How Far Can Cincinnati's Defense Take the Bengals This Season?
Coming into this week, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had thrown at least one touchdown pass in 52 consecutive games. They were undefeated at 4-0. But the Bengals didn't allow a single Patriots touchdown, holding them to a pair of field goals and giving up just one third-down conversion in 12 New England tries.
Cincinnati's offense had high expectations entering the season, with the team drafting tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard in April to bolster quarterback Andy Dalton in his third season. However, it has been halting at times, owing to Dalton failing to make his big third-year leap and coordinator Jay Gruden still apparently figuring out how to handle their many weapons.
Fortunately, the Bengals defense came prepared for this fight. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins got a sack on Brady in the Patriots' first series, which was a three-and-out.
Dalton's interception, thrown to linebacker Brandon Spikes, didn't lead to any Patriots points with the Bengals defense shutting down the ensuing drive. Another turnover, a fumble by Bernard, was followed by another Patriots three-and-out. None of the Bengal offense's mistakes would come back to haunt them, thanks to their excellent defensive performance.
The Bengals also forced two turnovers of their own: a second-quarter LeGarrette Blount fumble forced by defensive end Carlos Dunlap and recovered by safety Reggie Nelson; and an Adam Jones interception of Brady that sealed the win.
Though a driving rainstorm during the Patriots' last attempt to close the scoring gap certainly influenced this game's outcome, it cannot be denied that the Bengals' defensive efforts were the reason for the win. And they may need to keep it up in order to maintain their position in the three-team race for AFC North superiority.
At 14th in passing yards per game and 22nd in rushing yards, the Bengals offense has been far more middling than they should be, just by looking at their roster. Dalton has thrown just five touchdowns—despite how many talented receiving targets he has—to five interceptions.
The speedy Bernard hasn't seen a drastic uptick in his playing time despite being more dynamic and dangerous than BenJarvus Green-Ellis as both a runner and receiver, likely owing to his pass protection issues. And Gruden has stubbornly decided to not have both tight ends, Jermaine Gresham and Eifert, on the field at the same time in their base offense.
What should work perfectly has thus been less-than through five weeks. In situations like these, defenses are often called upon to pick up the slack, and so far, the Bengals defense has cooperated. The key will be for them to continue to play on this high level, because other situations will arise that will put the defense in the position to have to carry the team.
In this pass-heavy NFL, defense alone wins fewer and fewer championships, but it can often be enough to lead a team to a winning record. It's not just that the Bengals were able to hold an offense to no touchdowns this week; it's the fact that it was against the Patriots offense that makes it so impressive.
If this is the standard to which the Bengals will be held moving forward, it's quite the challenge to meet. But if they do, the tightly contested AFC North could easily be theirs for the taking. The division's hallmark thus far this season has been disappointing offensive performance; the teams with the good defenses will be the ones to rise to the top.
As long as this trend continues, the Bengals are in a good situation. Their defense, which started slow, has now begun to look as advertised. Their four sacks on Brady on Sunday brings their total to 14 on the year. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict is one of the NFL's leading tacklers. They have eight forced turnovers on the year so far, and they've allowed only 23 third-down conversions in 57 attempts.
This proved enough to defeat the formidable Patriots in Week 5. And repeated performances like this should lead to more wins against offenses both more and less dangerous.
If the Bengals reach the postseason for the third straight year, look to their defense for the reason why. Come January, the defensive side of the ball has the ability to keep this team on the football field, instead of the couch.
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