For years the Cincinnati Bengals have been the forgotten stepchild of the AFC North.
Well, don’t look now, but that young child has grown into a man.
Following a come-from-behind 17-14 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in Week 5, Cincinnati sits atop the division, thanks in large part to the various maturations it has shown in eking out four straight victories.
As any Cedric Benson fantasy owner will giddily tell you, the most obvious advancement on the 2009 Bengal stat sheet has been in the rushing game.
For years the Bengals were known for their aerial assault, featuring Pro Bowler Carson Palmer orchestrating a star-studded group of pass catchers, highlighted by the omnipresent boastfulness of Chad Johnson, now Chad Ochocinco.
While Palmer is still leading the show (now with more of a grizzled veteran feel than up-and-comer vibe) and the artist formerly known as Johnson is still making his presence known (only now it is through virtual prose instead of ESPN-worthy babble), the Cincinnati offense has shifted its focus to become a unit dominated by the ground game.
In the most obvious example of their transformation this season, the Bengals took a page out of the playbook of previous divisional dominators Pittsburgh and Baltimore, giving the ball to Benson 27 times for 120 yards—the first time the Baltimore defense has allowed a back to surpass the century mark in 39 games.
As the Bengals are able to establish the run, it forces opposing defensive coordinators to put seven and eight men in the box to clog up the stretch-blocking scheme employed by the Cincinnati offensive line. Having the defensive backs’ cushion negated by such pressure increases the Bengals big play ability, bringing in Palmer’s ability to throw the long ball to Ochocinco and Chris Henry.
The maturation of the once dismal running game into one of the league’s most productive has been aided by the Cincinnati defense. Once a veritable sieve in key moments, the collection of castaways has held opponents to the 17th fewest yards per game through five weeks.
A big reason for the turnaround on defense has been an overhaul of the front-seven, an area that the Bengals have been tinkering with for over a decade. The ability to use a four-man rush to collapse the pocket against inferior offensive lines (such as the one that Baltimore fielded Sunday with rookie Michael Oher at left tackle) gives defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer increased flexibility with coverage schemes.
The Bengals are still making many of the mindless errors that cost them crucial games in previous years (see St. Louis, Brad). Yet, this group also possesses the maturity to overcome such lapses, and grind out last-minute victories in four of five games.
It is a new day in Cincinnati. The Bengals have reached adulthood.