State of the Union: Cincinnati Bengals

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State of the Union: Cincinnati Bengals
Chris Trotman/Getty Images
Five weeks of the season are in the bag; where do the Bengals stand?

Until Week 5, the Cincinnati Bengals had a single loss to their names and a share of the AFC North's top spot. Now, they are 3-2, in second place, with the Pittsburgh Steelers closing in. Not all is lost, of course—the Bengals are a much-improved team from their 2011 iteration, one that went 9-7 and earned a Wild Card playoff berth.

Let's take a close look at what has gone both right and wrong for the Bengals over the past five weeks and see where they are headed in Week 6.

 

Weeks 1 Through 5: A Look Back

Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Andy Dalton was under siege against the Ravens defense in Week 1 and the Bengals defense couldn't keep up with Baltimore's quick offense.

In Week 1, the Cincinnati Bengals were the unfortunate sacrificial lambs thrown to the wolves that are the Baltimore Ravens. For the second year in a row, the Ravens annihilated a divisional rival, and this season, it was the Bengals who fell, 44-13.

The Bengals, who did not beat a playoff-bound team last year in their path to reach the postseason, couldn't handle the Ravens either on offense or defense. Baltimore's up-tempo offense put up 430 total yards—308 via the pass and 122 via the run—without turning the ball over once.

In contrast, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton coughed up the ball twice, once fumbling and another time throwing a pick-six to Ravens safety Ed Reed. 

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
Andrew Hawkins' 50-yard touchdown catch-and-run helped lift the Bengals over Cleveland in Week 2.

Week 2 provided a turnaround of sorts for the Bengals, hosting the Cleveland Browns and their slew of offensive and defensive rookies. It wasn't a flawless victory, but there were certainly high points for the Bengals. 

Dalton threw for 318 yards and tossed three touchdown passes—but he also had an interception and was sacked six times. The run game, behind BenJarvus Green-Ellis, was held to just 80 total yards.

But Cleveland's 103 penalty yards, the punt return for a touchdown by Adam Jones and a 50-yard breakaway touchdown by Bengals receiver Andrew Hawkins (thrown his way by a heavily-pressured Dalton) were more than enough to give Cincinnati their season's first victory, though it was close: 34-27.

Another win—and a strange ending—marked the Bengals' third contest of the season, a 38-31 defeat of the Washington Redskins. The game started with an impressive direct snap to rookie receiver Mohamed Sanu, which he threw for 73 yards to A.J. Green, marking the Bengals' first touchdown of five on the day.

Larry French/Getty Images
Yes, that's rookie receiver Mohamed Sanu setting up the 73-yard touchdown strike to A.J. Green against the Redskins.

Again, Dalton threw three touchdowns and again had more than 300 passing yards (as well as another pick-six). Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis fumbled for the first time in his professional career, and though he did have a rushing touchdown, averaged just 2.2 yards on 17 carries. 

The Bengals defense performed quite well against rookie Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, sacking him five times, but the pressure also allowed him to escape and use his dangerous mobility to run for 74 yards and a score. All told, the Redskins ran for 202 yards on the Bengals and exposed a significant weakness in their defense.

But Washington's secondary was simply no match for Cincinnati's passing game. Green ended the day with nine receptions for 183 yards and a score, and Hawkins yet again broke away for a 59-yard score. 

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
The Bengals defense harassed Jaguars QB Blaine Gabbert in Week 4.

Week 4 saw the Bengals take on their weakest opponent of the season, the one-win Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars simply could put nothing together on either offense or defense. 

Though Dalton opened the game with yet another interception, he again led the way for the Bengals offense, with 244 passing yards and two touchdowns, one of which belonged to Green, who had six receptions for 117 yards on the day.

Running the ball was fairly successful for Cincinnati as well, with Green-Ellis rushing for 82 yards, though he did fumble twice; Cedric Peerman also broke off a lone, 48-yard run.

On defense, the Bengals effectively shut down the Jaguars' biggest playmaker, running back Maurice Jones-Drew, holding him to just 38 yards on 13 carries. They also gave no quarter to struggling Jacksonville quarterback Blaine Gabbert—he was sacked six times and picked off once. It was ultimately not a close game, with the Bengals leaving town with a 27-10 win.

On paper, things seemed like they would be just as simple in Week 5 against the Miami Dolphins. Though not as weak as the Jaguars, they too had just one win and, similarly to Jacksonville, a struggling passing game.

Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE
Things just didn't go Andy Dalton's way in Week 5.

However, the Bengals played a sloppy game, primarily on offense. Dalton, under constant pressure from the Dolphins defense, threw two interceptions, including one to close the game, and had just a single touchdown pass on the day—the other Bengals scores came from two Mike Nugent field goals.

The pressure led to just three sacks, but also contributed to Dalton's inaccurate throwing. Drops from his receivers didn't help either—he thew to both Hawkins and Green 13 times, with the latter pulling down five passes and the former, nine. None of his receivers had 100 receiving yards.

Cincinnati's run game did see an uptick with the return of Bernard Scott to the rotation. He had 40 yards on five carries before leaving the game with a knee injury, a torn ACL that has him now on IR, his injury-marred season over.

The 17-13 loss dropped the Bengals into second place in the AFC North; however, their second meeting against the Browns looms in Week 6. Another win will absolutely help them in their pursuit of a second consecutive playoff appearance.

 

A Closer Look: Offense

Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
A.J. Green's playmaking skills have helped Andy Dalton avoid the sophomore slump.

Heading into this season, a major concern for the Bengals was whether quarterback Andy Dalton would suffer the dreaded sophomore slump. So far, he seems to have mostly avoided it, though he has had a peculiar predilection for throwing interceptions in his first possession. 

Presently, Dalton has the 11th-best completion percentage in the league at 65.7; last year, he was 22nd overall, completing 58.6 percent of his passes. His 267 passing yards per game is the 10th-best average in the league. More experience as a starter as well as greater comfort in offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's system has paid off, as has Dalton's much-improved (though quite young) receiving corps. 

The interceptions are a concern though—Dalton has six of them thus far, to nine touchdown passes—and mostly attributable to him still having problems when under pressure. Three of his picks have come from him facing the blitz. As such, this means his offensive line (as well as the running backs and tight ends tasked with supporting the linemen) needs to do a better job picking up the blitz and giving Dalton time.

Evan Habeeb-US PRESSWIRE
Cincinnati's interior offensive line is less of a liability than it could have been.

The offensive line as a whole is performing far better than anticipated, however. Starting center Kyle Cook began the season on injured reserve (though he does have the "designated to return" status that could have him back on the field later this year). Cook was replaced by street free agent Jeff Faine.

Starting guard Travelle Wharton's season is already over, with Clint Boling starting in his place; their other starting guard is rookie Kevin Zeitler. Obviously, there was quite the opportunity for the Bengals to have a terrible line with so many new faces in the interior, but it's gone surprisingly well.

The Bengals are currently 15th in the league in average yards per game, at 371. They are 12th in points per game and ninth in yards per play, at 5.8. Considering they rank 19th in first downs per game, they are being quite efficient with every play they make.

The main problem, offensively, for the Bengals is their run game. They are 12th in the league in rushing attempts per game, at 26.8, and 15th in rushing yards, at 104.0, and average just 3.9 yards per carry.

Rob Foldy-US PRESSWIRE
Green-Ellis is going to need help if the Bengals are going to get their run game on track.

One reason for this is that the Bengals have had to unexpectedly rely so heavily on BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Heading into the season, the hope was that he'd be splitting carries with the more explosive Bernard Scott. But Scott was held out at the beginning of the season with a hand injury, injured his ankle when he made his first comeback and then tore his ACL in Week 5 against the Dolphins.

As such, the plodding Green-Ellis has just 300 yards on 91 carries—an average of 3.3 yards per rush—and just two rushing touchdowns. Going forward, the Bengals may have to incorporate third-down back Brian Leonard and special teams ace Cedric Peerman in their rotation if they want to improve these numbers.

It turns out that the veteran Green-Ellis and the run game is again the Bengals offense's biggest area of worry. Many thought their young receiving corps—comprised of primarily of second-year players Green, Armon Binns and Andrew Hawkins and free-agent acquisition Brandon Tate—would be the team's biggest liability, but instead, they're quickly becoming one of the more dangerous playmaking groups in the league.

 

A Closer Look: Defense

Tyler Barrick/Getty Images
Geno Atkins: Defensive stud.

Thus far, Cincinnati's defense isn't quite the unit they were in 2011. Last season, they gave up an average of 316.3 yards per game, the eighth-best in the league. This year, they are 21st, allowing opponents 348.2 yards per game.

