Cincinnati Bengals Trending in Right Direction Before Playoffs
The 2012 season has been laden with streaks for the Cincinnati Bengals. They started off the season with a devastating loss to the Ravens before winning three straight. They then lost the next four before winning four in a row and six out of seven.
The last seven games, the Bengals have completely transformed in all facets of the game: offense, defense and special teams. This transformation has been advantageous as they have reeled of six wins in their last seven games.
Why the sudden change? A few different things can be credited for the change but, all in all, that's not nearly as important as where this momentum can take them in the playoffs. In order for the Bengals to succeed they will need to make sure that they continue to feed the three beasts.
First, A.J. Green. That's it. Second, the run game needs to continue to produce when needed. And third, the Bengals defense must continue to hit opposing quarterbacks and force punts.
A.J. Green Is Priority No. 1 for Opposing Defenses
Since the bye during Week 8, when A.J. Green has been targeted nine or more times, there has only been one game in which he didn't have either 100 yards receiving or a touchdown. Hence, opposing defenses have made Green their first priority.
Following last season, Green and Dalton were the first rookie quarterback and receiver tandem to make the NFL Pro Bowl. Both flew under the radar last year but that hasn't been the case this season. Green found out yesterday that he has been voted to start for the AFC in the Pro Bowl.
Green tweeted this after learning of his selection to the AFC Pro Bowl team:
Thanks to everyone who voted!!! Such a blessing... to all of my fans and supporters... I luv y'all!— Aj Green (@ajgreen_18) December 27, 2012
Coming into this season, defenses knew to key on A.J. Green, especially with what was expected to be a questionable running game. Green answered any criticism by pulling in 64 catches for 911 yards and 10 touchdowns through the first 10 games, including nine games in a row with a touchdown reception.
Green responded to any speculation of decline with a 10-catch, 116-yard performance against the Steelers last week. An even more gratifying stat line considering in their first matchup he only had one catch for eight yards and a touchdown.
Green should have a solid game against the Ravens. It'll be a defensive battle but there will be a point when A.J. Green and Ed Reed compete for a jump ball and I'm excited to see who wins.
Ed Reed is the best at playing the ball in the air on defense. A.J. Green has some of the best hands in the NFL. Because Ed Reed has received so much criticism about his hits lately, I see him approaching the ball timidly and A.J. Green coming away with the ball. Reed will stop him before he scores but Green will still make the play.
Going into the playoffs, Green will have to take his game to the next level. With the heightened excitement of the playoffs and all opposing defensive backs targeting Green because of his Pro Bowl selection, Green has to live up to the hype. Green will need to make a game-changing play in the Wild Card game for the Bengals to win. Will he make it?
The Bengals Run Game Is Peaking at the Right Time
When BenJarvus Green-Ellis was acquired by the Bengals this offseason, fans were uncertain of how his impact would be. The Bengals have a reputation for being hit-or-miss with running backs. For every Rudi Johnson there's a Chris Perry. For every Corey Dillon there's a Bernard Scott. Which one would BenJarvus Green-Ellis, AKA The Law Firm, be?
Green-Ellis hadn't fumbled in his NFL career when he signed with the Bengals. He went on to fumble three times in two weeks against the Redskins and Jaguars, losing two of them. Many fans came to accept that Green-Ellis was headed in the wrong direction.
After that the Bengals lost four straight in which the run game struggled. The Law Firm failed to break 70 yards in any of those four games and had no less than nine carries in each. Then somebody had the idea to give it to Green-Ellis more.
The Bengals have pulled off victories in six of their last seven games and largely because of BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
During the Bengals' end-of-the-year run, Green-Ellis is averaging 86.7 yards per game and that includes a three game stretch where he gained over 100 yards. The difference was carries. Bengals' Offensive Coordinator Jay Gruden made a concerted effort to get The Law Firm the ball.
In the final seven games of the season, Green-Ellis has amassed at least 15 carries in six of them. Can you guess which one? Yup, the game against the Cowboys when the Bengals lost. If he carries the ball 15 or more times, the Bengals win. Even against the Steelers!
