Back on Track?

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After looking so lost nearly three weeks ago during the Thursday Night Massacre, have the Bengals found themselves while barnstorming the American South?

Cincinnati followed up its surprising domination of New Orleans by controlling Houston on Sunday, moving to 7-3-1—seriously, how annoying is that tie against Carolina?—with another early Sunday afternoon tilt this week at Tampa Bay, followed by a hellacious stretch to end the regular season: home vs. Pittsburgh (7-4); at Cleveland (7-4); home vs. Denver (8-3) on Monday Night Football; and at Pittsburgh on a short week to close the year.

If you’re scoring at home, that’s three AFC North contests—two on the road—and a primetime showdown against Peyton Manning, Von Miller & Co., a game that will involve playoff implications stretching from probable home field advantage to possibly needing to stay in the hunt for a Wild Card berth.

But let’s get back to the back-to-back road wins. It should be noted that those two victories came in a pair of locations where netting a road triumph isn’t exactly as easy as finding snow in Buffalo.

Consider:

*When the Bengals beat the Saints 27-10, they held a Drew Brees-guided offense 22 points below its home scoring average.

*Sunday’s victory was the first for the Bengals over the Texans since 2005, breaking a five-game skid against Houston. Even the most bandwagon of Bengals fans are also aware that the team lost playoff games in Houston to end the 2011 and 2012 campaigns.

(The Bengals also prevailed Sunday despite the Texans’ pre-game patriotism extravaganza and the presence of an inexperienced quarterback. It’s clear now that Ryan Mallett has nothing on the immortal T.J. Yates.)

With increasing good health—Andre Smith’s season-ending injury notwithstanding—and consecutive wins away from Paul Brown Stadium—hindsight is 20/20, but the best thing for the team after the Thursday Night Massacre was to get the hell out of Cincinnati on game days—the Bengals have also discovered their Formula for Success:

*Commit to the run. The Bengals are 1-3 when they rush for less than 100 yards. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson would do well to make sure Jeremy Hill (who falls forward) out-touches Gio Bernard (who gets knocked backward) on runs between the tackles, but a clear dedication to the ground game is nice to see. Also, the calendar flips to December post-Tampa Bay, so weather and playing conditions—both Cleveland and Pittsburgh have grass fields—will be geared toward a ground-and-pound philosophy.

*Get the ball out of Andy Dalton’s hands quickly. More three-step drops—ESPN Stats & Info noted that Dalton took just 1.88 seconds before letting it fly Sunday, the quickest release in the league last week—and allowing A.J Green, Mo Sanu, and the other pass catchers to do the yardage-stockpiling. Less is more with the Andy Dalton Experience, though not necessarily when it comes to pass attempts. (The Bengals are actually 3-2-1 when Dalton throws over 30 times in a game this season. Go figure.) In any case, help Dalton help himself.

*You Shall Not Run. After their 3-0 start, the Bengals allowed 4.8, 4.3, 5.0, 4.1, 5.3 and 3.3 yards per carry, per game—and over 100 rushing yards in each contest—during a 2-3-1 stretch, with noted run-stuffer Rey Maualuga missing the last four of those games due to injury.

Maualuga returned against New Orleans, and the Bengals have yielded 2.9 and 3.4 yards per carry for 139 combined rushing yards in the two games since. Consider the triumphant return of Maualuga a victory for Bengals coaches over the public. Maualuga also instigated a Houston safety and picked off a pass Sunday, but likely still ranks just behind teammate Jermaine Gresham on the list of Bengals fans’ favorite whipping boys/scapegoats.

“He really has come back and has brought the intelligence of knowing what to do, how to do it all the time. He brings a calmness to the other guys in the huddle, and then obviously he has made plays,” head coach Marvin Lewis said of Maualuga Monday, stopping just short of referring to the linebacker as the defense’s ‘spirit animal.’

*Hold onto the damn ball. The Bengals are 7-1-1 when they don’t turn the ball over more than twice. (The team’s lone giveaway Sunday—Dalton’s first pick-six of the season—should’ve been negated by an offsides penalty on No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney.)

I stand by everything I wrote after the Thursday Night Massacre; a pair of road wins during the Bengals’ comfortable 1 p.m. time slot fails to alter a significant sample size of primetime debacles, nor does it affect a long-standing sense of apathy.

But progress is progress, and the NFL’s 16-game regular season allows for peaks and valleys. Coaching Cliché Alert: You’re never as good as your best game, and you’re never as bad as your worst.

Grant Freking is a co-editor for The Ohioan. He can be reached on Twitter or via email at gfreking@gmail.com.

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