With a quarter of the season in the books, the 3-1 Bengals are a little bit of a surprise to some, but should they be? Perhaps this can better be assessed by breaking down what has gone well and what has gone not-so-well through four games.
To effectively delve into the Cincinnati Bengals' first quarter of the season, we must categorize certain aspects of this Bengals squad in 2012. These categories include passing offense, rushing offense, passing defense and rushing defense.
Each of these pieces of the Bengals' puzzle will be critiqued and given a grade that includes not only how they stand at this moment in time but also how they seem to be progressing as a team this season.
Looking at the tell-tale signs of either developing into a structured unit or relapsing into old habits that seem to diehard in Cincinnati will be the deciding factors for the grades that this team will receive thus far in 2012 and beyond.
Not since 2005 has there been a Bengals team that has lived and died by the aerial attack. 2012 is the first season that Bengals enthusiasts have seen their team demand this much respect in the passing game.
Sophomore quarterback Andy Dalton has come into his own this season as he develops under second-year offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. Dalton has been red-hot thus far in 2012, as he has thrown for 1,111 yards with a completion percentage of 67.5. He has thrown for eight touchdowns compared to four interceptions, which has given him an overall passer rating of 103.
There's no doubt that Dalton is certainly leading the pack of sophomore quarterbacks this season, and one of the huge contributions to this is his sophomore wide receiver, A.J. Green.
Green recently was named AFC Offensive Player of the Month for September, and he leads all AFC receivers with 428 receiving yards. Green also has scored three touchdowns in his last three games, and he already is being referred to as one of the NFL's elite.
Credit must be given to Gruden regarding Green's development.
Gruden has moved his receiver all over the field to create mismatches against opposing defenses. Green already has played in all three receiver spots this year—the X, Y and Z (both outside positions and the slot). This allows Green to find open areas of the field to steadily become a reliable target for Dalton.
An impact player who has been a bit of a surprise for the Bengals offense this season is slot receiver Andrew Hawkins.
Hawkins is very shifty and has great vision, which make him a constant threat when in space. His presence on the field takes a huge burden off A.J. Green, as Hawkins needs to be accounted for just as much.
With the emergence of the now-reliable Armon Binns at the second receiver position opposite of Green, this trio is incredibly explosive and can open up a game in an instant.
One other (and possibly most important) factor to consider here is the offensive line. With three of the Bengals' five linemen new to the starting lineup this season, they have not had much time to gel. However, they have proven that they are becoming a reliable unit and are progressing in their pass protection nicely.
Andy Dalton has been sacked 12 times this season, which averages out to three sacks per game. This number was expected to be much higher since this offensive line has been plagued by injury since training camp.
Newcomers Jeff Faine, Clint Boling and rookie Kevin Zeitler have been better than advertised thus far. Veterans Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith have stepped up their game since the preseason and have become leaders of this motley offensive line.
Overall, the Bengals' aerial attack was not supposed to be the part of this Cincinnati team to emerge as such a force this season. The Bengals must be both surprised and delighted by the outcome so far in 2012, as this unit only seems to be getting better.
Final Grade: A
During the offseason, the Bengals decided to part ways with incumbent starting running back Cedric Benson. The main reason to go in a different direction was the fact that Benson could not seem to hang onto the football.
Enter BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Green-Ellis has been known for two things since he joined the NFL with the New England Patriots: ball control and short-yardage touchdowns.
Unfortunately, in Cincinnati, these attributes have not seemed to come with him from New England.
After 590 career carries without a fumble, Green-Ellis had his first of his NFL career in Week 3 against the Washington Redskins. The very next week, he fumbled twice more against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Two of Green-Ellis' fumbles were recovered by opposing defenses.
Week 1 against the Baltimore Ravens seemed to be a great coming-out party in the first half for Green-Ellis when he racked up more than 90 yards rushing and a touchdown on a short, goal-line play.
The hype surrounding Green-Ellis during the offseason seemed to be legitimate. Things have changed since.
Green-Ellis has only averaged 3.5 yards per carry this season and has a long rush of only 19 yards. He also has only averaged 71.5 yards per game in 2012.
After analyzing those statistics and keeping the fumbles in mind, one has to wonder how long the slump will last for this running back.
Partial blame for these less-than-gaudy numbers can be put upon the offensive line. It has not done well creating a push at the line of scrimmage this season, and running lanes seem to be almost nonexistent. Green-Ellis is known for getting the tough yards, but the lack of support up front makes it that much more difficult.
At this point, the Bengals should be glad to have such a strong passing attack, as it seems to be their best option going forward. The rushing attack in Cincinnati has not been able to get up to speed with the rest of the offense, and it needs to improve if this team wants to make a run at the postseason.
Final Grade: C-
Throughout training camp and the preseason, the Bengals secondary was thought to be the weakest point of their usually sturdy defense. Former secondary coach Kevin Coyle left for a defensive coordinator position with the Miami Dolphins and was replaced by Mark Carrier.
There are currently six former first-round draft selections at the cornerback position in Cincinnati. Those six players are Nate Clements, Adam Jones, Jason Allen, Terence Newman, Leon Hall and Dre Kirkpatrick.
There is a mix of youth and experience here, yet some of these players have been thought to be past their prime.