In order for the Bengals to beat the Ravens Week 17, they will need a solid running attack. In opening week meeting, Green-Ellis rushed for 91 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. Since the bye week, Green-Ellis has accumulated at least 100 yards or a touchdown every time he's rushed the ball at least 18 times in a game.
Heading past the Ravens and into the playoffs, the run game is critical. Especially given the weather conditions in most parts of the country during the playoffs and the health of a team after 17 weeks of football, a sound running attack will determine the Bengals' future.
Green-Ellis is no stranger to post-season play. He carried the ball for the Patriots 38 times last year in the playoffs gaining 140 yards and a touchdown. If the Bengals offense is to keep up with its defense's playoff hopes, Green-Ellis will have to shoulder a lot of that burden.
Defense Wins Championships
Bengals Head Coach Marvin Lewis knows all about a championship defense. In 2000, he was defensive coordinator when the Baltimore Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV. That Ravens defense is ranked as the third best defense in NFL history according to ESPN. The 2012 Bengals won't be competing for any of those accolades, but Coach Lewis is in position to make yet another defensive-led run into the playoffs.
Many players have contributed to the success of the Bengals' defense but the undoubted leader has been third year defensive tackle Geno Atkins. Atkins found out yesterday that he will be attending the Pro Bowl for the second time following this season. Differently from last year, however, Atkins will be starting for the AFC team in Hawaii.
En route to earning enough votes for the Pro Bowl, Atkins has amassed 12.5 sacks through the first 15 games of the year; helping the Bengals to second in the NFL in sacks. Atkins' presence in the middle has been problematic for opposing offensive linemen. His impact ranges even further than his team leading sack total. When asked of Atkins, tackle Andrew Whitworth had the following to say, "The truth is he's far more disruptive than just 12 sacks. As good as it is that doesn't even tell the story."
Of the Bengals' 47 total sacks, 38 are by defensive linemen. defensive ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap along with defensive tackle Domata Peko join Atkins in the starting lineup for the defensive line. Together, they have 16.5 sacks combined to add to Atkins' 12.5.
Atkins was chosen as the AFC Defensive Player of the Week after racking up two sacks and a forced fumble in the late win over Pittsburgh. Atkins is the third Bengals defensive lineman to be chosen as defensive Player of the Week this year. Dunlap and Michael Johnson received the award.
The defensive line has been great at keeping defenses to short gains and hurried passing decisions but the linebackers have been stellar thus far as well. Fourth year linebacker Rey Maualuga has taken a leadership role on the defense this year, setting a good example for rookie linebacker Vontaze Burfict out of Arizona State. These two players lead the team with 112 and 109 tackles, respectively.
Other players like safety Reggie Nelson and cornerbacks Adam Jones and Terence Newman have brought added security from the defensive secondary. Nelson has been solid this season with 56 tackles, one sack, three interceptions, five tackles for loss, eight passes deflected and two forced fumbles.
Jones has a sack, nine passes deflected and a forced fumble. On punt returns, he averages 12.3 yards per return and scored Week 2 against the Browns with an 81-yard punt return for touchdown.
Newman has added another 75 tackles along with two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and ten passes deflected.
In a low-scoring, hard fought battle against the Steelers last week, the Bengals showed that they can survive in physical match-ups and grind out wins. That's exactly what they can expect to see this weekend versus the Ravens.
Running back Ray Rice has always caused problems for Bengals' defenses and Joe Flacco is consistent if nothing else. Defensive Coordinator Mike Zimmer has his hands full this week plotting how to contain the Ravens although they have fallen off the last few weeks losing three out of four. Week 17 should be much more like last week's meeting with the Steelers than the thrashing the Ravens put on the Bengals on Monday Night Football to begin the season.
If the Bengals are to succeed deep into the playoffs, the foundations will have to be a solid running game and a stingy defense. Both of these groups are trending in the right direction. Let's just hope it continues as long as it can.