It’s always a great weekend when both the Bearcats and Bengals win. There have been two weeks so far when both have played and both weekends we have enjoyed the Cincinnati football sweep. I have a feeling we will get to enjoy a bunch of those weekends this season. Both teams got there completely different ways. The Bearcats struggled for most the game and let an inferior team (albeit one with a good gameplan that played well) hang around, while the Bengals dominated from the get go. So this morning I ask, what do we know about both teams through this weekend?
I’m starting with the Bengals today, because it is hard not to feel amazing about how they have been playing so far. The Bengals did to the Titans what they did to the Falcons, and what they could have done to the Ravens had they capitalized on an early drive or two with a TD instead of a Field Goal… they dominated and never looked back. The Bengals have looked dominant on defense, have moved the ball on offense and other than some Nugent missed field goals have been very good on special teams. Through 3 weeks it is very hard to find a real weakness on this team.
What has been most impressive about the offense is that it lost Eifert early after he seemed to be a huge focal point of the offense, had already lost Marvin Jones and had a banged up A.J. Green the last two weeks (who played very little as a result in week 2). Despite these issues, the offense has ground out points with a commitment to the running game, diverse play calling and some timely big plays. While I’d like to see the Bengals yards per carry average go up, Gio and Hill have ran the ball effectively enough, particularly is short yardage and goal line situations. The ability to punch the ball in the endzone has been incredibly encouraging when the Bengals get close. The clear commitment to the running game has been important, because the Bengals inability to run the ball in the playoffs really put everything on Dalton last season. Ideally that won’t be the case this time around.
Andy Dalton has been solid, but has not been asked to do that much. When the Bengals got down late to the Ravens in week one, Dalton delivered an absolute strike, hitting A.J. Green in stride for a long TD. That was a huge throw and got the Bengals off to a great start this season. Dalton has also been much better against pressure so far this season, an area where he had to improve. His two best plays against Atlanta both came against pressure. When Atlanta brought the house and played cover-0, Dalton stood tall in the pocket and made the right read throwing to Sanu over the middle. His pass hit Sanu perfectly in stride in a spot where a defender, in pretty good coverage, couldn’t break up the pass and Sanu took it to the house. On another play in the game things broke down in the pocket, Andy moved in the pocket buying enough time for Gio to slip out from his pass protection and become a receiver. Dalton delivered it to Gio and Gio ran for a huge game. These are the types of plays Dalton has struggled to make in the past and hopefully a sign of improvement to come.
The biggest question for the offense so far, is only a question because the Bengals have not had to answer it: Can the Bengals throw the ball around when they need to? If the run is not working and the Bengals need to get some points, can they move the ball through the air? So far this year, the Bengals have barely been behind and have been able to dictate to other teams when they throw the ball. Last year the Bengals showed an ability to sling it around. The problem was against pressure Dalton would be forced into some bad decisions. There is no reason to believe the Bengals don’t have the weapons to do that this year and hopefully the bad decisions will be kept to a minimum if the situation arises where the Bengals have to pass.
The defense has been brilliant through three weeks. The secondary is deep and makes life hellacious for opposing quarterbacks. Matt Ryan has looked like an MVP candidate in his two non-Bengal starts, but could not solve this Bengals secondary. Newman, Jones and Hall seemingly never get beat and have been incredibly sure tacklers both when receivers make catches and in the running game. Safety play is the best I remember it for the Bengals. Reggie Nelson is as good as ever and George Iloka has taken a huge step forward this season. The ability of the secondary has allowed the Bengals to take some chances sending pressure and when they do it seems like they always get to the quarterback. I’d be interested in seeing numbers on the Bengals’ opponents’ success when the Bengals send 5 or more people at the QB. I can remember very few positive plays.
Nothing I have seen has made me think the Bengals can’t continue to be this dominant all season. In fact, there is one area where I believe a little improvement will jump the Bengals’ defense up another level (yea that seems hard to believe). The Bengals have been really good blitzing this year, but other than Dunlap have struggled to get pressure when they only send four. This seems to me to be an area the Bengals have the talent to do better at and would make the defense that much more scary. The biggest area where the Bengals could jump is if Atkins becomes the dominant force he was two years ago. It is not surprising that he has not been as dominating back from injury, but it’s not like he has played poorly either. If he can play himself back into that dominant force, the Bengals pass rush becomes even stronger. Additionally, Hunt has been very noticeable in the limited plays he is on the field. I think he can be an excellent situational pass rusher. I imagine quarterbacks shuttering at a third and long defensive line with Dunlap, Gilberry, Hunt and full strength Atkins. The Bengals defense has been dominant, I believe it can be even better.
