The Bengals’ season opener was a tale of two halves as Cincinnati overcame a 23-10 deficit and scored 24 unanswered points to beat the Colts.
Two turnovers in the first half kept the Bengals to 10 points, but the team then exploded in the second half, thanks to Joe Mixon, A.J. Green, and Clayton Fejedelem. The defense stepped up and kept the Colts to a mere touchdown in the entire second half.
Rust had to be shaken off, but it’s still just Week 1. The preseason can’t match this level of competition; teams hold some of their starters out, and those that play only play a fraction of the sixty minutes. Not to mention, a number of players were making their first starts with the team on Sunday. But once the Bengals dusted off some of the cobwebs, they were a force to be reckoned with.
So, what did we learn from the season opener?
The Bengals are running a Mixon-first offense
In today’s NFL, it’s difficult to find an offense that revolves around a running back. Running backs who play in those types of offenses (Todd Gurley, David Johnson, and Ezekiel Elliott to name a few) are becoming superstars and getting huge paydays (although Elliott is still a few years away from his). Joe Mixon could be among the next guys in line.
For a team whose offense has depended on Andy Dalton and A.J. Green for seven years, the Bengals have a stronger presence out of the backfield than they have ever had in that span.
Mixon was held back in 2017 because he could not get to the line of scrimmage without being contacted by defenders first, thanks to one of the worst (if not the worst) run-blocking offensive line in the NFL. But the Bengals decided to make their former second round pick one of their most utilized weapons and fixed the offense to help him.
Mixon carried the ball 17 times for 95 yards and a touchdown, while catching six of eight targets for 54 yards. In the context of the rest of the team, Dalton was the team’s second-leading rusher with two carries for eight yards. Giovani Bernard was the only other player with a carry, and he lost two yards on his only attempt. Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor might have called more run plays if the Bengals weren’t behind for most of the game, but when they did run they only trusted Mixon, who gained 5.6 yards a carry.
Mixon was also second on the team in targets, receptions, and yards behind (who else?) Green. In total, Mixon touched the ball on 24 plays—that’s 45 percent of the plays the offense ran. He gained a total of 149 yards, which is 45 percent of the yards the offense gained. So Mixon was almost half of the Bengals offense in Week 1.
That being said...
The Bengals can’t score without the Andy Dalton/A.J. Green connection
Even though the Bengals were feeding Mixon early and often, it was Green who got the Bengals on the scoreboard.
First, he drew a pass interference call that set up the John Ross touchdown (which was his first catch of his career in a regular season game as well). Later, in the second half, Green caught the ball in the endzone himself to cut into the lead. He even helped convert some third downs that led to the field goal that put the Bengals up 27-23 in the fourth quarter.
When Green is in the zone, he is unstoppable. But when he struggles with ball security, the Bengals’ offense stalls. The Pro Bowl receiver’s ball security issues weren’t the only miscues that need to be cleaned up going forward though.
The Bengals have to stop commiting dumb penalties
Whether or not the players agree with the rules, they still have to follow them to keep the flags in the refs’ pockets.
Strong safety Shawn Williams claimed he didn’t know what else he could have done to avoid an ejection; he could have started by reading the textbook on helmet-to-helmet contact penalties because his hit would have looked remarkably similar. The penalty wasn’t even the new helmet rule, but it was the already existing rule that he should know about. There was no excuse for that dumb play resulting in an ejection. Luck was down and the play was over by the time Williams led with his helmet and hit Luck.
Then, defensive end Carlos Dunlap was penalized twice for roughing the passer. The first time, he hit quarterback Andrew Luck from behind and below the knees, which is an infraction but you could blame that one on the way he was blocked. The second could have been avoided.
Perhaps Dunlap wasn’t expecting that to be called, but now we know. We know that the refs are calling the same penalties that we were calling in the preseason. So the Bengals should look at that play, in addition to the several other plays around the NFL this week.
Its a dumb rule, but its a rule nonetheless.
Depth on defense is game changing
From front to back, the Bengals’ depth on defense is going to make a huge difference by the end of 17 weeks.
The depth up front was a huge factor that kept the Colts from scoring in the final quarter and a half. All eight players who rotated through the defensive line made life tough for the embattled Colts offensive line. This will be huge 15 games down the road when injuries happen and everyone is worn out.
At the linebacker spot, the depth has never been more important than it is now. Jordan Evans is already filling in for Vontaze Burfict, and he had a decent game. Evans impressed in run defense, but struggled against the pass (including the play on which he got torched by Eric Ebron for a touchdown). Still, Evans has made some improvements since last year and hopefully he will continue learning.
Meanwhile, Hardy Nickerson will be one of the most important keys to the game defensively against the Ravens on Thursday if Preston Brown is out. Brown, who had an interception and five tackles on Sunday, left the game late in the second quarter and was replaced by Nickerson. He did come back, but was hurting. The two middle linebackers combined for every single defensive snap in the game, which means that whoever starts there will get a lion’s share of playing time on Thursday.
On the back end, Clayton Fejedelem stole the show. Not only did the special teams ace came through in the clutch and sealed the game, but racked up 10 total tackles from the safety spot.
Unfortunately, the Bengals don’t have that kind of depth everywhere.
The right side of the offensive line is predictably bad
The offensive line is far better than it was last year after replacing four out of the five starters. Clint Boling is the only returning starter, and he teamed up with his college teammate, Cordy Glenn, to protect Dalton’s blindside. Rookie Billy Price is an immediate upgrade from Russell Bodine, though he made a few rookie mistakes. The left side was good, but the right side was shaky.
Alex Redmond made his first career start on Sunday, which is a credit to his tenacity and mentality. As was to be expected in his first start, he was far from perfect. But he wasn’t the worst offensive lineman out there, and it wasn’t even close.
Bobby Hart made Margus Hunt look like a Pro Bowler. Hunt picked up two sacks, three tackles for a loss and three QB hits in a monster day against Hart. Between Redmond and Hart, most of the pressure Dalton faced came from the right side. Redmond is young, and can learn from his mistakes and develop into an everyday starter. Hart is experienced, so who knows what his excuse is after Week 1.