The Cincinnati Bengals beat the Cleveland Browns 27-17 in the first round of the annual "Battle of Ohio," picking up a key win in the AFC North. The win was ugly, but it puts smiles on the faces of Bengals' fans across the Queen City.
The Bengals, voted worst professional franchise in the U.S. by ESPN the Magazine, looked better than they have since Carson Palmer was injured in the 2005 playoffs against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Here are 10 reasons Cincinnati Bengals fans have to be excited in 2011.
Nugent hit two early field goals from 24 and 47 yards out. He pinned prolific Browns kick returner Josh Cribbs deep in the end zone most of the day. In the AFC North, yards and points are difficult to come by. Nugent gives the Bengals a reliable leg to pick up field goals when the offense stalls.
Gresham had a little case of the drops against the Browns, but all signs point to a good offensive year for the second year tight end out of Oklahoma. He will provide a big target in the middle for Andy Dalton, and he is a difficult cover for most linebackers. Gresham was active in the offense Sunday with six receptions for 58 yards and a touchdown against the Browns.
The Bengals offense under former offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski dulled Cincinnati fans. His formations gave away the plays, and he took few risks. New OC Jay Gruden is the anti-Bratkowski.
Gruden designs plays that get rookie quarterback Andy Dalton out of the pocket and away from pressure. He calls running plays and screens out of the shotgun. He calls passing plays on first down. Jay Gruden calls unpredictable and effective plays while protecting his rookie quarterback.
As Dalton develops and masters Jay Gruden's playbook this season, the Bengals offense will be exciting to watch.
The Bengals did not commit a penalty until there was 4:03 left in the first half. For a team plagued by penalties in recent years, this is an enormous leap forward.
For the game, the Bengals committed three penalties for 22 yards. Last year, Cincinnati averaged 45.3 penalty yards per game.
The Bengals did not commit costly turnovers against the Browns, either. The Bengals 2010 turnover ratio was -8, a number that must change course if the Bengals are to compete in 2011. After Sunday's game, the Bengals are +1 in turnover ratio.
As the young team grows more experienced, they will play even sharper.
The Bengals offensive line played aggressively against the Browns, despite starting rookie Clint Boling at right guard. Up front, Cincinnati struggled in passing situations and against the blitz, but for a run-first offense in a defense-first division, the Bengals’ offensive line showed promise.
The Bengals' secondary gave up some splashy plays in the second quarter, but by and large they played well. Clements and Hall stayed in stride with the Browns’ wide outs and when catches were made in front of them, they closed quickly on the opposition.
Maybe, it’s because he is unquestionably an offensive leader. Maybe it’s because he knows he is the focal point of the offense. Or maybe it’s because he is jazzed about being out of jail. Whatever the reason, Cedric Benson looked years younger and steps faster against the Browns. The Bengals will lean heavily on Benson while Dalton gets his feet under him, and Benson’s return to his explosive form is a major plus for Cincinnati, who saw Benson’s yards per carry drop by seven-tenths of a yard in 2010.
Benson finished the game with 25 carries for 121 yards and a touchdown, including a 39-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to seal the victory for Cincinnati.
In his first NFL game, Andy Dalton went an efficient 10 for 15 for 81 yards and one touchdown before exiting the game with a wrist injury to his throwing arm. Dalton’s stats would have been more impressive if it were not for some drops by his receivers.
More important than his numbers was the way he played. He did not get rattled by pressure, and when he was flushed from the pocket, he made good decisions. Dalton felt comfortable enough with the offense to audible out of plays, and his passes had some zip on them.
Andy Dalton played well enough to justify taking him in the second round, and had Bengals fans asking an important question: “Carson who?”
Taking a wide receiver early in the NFL draft can be a gamble. Some wide receivers never adjust to the speed of NFL defensive backs, and others never work on running sharp routes because they have never had to before. Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green, selected fourth overall in the 2011 NFL draft, fits into neither of those categories.
The speedy Green ran past the Browns' secondary, and his moves were sharp enough to beat veteran corner back Sheldon Brown and he outfoxed Cleveland’s Joe Haden for a touchdown to put the Bengals ahead with 4:28 left in the game. No. 18 in black and orange showed some toughness as well, as he stiff armed tacklers and blocked in the running game.
A.J. Green possesses all of the tools to be an offensive force for the Bengals. He finished the day with only one reception, but that fourth quarter catch put the Bengals ahead, 20-17.
The Bengals are a young team, with just two players on the roster, thirty years of age or older. This youth movement in Cincinnati led to some inspired play and an excitement Bengals fans have not seen for some time. Too often over the last few years, even when the Bengals won the AFC North, the players appeared to be going through the motions, playing because they have to, not because they enjoy it. That was not the case on Sunday against the Browns.
The Bengals energy showed itself in intangibles. The defense gang tackled running backs and receivers, and pressured Browns' quarterback Colt McCoy the entire afternoon. Even when momentum had clearly shifted to the Cleveland, the Cincinnati defense played tough and overcame poor defensive field position to keep the Bengals in the game.
The offense and special teams units genuinely celebrated touchdowns and big kick returns. Even after Dalton’s departure, the team, following Cedric Benson’s example, played with a palpable passion.
This zeal will carry the young Cincinnati Bengals through difficult divisional games against Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
It is unlikely the Bengals will win the AFC North or make the playoffs as a wild card. The team will take some time to gel, and in the NFL inexperience rarely results in winning. During the final six games of the season, the Bengals will win a couple games they are expected to lose and the offense will become potent.
Expect the Cincinnati Bengals to finish no better than 7-9 in 2011, but they will be the talk of the AFC North heading into the 2012 season.