The Bengals rank 16th against the pass and 19th against the rush, but are fourth in the league in tackling, at 361, are tied for the most sacks at 18 and three interceptions and three forced fumbles.

Only the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins were held to under 100 rushing yards by the Bengals defense this year, and they gave up 202 on the ground to the Washington Redskins. Against the pass, the Bengals have been better, with their corners giving up just two touchdowns and their safeties two.

But that secondary has been plagued with many injuries over the course of this young season. Terence Newman, Jason Allen, Leon Hall and Nate Clements have all missed time with various injuries, making it difficulty for the cornerbacks to have any continuity in their game play.

Jake Roth-US PRESSWIRE
The Bengals were forced to bring back safety Chris Crocker after poor play and injuries have plagued their secondary.

At safety, the problem has simply been poor performance—Reggie Nelson has been mostly strong, as usual, but strong safety Taylor Mays has been reckless at times, even injuring his fellow teammates on the field. The Bengals tried to switch out Mays with Jeromy Miles, but that also didn't go as planned, and the result was re-signing Chris Crocker, last year's starter, out of the free agency pool.

It's more that the Bengals defense keep giving up big plays at inopportune times rather than the defense struggling, snap after snap.

Losing linebacker Thomas Howard to an ACL tear didn't help matters much—he's since been replaced by rookie Vontaze Burfict, who has had to learn the intricacies of pass coverage as he goes. Also damaging to the Bengals' defensive cause is that free-agent signee Jamaal Anderson is also done for the season with a torn quadricep tendon. Anderson played a role in their rotation-based defensive line as a pass-rush specialist.

It's more like the little things are harming the Bengals' overall defensive cause. If everyone can stay healthy and get in sync with one another, the rest of the season should see a better performance out of the entire group. They are clearly doing something right when it comes to tackling, sacks and interceptions—it's just about fine-tuning their fundamentals and not being caught unprepared.

 

A Closer Look: Special Teams

Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Mike Nugent has missed just one field goal so far.

The Bengals are presently fielding a middling kick return game, with Brandon Tate and Adam Jones combining for 279 return yards. However, they've had just 12 kickoffs to return, fewer than half the teams in the league. Jone and Tate are the fourth-best punt return tandem in the league, though, with 191 yards and a touchdown (Jones') on 14 attempts.

On kick coverage, however, the Bengals could use some help. On 17 kickoffs, they've given up 453 total yards, an average of 26.6 yards per return, the fourth-worst total and 11th-worst average in the league. Their punt coverage unit has fared far better, giving up just 41 total yards on seven punts.

Kicker Mike Nugent has yet again been reliable, making nine of his 10 field-goal attempts, missing just one from 40-49 yards with a long of 47 yards. He is perfect in extra points: 14 of 14.

 

Quick Preview: Week 6

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
Cincinnati must force Brandon Weeden to make mistakes this Sunday.

This Sunday marks the second and final meeting of the season between the Bengals and the Cleveland Browns. Clearly, they are hoping for the same outcome as their first contest, but they cannot rest their hopes on an Adam Jones punt return for a touchdown and a 50-yard Andrew Hawkins catch-and-run getting it done for them. 

They should, however, take a similar approach as they did the first time—i.e. bring the pressure to rookie Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden. Weeden still is learning how to throw the ball away instead of trying to make plays when there aren't any available, and if they can force him into mistakes and turn the ball over, they have a great chance at victory.

Jim O'Connor-US PRESSWIRE
Don't let his yards-per-carry average fool you, Trent Richardson is dangerous.

The Bengals' biggest priority this week is to limit the effectiveness of Browns running back Trent Richardson. Though he's averaging just 3.7 yards per carry, he's scored 30 points so far this season—five of Cleveland's total nine touchdowns.

Also of priority for Cincinnati this week is to bounce back from its mistake-ridden offensive performance last week against the Dolphins. If Cleveland can bring pressure in the manner which Miami did, Dalton could again have issues with accuracy. Pair that with the fact that starting Browns cornerback Joe Haden is returning this week from his four-game suspension, and they could have a bad passing day without adjustments.

Cleveland may be 0-5, but it's kept it close in four of those losses, as the Bengals are most intimately familiar. There's every indication that Cincinnati is a far better, more complete and experienced team than the Browns; if  it can limit its mistakes while forcing the Browns to make some of their own, it should be another checkmark in the win column for Cincy.

 

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