The Bengals made a smart decision by moving Clements to play at strong safety across from Reggie Nelson, as Clements has lost a step as a corner at this point in his career. Hall is back as the incumbent starter, but has been plagued by injury and only has started two games.
This slack had to be picked up by Jones and Newman, as Allen and Kirkpatrick have had injury issues of their own.
This has left the Bengals very thin at cornerback. In an attempt to regain some veteran leadership and consistency, they brought back safety Chris Crocker before Week 4 to play the nickel corner position after having not played an NFL snap in eight months.
For the first three games of the season, the Bengals secondary was as advertised. It was not playing as a unit, and with Cincinnati's inexperienced safeties struggling, it was allowing big plays through the air at crucial moments in games.
Over the first two weeks, both Joe Flacco and rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden each threw for more than 300 yards on this unit. However, the secondary has started to regain its composure as of late, holding rookie Robert Griffin III and Blaine Gabbert to respectable numbers from a defensive standpoint.
During the first two games of the season, the Bengals were without their best pass-rusher, Carlos Dunlap. Not having Dunlap on the field hurt the Bengals pass-rush in a big way since offensive lines were able to double-team DT Geno Atkins and DE Michael Johnson.
Now that Dunlap has returned, he commands attention and has opened up the way for Atkins and Johnson to shine. The self-proclaimed "Fisher Price Package" is back on the field together and has put together two solid games.
Before Dunlap returned, the Bengals defense recorded six sacks in its first two games. In the two games after Dunlap returned, the defense recorded 11 sacks. This brings the total to 17 for the season, and it leads the NFL.
This has become a big reason for the secondary's improvement over the last two weeks. Now that the defensive line is putting consistent pressure on the quarterback, throws are being forced as time in the pocket has decreased rapidly.
With Leon Hall seemingly returning for Week 5 and first-round draft pick Dre Kirkpatrick having yet to play a down in the NFL, there is a small light at the end of the tunnel for the Bengals secondary. To stay in contention is to play solid defense, and these players need to continue this trend of playing as a unit going forward in 2012.
Final Grade: D+
Through the first three games of the season, this clearly has been Cincinnati's weak point on defense. First-down rushing has been tough for the Bengals to stop in 2012, and that makes it all the more difficult for the defense to get off the field.
Looking back, many of these problems can be attributed to the linebackers.
It starts with Rey Maualuga in the middle. Maualuga has been inconsistent all season. He is clearly having trouble getting off his blocks to close down running lanes. Another problem he is having is over-pursuing rushers; Maualuga plays sideline-to-sideline football instead of going north and south.
It is plausible that Maualuga is playing softly because he has not felt right since he returned to play after missing time due to injury last season.
As for the other linebacker positions, the loss of Thomas Howard for the season was a big blow to the Bengals defense. He has been replaced by undrafted rookie free agent Vontaze Burftct. Burfict always has been a middle linebacker and is now learning to play outside.
So far he has shown great potential in coverage and in pursuit of rushers.
Burfict recorded his first career sack last week against the Jaguars when he brought down QB Blaine Gabbert. If he can continue to show that he can be a presence on the other side of the line of scrimmage, Burfict may just win himself a permanent starting role in the future.
Opposite Burfict has been a mix of Manny Lawson and Vincent Rey. Neither player has been overly impressive this season, as they have combined for only 30 tackles (which is three less than Maualuga).
Again, these players are struggling to get off blocks and find their way to running backs.
The linebackers are not the only ones who should be blamed in this situation.
The defensive line has been beaten at the point of attack for a good portion of the season and has allowed running lanes to open up the middle rather easily.
It does not help, either, that rookies Devon Still and Brandon Thompson have been slow on their development when they are rotated in the middle with Geno Atkins and Domata Peko. Both of these rookies have been targets of offensive coordinators this season and need to continue improving to stop the bleeding in the middle of the defensive front.
The rush defense has not been dismal at all times this season, though. There have been moments of excellence, but they have been few and far between. Last week, the rushing defense took a huge step forward when facing the explosive Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jaguars, holding him to 38 yards rushing for only a 2.9-yard-per-carry average.
If this continues as a trend for Cincinnati, the season could be one to remember for Bengals fans. However, if it turns out to be a fluke, things could get ugly very fast.
Final Grade: D-
There certainly have been high points and low points of the 2012 season for Cincinnati. The roller-coaster ride has seemingly only begun to get into full swing. Over the first four games of this season, the things that many were most excited about have turned into mediocrities and vice versa.
Cincinnati fans still have a good amount of hope for the future, as their team is young, hungry and talented. After many years of obscurity, there finally seems to be something constant in Cincinnati. That may be head coach Marvin Lewis, or it may be owner Mike Brown turning over a new leaf.
Whatever the case may be, for the remainder of the 2012 season this is a team with a bright future. The Bengals are currently 3-1 and look to improve upon that record when they face the Miami Dolphins in Cincinnati on Sunday.
Looking at the aforementioned four aspects of this Bengals football team, there are reasons to sulk and reasons to be excited. It is anyone's guess as to how well this team will fare for the remainder of the season, but it certainly will be interesting however it goes down.
Overall First-Quarter Grade: C