The Cincinnati Bengals 24-10 dismantling of the Atlanta Falcons last Sunday afternoon was one of the more impressive performances in recent Bengals history, especially considering they left nine points worth of missed field goals on the field and played the majority of the game without Pro Bowlers A.J. Green and Vontaze Burfict, and starting right guard Kevin Zeitler. With No. 2 receiver Marvin Jones already out for several weeks with a broken foot, Green’s injury meant the Falcons could (and did) stack eight defenders in the box for the rest of the game. Zeitler’s second-quarter injury should’ve exacerbated that issue for the Bengals, except it didn’t at all. Bengals OC Hue Jackson brilliantly utilized the dynamic running back combo of Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill and the new-and-improved/calm, cool and collected Andy Dalton to put the game away with 14 third-quarter points, in what was a calculated and strikingly casual performance from the entire Bengals team…except for Mike Nugent, of course.
Perhaps the most impressive team in the NFL through two weeks, many are asking if the Bengals are the best team in the AFC, or even all of football. Because we’re about 18 weeks shy of that answer, here are a few questions to ponder in the meantime.
Q: IS IT TOO EARLY TO REALLY BE ASKING ANY OF THIS?
I mean … probably.
Q: I’m not asking—like the article linked above—if Andy Dalton is the best quarterback in the AFC, but I am asking if those who called for his head after last year’s playoff loss and again at first word of his six-year contract extension are starting to worry that he might really be worth it?
The sample size is what it is. Regardless, Dalton looks different in 2014 than he did at the start of any of his three previous seasons. He looks the part: Collected, confident, quicker on his feet, quicker to find his check down. Dalton leads the NFL with 13.8 yards per completion and he’s taken zero sacks and thrown zero interceptions. More so, he’s not putting himself into positions to throw interceptions or take sacks, via not indecisively holding onto the ball for too long as he’s been criticized for in the past. Some of that is by the virtue of Jackson’s play calling, as the Enquirer’s Paul Dehner Jr. pointed out this morning:
Found Dalton pass distribution chart interesting from ’13 to ’14. Jackson took 10% of risky intermediate throws, moved behind LOS. Simple.
— Paul Dehner Jr. (@pauldehnerjr) September 16, 2014
Granted, the sample size is still small, but the strategy not difficult to see both on the field and in stats. Playing to ADs strengths. — Paul Dehner Jr. (@pauldehnerjr) September 16, 2014
But, on rare occasions when protection has broken down, Dalton has reacted quickly to find Bernard or others in situations where we’d likely have seen a sack or an interception in years past – the last two games represent just the sixth time in Dalton’s 82-game career that he’s gone two or more games without throwing an interception. The biggest complaint of the Dalton detractors through three years has been his succumbing to interceptions and sacks in the face pressure – both situational and in the form of actual blitzes – in the playoffs. While obviously in the regular season, his perfectly-placed 76-yard strike to Mohamed Sanu in the face of an eight-man blitz Sunday is certainly a good sign.
Even if you want to throw all of that out the window with the “It’s just two weeks” argument, there’s this:
CIN is the 2nd team since 1960 to not turn the ball over or allow a sack in either of their 1st 2 games Other is the 06 Chargers (went 14-2)
— Bill Smith (@wgsmit3) September 14, 2014
Q: People are asking if Andy Dalton is the best QB in the AFC right now, does that make Mohamed Sanu the second best QB in the AFC?
Well… Sarcastic question within a sarcastic question: If Nugent misses three more next week, do the Bengals send Sanu in to kick?
Q: Is there a 2014 fourth-round draft pick more important than Russell Bodine right now?
No. Not even close. The rookie center out of North Carolina locked up the starting spot toward the end of the preseason, and thus far has barked the signals for an offensive line that’s given up zero sacks and should get more credit for the Bengals zero turnovers. The farther reaching questions for the Bengals are, one, can Bodine continue to play beyond his years and perceived talent—which we’ll get a better idea of this week when he’ll likely play without Zeitler to his right—and, two, can they continue to dominate the draft?
Q: How worried are we about A.J. Green?
Well, that depends on what his injury actually is. There seems to be some discrepancy about Green’s injury being turf toe or a ligament strain in his foot. Neither is great, but in my experience nothing lingers or nags at your explosiveness like turf toe. If you have turf toe in Week 2, you’re going to have it in Week 16, and it’s going to be worse. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis reiterated Monday that it was a foot ligament sprain, and that it wasn’t serious. Hopefully, both statements are true. Even if Green only misses one or two weeks though, how long can Dalton continue his season-opening form without his top three projected targets in Green, Jones and injured tight end Tyler Eifert?
Q: When did the Cincinnati Bengals become a model NFL franchise?
There have only been a few times in my life when the Bengals were considered contenders. Fewer times than that have they been in the news for the right reasons off the field. Perhaps never in my life—before the last few weeks—have they been both at the same time. But the story of Devon Still, his daughter’s battle with cancer, and the Bengals part in it all is something to be proud of, both for the NFL and for Cincinnati.