definitely a sign.

Cincinnati has some tough games on the horizon in traveling to Kansas City, hosting the Saints, another matchup against the Ravens and Steelers apiece and a trip to Los Angeles to face the Chargers. That’s not including two games against the scrappy Browns this year.

Obviously, the Bengals don’t need to win all of these contests and likely won’t, but they’ll need to start learning how to beat at least some of these good teams. It’s not just about getting to the playoffs, but through them.

Joe Mixon and Tyler Boyd have grown up fast:

These two young skill position players have been immensely fun to watch. Boyd is second on the team in touchdown receptions with four, while Mixon remains a multi-dimensional threat.

Unfortunately, Bill Lazor abandoned the usage of Mixon a bit too much last Sunday, but he’ll likely be relied upon heavily this week. Not only is Giovani Bernard still a question mark to suit up against Kansas City, but Cincinnati may try to grind out the clock a bit with No. 28 to keep Patrick Mahomes and the high-flying Chiefs offense off of the field.

Unlike former offensive coordinator Ken Zampese, Lazor has largely found a great way to use both of these players in the offense. We can rightfully credit maturity from Dalton this year as he’s grown accustomed to Lazor’s scheme, but these two have been great outlets for No. 14 to lean on these first six games.

The amount of injuries the Bengals have had to endure is ridiculous:

You hate to give excuses for losses, but one has to wonder about last Sunday’s outcome if the team wasn’t so wounded. Bernard, Eifert, John Ross, Billy Price and Tyler Kroft were all missing from the offense, which was noticeable in that ugly third quarter.

On defense—my word. The trio of first round corners (William Jackson, Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard) were all battered up during and after the game, while Nick Vigil, Shawn Williams and others were in and out of the lineup.

That’s seven starters and three heavy rotational players out of the lineup, folks.

Every team has to deal with these issues over the course of a season, but Cincinnati has had a quick string of some pretty severe injuries hitting important players. It sounds like they’ll be getting healthier closer to midway through the season, which is important, but sometimes you may have to marvel at how Cincinnati has a 4-2 record at this point.

This defense is incredibly frustrating:

They’re bad at tackling, can’t get off of the field on third downs, nor can they cover tight ends and aren’t great against the run. Sound familiar?

In a tale that is just so Bengals-like, Teryl Austin’s defensive unit was the goat this week after they came up huge seven days earlier against the Dolphins. Yes, the above-mentioned injuries played a role, but some of the new faces look confused at the alignments at times, along with being 20th against the run, 28th against the pass and 29th overall screams “Chuck Bresnahan.”

It’s quite possible that this group grows into a more solid unit down the stretch as they get more comfortable with each other and grasp Austin’s scheme a bit more. However, in Detroit, Austin’s group wasn’t known as the most disciplined either, albeit one that grabbed turnovers regularly.

Yet, in that latter category, it’s been feast-or-famine for the Bengals. They grabbed two in the opener against Indianapolis, three against Baltimore and two more last week against the Dolphins (with three combined being for touchdowns), but were totally blanked against Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Carolina.

As for the pass-rush, it was potent in those former three games, where Cincinnati went 3-0. Yet, in two of those latter three games, it was almost non-existent (just one sack in their two losses).

Sense a pattern?