Combine all that with solid special teams units and the Bengals may very well be the best team in the NFL right now. I thought this was a 12-4 team at the beginning of the year and nothing has happened to make me believe that is not the case. The AFC North, at least so far, appears to be very good, but nothing I have seen makes me think the Bengals aren’t the class of the league. Bengals get a bye week to get healthy before a big trip to a New England team that looks vulnerable. Brady is great, but I have a hard time believing the New England receivers will get open against the Bengals secondary. Win that game and the league will really take notice. Great season so far, cannot wait to watch more.
Things for the Bearcats have not been quite as positive. The offense looked brilliant in week 1 and then waffled around for much of week 2. The defense played one good half in week 1 and then looked pretty vulnerable after that. Special teams have been a mixed bag. I have seen reason for optimism and plenty of reasons for concern. I do think the 2 week delay starting the season hurt the Bearcats, particularly defensively, but I would hope that the next few games that becomes a nonissue. From the first two weeks it is very hard to judge what direction the season is heading. The Bearcats will likely win at least 8 because they are just more talented than most teams on their schedule, but to have a truly special season the offense can’t have many weeks like last week and the defense must improve drastically.
The good news, the offense is supremely talented and has the chance to be one of the best in UC history. Most fans understood that the Bearcat’s biggest strength coming into the season was their deep and talented wide receiving core, and through two games nothing has changed that perception. The Toledo game, particularly the first half, showed what this offense can look like when clicking on all cylinders. The wide receivers were getting separation and Kiel was delivering the ball right on the money. It was beautiful to watch. In the Miami game, there were still open receivers but Kiel missed on some passes, there were a couple drops and Kiel threw to the wrong guy several times. It was clear from my view of the game that the offense still was capable, but there were just too many mistakes and Kiel was not doing a great job going through his progressions.
I ultimately think the offense is going to be fine. I think the offense is going to have some huge games and is an offense that certainly can take advantage of what has been Ohio State’s biggest weakness over the last year plus (its secondary… more on that later this week). Of course, there will likely be growing pains as Kiel is a first year starter, but with so many weapons I think the offense is going to do a ton of good things throughout the season. The defense, however, is a bigger question mark.
I like much of the talent on defense. I think there are some potential playmakers in the secondary and it has been nice to see Jeff Luc making plays all over the field. The pass rush improved against Miami as did the run defense (other than a few plays). However, the defense still seems to leave too many holes when it plays zone. Most of them simply seem to be from miscommunication or not understanding where they are supposed to be. I would not be surprised to see more man concepts against OSU to make their QB beat them without finding just wide open receivers.
One reason for the big holes we’ve seen in the secondary could be the change of coaching staffs. I’m not sure how much of a change it has been in the secondary, based on what they are asked to do and how the defense is being run this year. My hope is this is an area where the defense just needed some live games to get out the kinks. What I have liked is that in both games when the defense absolutely needed stops it got more aggressive and got the stops it needed. In the second game, I also think the defense was largely good against the run (minus 2 or 3 plays and a couple scrambles). Of course it is likely Toledo is the 2nd best running team UC will see all season (behind OSU) while Miami has a lot of issues on offense, so that could largely be a product of matchup.
The hope for UC fans is that those first two games were largely the Bearcats learning a new system and generally just working on their base defense as much as possible. Hopefully that experience will help heading into a huge stretch of three games. The Ohio State game is a great opportunity, Memphis looks much improved (and UC needs to win that for Conference Title Purposes) and a trip to Miami (Fl) is another chance at a P5 foe. All these games will provide great challenges and opportunities for the Bearcats. Realistically 2-1 would set up the Bearcats well, though obviously I am hoping for better. Though I’ve seen plenty of reasons for concern, I also think the talent is there for a special season. The offense can be exceptional and if the defense can hold up its end the next few games can be very exciting.