With Sunday's 49-9 victory over the New York Jets, the Cincinnati Bengals emphatically ended a relatively solid first half of the season. They will enter the second part of the season with a record of 6-2.
This puts them in firm control of first place in the AFC North, and since they own the tiebreaker over New England, they'd have a first round bye if the playoffs started today. All in all, there's nothing you can complain about thus far.
Unfortunately, this is Cincinnati, and we do. Just because the season has gotten off to a hot start doesn't mean that this roster has been perfect—in fact, most of the system has been anything but. We all admire what they've done this season, but how does each unit measure up to the grade individually?
Coming into the season, there was perhaps no better defensive line in the NFL than the one representing the Cincinnati Bengals. They've lived up to the build.
Yes, there have been some high-scoring games, and there was little to no pressure applied to Jay Cutler in Week 1—but this defensive line has been just as amazing as ever. Geno Atkins, Domata Peko, Devon Still and Brandon Thompson have clogged the middle of the opposing offense, while Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson and even Wallace Gilberry have been terrors on the outside.
The line has combined for 17.5 half sacks this season. The more impressing part of this team is how they've dealt with injury. Johnson was hurt briefly, which gave a virtual nobody in Gilberry a chance to shine—and boy, did he. Against New England, he filled in to the tune of 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
The story of the Cincinnati Bengals' linebackers is a story of two different takes. On one side, Vontaze Burfict, the team's weakside linebacker, leads the league in tackles with 81. He's also got a sack, an interception and a fumble recovery on his resume.
On the other is the veteran free agent, James Harrison, who is in his first season with the team. Through the first half of the season, Harrison has gathered only 12 tackles, picking up his first sack of the season against the Jets. He's been mostly invisible all season.
So, it comes to the tiebreaker, inside linebacker Rey Maualuga, who I've been incredibly critical of for the last year-and-a-half. Often criticized for his trouble defending the pass, Maualuga looks to have righted the ship a little. He's still not what we'd like for him to be, but overall, he's improved his game and appears to be headed in the right direction.
With Maualuga leaving the game against the Jets, it's going to be interesting to see how this corps does going forward. They've been pretty good, but there's certainly room for improvement.
It's hard to get a true read on the Bengals' secondary, mostly because the entire staff has struggled with injury for the entire season. Brandon Ghee and Dre Kirkpatrick started the season hurt and were eventually followed by Reggie Nelson, and now, you can add Leon Hall and Taylor Mays to the list.
The ever increasing injuries caused the Bengals to go out and get safety Chris Crocker off the streets again, and he's been quite the fill-in. While Nelson has been the main guy at free safety, Crocker, George Iloka and Mays have been sort of rotating in and out. In his short time back, Crocker has been the more impressive of the three.
He's better at blitzing the passer and is the only safety not named Reggie Nelson with an interception. Meanwhile, the cornerbacks have been a wreck for most of the season, especially now that starter Leon Hall re-aggravated his Achilles injury.
Terence Newman has been decent but is with most of the secondary, nothing special. Going forward, the team needs to get healthier, and hopefully, it can convert health into more production.
Let's not forget about the oft-forgotten aspect of football teams, the special teams. Kevin Huber is a top 10 punter in this league, having pinned opponents inside the 20 a solid 13 times.
Brandon Tate has improved his game on special teams, which was most evident against the Buffalo Bills, when he took a punt 29 yards in overtime to set up the game-winning field goal.
Which brings us to the team's kicker, Mike Nugent, who has been nails for most of the season. He's missed three field goals, but he's been good in clutch situations, including the game against Detroit, when he hit a game-winning 54-yard field goal as time expired.
It's been a surprisingly good season for the Bengals offensive line—surprising in my opinion at least. I had my fears when guys like Clint Boling and Kyle Cook took starting spots.
While I still have doubts about Cook, Boling has done a shockingly good job complementing Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth. You can see a clear improvement in his blocking ability from last season, when he was torn to pieces.
I also remained worried about Andre Smith, fresh off the best season of his young career. I know Smith has all the talent in the world, but you always have to be worried about his work ethic, an issue of much concern for most of his career.
Alas, this group of behemoths have been stellar thus far. Can't help but remember Whitworth's charge downfield to block for A.J. Green—a play in which he knocked a defender over with one hand.
It seems that the Bengals' two tight end set has flown under the radar a bit this season. Veteran Jermaine Gresham and rookie Tyler Eifert have combined for over 600 yards and two touchdowns.
They haven't been much in terms of scoring, but they have been very prudent in moving the ball downfield little by little. Andy Dalton will probably never be able to throw the ball deep that well, so these two tight ends make up the middle of the field.
Gresham has been a workhorse for years, and despite several mental errors, he'll always be used in Jay Gruden's offense. Eifert has proven to have magnificent hands and can block for the running backs incredibly well. The Bengals are lucky to have gotten such a dual-threat set.
The criticism here is that they haven't been useful near the goal line—for the most part. I expect that to change down the stretch.
Looking at the receivers in Cincinnati, people are always going to talk about the one-man show that is A.J. Green. He's having another spectacular season, having already gathered over 700 yards and five touchdowns.
He's not the story of the season so far, though. Following a four-touchdown performance against the Jets, all eyes may have moved over to second-year man Marvin Jones, even if only for a moment.
From the start of the season, it seemed that Mohamed Sanu was the No.2 receiver on the team, and after not really answering the call, it looks like Jones may be the more oft-targeted man. On the year, Jones has 369 yards and seven touchdowns, which gives him the team lead.
Dane Sanzenbacher hasn't made much of an effect given his limited time, but if given the opportunity, it's very possible he could be a very good slot receiver.
Overall, the top three guys are dominating defenders.
At the beginning of the season, rookie Giovani Bernard seemed to be all over the field, breaking tackles and ankles right and left. Over the last three weeks, he's disappeared. He's gathered only 73 yards on 27 carries. He was great in the passing game against Buffalo, but he has otherwise disappeared.
Meanwhile, BenJarvus Green-Ellis really hasn't shown up at all this season, averaging just over three yards per carry. He's never been a big-run sort of back, but I think we all expected more following his decent 2012 season.
Despite a lack of production in the running game, the offense is thriving at this point in the season. However, that's not going to last forever. Bernard was huge at the beginning of the year, both as a runner and out of the backfield to catch passes. He needs to get back to that.
Green-Ellis won't have much more value than he has now, but hopefully, he can pick it up a step going forward. For now, the season has been only slightly over average, and that's because of how much Bernard contributed in the early going.
If you remove the New England and Cleveland games from Andy Dalton's 2013 resume, you'd be hard-pressed to find a true "bad game." Through eight games, Dalton has thrown for over 2,000 yards, on pace for his first career 4,000 yard season, and he has thrown 16 touchdowns.
He entered Week 8 having thrown for over 300 yards and 3 TD in each of the last two games. He was only one of three NFL quarterbacks to have accomplished the feat this season—the others were Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. Pretty solid company.
We're seeing huge steps forward from the Bengals signal caller, which is something that has been discussed for weeks now. No one seems to think the team can win a Super Bowl with Dalton at the helm.
There are still questionable throws from time to time, and I doubt he'll ever be an expert deep-ball thrower, but in the last three games, it's hard to fathom that there's any thought about replacing him at the season's end.
Against the Jets, Dalton was firing downfield and firing hard, which showed massive strides. Big things are coming for the Red Rifle.
For now, however, you can't forget those games against the Patriots and Browns. Games that bad can't keep happening.