Though the Bengals have one of the best records in the NFL at the halfway point at 6-2, there are many who wonder if they are mere pretenders to a throne usually occupied by the Pittsburgh Steelers or Baltimore Ravens.
One well-timed nationally televised victory could do much to change that perception. But first, the Bengals have to play the Dolphins and win.
Last year, a 17-13 loss to the Dolphins to start October led the Bengals to a four-game losing streak. They cannot allow Thursday night's game to send them into a tailspin. Though their lead in the AFC North is substantial, it is also fragile. Improvements by any of the three teams below them could wreck the Bengals' chances for a divisional title and their first playoff win of the Andy Dalton era.
The Bengals' loss to Miami last season was marked by many things: a concerted effort to pressure Dalton in order to rattle him, an unbalanced offensive game plan by Cincinnati, an inability to get to Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill and one too many Bengals turnovers.
Though Dalton was sacked only three times and saw pressure on 14 of his dropbacks, his struggles with the pass rush resulted in him hearing footsteps, which repeatedly forced his throws off target. Of his six passes of 20 or more yards, only one went for a completion.
However, things are very different for Dalton this year.
In his last three games, he's thrown for at least 300 yards with a minimum of three touchdowns per game. Dalton has also improved under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), going from being the second-worst quarterback when facing pressure to 15th through the first eight weeks of the 2013 season.
Pro Football Focus also noted that Dalton is among the top three quarterbacks in the NFL in throwing the deep ball with an accuracy percentage of 51.3 and seven touchdowns to no interceptions, compared to ranking 27th last season. Only six quarterbacks have been more accurate with their passes in 2013, and only five have a higher average in yards per pass attempt.
Though he's currently on the best stretch of his career, when asked about it, the modest Dalton said at his press conference Wednesday , "I feel like I'm playing pretty well right now, and I just have to keep it going. I've got to keep putting this team and this offense in a good position to win games. If I can do that, I think we'll have a good chance to win a lot of them."
Dalton is not immune to pressure, although he is far better at dealing with it—owing just as much to his improvement as a quarterback as to his league-best pass-protecting offensive line.
That will be put to the test on Thursday night against the Dolphins secondary, which only has 20 sacks but has posted an incredible 96 quarterback hurries. Hurries are what got Dalton into so much trouble against Miami last season, and they must be minimized this week. Not helping things is that left tackle Andrew Whitworth is one of many Bengals players who could be sidelined against Miami with injuries.
No, QBs don't face each other, but it's worth taking a look.
Working in Dalton's favor is the fact that the Bengals are a more overall balanced offense than they were a year ago. With BenJarvus Green-Ellis now accompanied by rookie running back Giovani Bernard, the Bengals have run the ball this year 222 times, compared to 279 Dalton pass attempts.
Dalton threw 528 times last season, while the Bengals ran the ball 430 times. The offense was particularly off-balance in its loss to the Dolphins. Dalton attempted 43 passes, while the Bengals ran the ball only 19 times, including four by Dalton, nine by Green-Ellis, five by Bernard Scott before he suffered a season-ending knee injury and one by receiver Andrew Hawkins.
Cincinnati's offense should be far more balanced in this season's rematch, which should offset any pressure the Dolphins attempt to bring in the passing game. The Dolphins rank 19th in run defense, allowing an average of 109.9 rushing yards per game. The Bengals should have no trouble getting good yardage out of their one-two punch of Green-Ellis and Bernard.
This matchup also looks to be in the Bengals' defensive favor. Tannehill has been sacked 32 times this season, while Cincinnati's defense has gotten to opposing quarterbacks 22 times, along with 38 quarterback hits and 94 pressures. Tannehill has seen pressure on 35.2 percent of his dropbacks with his throws under pressure resulting in completions just 44.9 percent of the time, which ranks 33rd out of 38 quarterbacks against the pass rush.
Though the Bengals will be without middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, who is expected to miss a few games with a sprained MCL, and potentially also be missing his replacement, Michael Boley, who tweaked his hamstring in practice this week, they can still effectively pressure Tannehill.
Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson and other members of Cincinnati's defensive front seven will be a lot for Miami's less than stellar offensive line to handle. Seven of Tannehill's nine interceptions have come on pressured plays, so the better the Bengals' pass rush, the better the situation for their secondary. Throwing the ball away is a skill that Tannehill is still trying to master.
via ESPN.com & Pro Football Focus (subscription required)
Given that it's the midway point of the season, talk begins to focus on paper tigers—teams that are outperforming realistic expectations for one reason or another. Maybe it's an unprecedented or unsustainable hot streak, maybe it's a lack of strong opponents to this point, but everyone seems to come up with a reason why a seemingly undeserving team has performed well.
The Bengals aren't paper tigers. They've defeated both the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers, finally giving Cincinnati meaningful wins against playoff teams from the prior season—a major hurdle that the Bengals hadn't been able to clear in the past two seasons.
Dalton's hot streak isn't likely to slow significantly with a spate of bad games, and the Bengals' run game is better and more dangerous than in previous years. Cincinnati's 6-2 record isn't a fluke. It's a sign of a team that has gotten things right in all phases of the game—something head coach Marvin Lewis can attest to:
"You've got to execute, you've got to be disciplined and sound in your assignments, you've got to take care of the ball and you've got to be able to take the football away. We've got to work hard at taking the ball away. Those are key elements in being successful... We can't drop the football and have opportunity to drop off our hands, whether it be offense, defense or special teams. We've got to maintain the football. We've got to catch it, out-block them, out-run them, out-catch them and out-tackle them."
Coming out of Miami at 7-2 should silence many of the Bengals' critics and establish the team as a true contender, not just for the playoffs, but also for the Super Bowl.