The Bengals Are Learning to Win the Close Ones

Expect another tight contest against Miami, and another victory.

As I mentioned in last week’s column, I was inside the Benz—as the locals call the Mercedes-Benz Stadium—on Sunday, proudly sporting my Boomer Esiason jersey and chanting “Who Dey!!” at top volume along with a surprisingly large number of Bengals fans on hand to witness a legendary victory. I brought my 9-year-old son to the game, his first NFL contest. It will probably be his last game, too, as he won’t be able to top this 37-36 thrill-a-thon, with Andy D. hooking up with Adriel Jeremiah with seconds to play for the winning TD. The Bengals hardly ever play games like that, and when they do they invariably come out on the losing end (notable exception being the 2015 game vs. Seattle, which I was also fortunate enough to attend). It was, in every aspect, a memorable game.

We knew it would be a shootout, and it came to pass, with pass being the operative word. Dalton and Matt Ryan combined for 756 yards and six touchdowns through the air. It was taking candy from 11 babies in the first half, when Dalton carved up the zones Atlanta (mis)played. Ryan mostly matched him ball for ball, the difference being that the Bengals had most of their defensive starters on the field and Dalton sailed through a patchwork of Falcons backups.

Yes, Dalton is playing at a high level, but it must be graded against the overall 7-on-7 drill that the NFL has become, a league where Mitchell Trubisky can throw six touchdowns in a game and Ryan Fitzpatrick can be Dan Marino for a fortnight. It’s the Big 12 out there. Every rule is so heavily tilted to the offense, every team so loaded with game breakers, that defenses—even ones with some good players, like Cincinnati—are overwhelmed. Dalton has played very well, don’t get me wrong. In particular his pocket presence, a long-time weakness, seems to have been improved under new quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, whom Aaron Rodgers credited with helping his amazing ability to maneuver while keeping his eyes downfield.

Meanwhile, Tyler Boyd continues to morph into T.J. Houshmandzadeh. He abused a highly paid, highly regarded corner, Desmond Trufant, all day last Sunday, especially with the game on the line during that extraordinary 16-play drive at the end. T.J. wasn’t especially athletic but had a fluidity in tight spaces, plus a phenomenal competitive spirit, that made him dangerous, and I see that in Boyd. Clearly Dalton trusts him, and that’s a far cry from last year.

Rewatching the game, I actually thought Cincinnati’s defense wasn’t that bad, believe it or not, with the glaring exception being on third downs (again). The consistent theme was the defense making a good play or two, forcing third down, and then missing tackles or taking bad angles in coverage or simply being defeated by Atlanta’s excellent personnel. Atlanta was a sickening 11 for 15 on third down—but the fact that the Bengals got them into so many third downs is at least a little encouraging.

There were a ton of bad moments, of course, only a few of which figure to be alleviated by the return of Vontaze Burfict after his four-game suspension. I attended another game back in 2016, when the Bengals visited JerryWorld. Burfict was returning after suspension that day, too, but the Cowboys rolled over Cincinnati on the ground anyway. The question now becomes whether the Miami Dolphins are potent enough to exploit the defense as Carolina and Atlanta (and Dallas in 2016) did.

The previously unbeaten Porpoises were of course keelhauled by the Pats on Sunday, surprising approximately no one who pays any attention to the NFL. The thudding return to reality is kinda bad for the Bengals—I was hoping the Fish would slay the Pats and get a week’s worth of “the best team no one is talking about” smoke blown up their skirts before confronting Cincinnati. Now they’ll be angry and eager to prove that the egg they laid in Foxborough was an anomaly, not a true reflection.

Even with the bad showing Miami remains sixth in overall DVOA, one spot ahead of our lads in stripes, and won’t be an easy out. Coach Adam Gase has been lost somewhat in the “young offensive genius” conversation, but he’s been creative and thoughtful in designing an offense that puts Ryan Tannehill in good positions. Kenny Stills has been a handful so far this year, and overall the Miami offense is much faster and more explosive than in previous seasons.

The Dolphins’ offensive line has been dreadful, however, and was abused by the Patriots. They’re 28th in Adjusted Line Yards, 31st in Power runs, and near the bottom in Adjusted Sack Rate. By contrast, the much-maligned Bengals OL ranks ninth, 12th, and fourth in the same stats, hard as that may be to believe watching them at times. Miami’s unit has been beat up, and right tackle Ja’Wuan James has come in for plenty of local criticism regarding his play. The opportunity is there for the Bengals’ front to wreck the game.

Defensively, the Fish have been good so far, ranking eighth overall in DVOA. Going deeper, where the Dolphins have been best is in stopping opponents’ No. 1 receivers—tops in the NFL, in fact—but again their previous opponents (Tennessee, New York Jets, Oakland, and New England) haven’t put anyone like A.J. Green out there to test their secondary. Can you even name Miami’s corners? (Thought not: Xavien Howard and Bobby McCain.) Reshad Jones is an excellent safety, linebacker Kiko Alonso is playing well, and edge rushers Cameron Wake and Robert Quinn will test Cincinnati’s tackles. But the way the offense is humming, you like to think there will be plays to make. Miami is struggling to stop passes to running backs (25th in the league, one spot ahead of Cincinnati), and of course Bill Lazor’s screen game is outstanding.

Joe Mixon, if his 40-yard sprint to the end zone after Green’s touchdown is any indication, looks good to return, which will help, because I fear we’re about to find out that a major factor in this year’s offensive excellence was the presence of the star-crossed Tyler Eifert. I wanted to throw up when the mullet-headed tight end broke his ankle, and not just because the injury was so gruesome. You’d have to be inhuman not to feel awful for Eifert, who worked incredibly hard to return after two mostly lost seasons, and was off to a very good start. His seam threat and mismatch ability turbocharged the offense—C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Kroft are effective players, but not guys the opponent has to account for in the game plan. It remains to be seen whether the Bengals can retool the system without Eifert. By the way, I think they re-sign Eifert again to a similar one-year deal next season.

The first quarter of the season figured to be rough, and the Bengals got through it 3-1. Three of the next four are at home, with the exception a trip to face the NFL’s Steph Curry, Pat Mahomes. Beating the Cetaceans at home is a must-win in the big picture and could well have tiebreaker implications down the line. The key will be to let last week go—how many emotional highs have we seen turn into crashes a week later? It’ll be a closer game than most expect. I would definitely put some shekels on Miami getting 6.5 points in Vegas—but the Bengals are winning tight games now, and this figures to be one more.

Robert Weintraub is a Fulcher 2 Stay contributor and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. He is also the author of three books. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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