Through two games, the Bengals are simply more talented than their foes, and not winning with smoke and mirrors.
The first month of the season counts just as much as the end of the season, but as teams are adjusting to their personnel and making adjustments, there can be strange results. Newly-implemented schematic wrinkles can be effective for small stretches until defenses adjust.
Through their two-game win streak to start the 2018 season, the Bengals haven’t been tricking their foes with anything exotic. Instead, they’ve simply out-talented the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens en route to back-to-back 34-23 victories.
There’s nothing wrong with the Bengals relying on their top-end explosiveness and rebuilt roster depth to win. Head coach Marvin Lewis has had better, more creative coordinators in the past, and they raised the potential of the team, but this year’s iteration of the roster is possibly the best yet of the Lewis-era.
The Bengals jumped out to a 21-0 lead within the first 18 minutes as A.J. Green logged his first three-touchdown performance.
Touchdown No. 1 was on a simple rollout where Green was the lone target on a crossing route. His second touchdown was a well-placed ball into traffic turned effort play as Green broke Tavon Young’s tackle as he pranced to the end zone. And finally, his third was an out route from the slot.
Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has never had an exotic offense in Miami nor Cincinnati. He does a good job producing open, underneath options to inflate completion percentages and shorten subsequent downs, but he’s struggled to manufacture mismatches consistently until this point. Moving Green into the slot against the Jimmy Smith-less Ravens defense was a positive development for he and the offense.
But for the rest of the evening, the story was more about surrounding quarterback Andy Dalton with playmakers who can do the heavy-lifting.
Dalton’s shown over the course of his career that he’s stiff after he drops back and needs to get rid of the ball relatively quickly. He’s accurate when he can plant and throw, but disrupting his stride makes him jumpy, too willing to check down and inaccurate downfield. It’s not shocking that he’s 41-1-2 when the offense scores 25 or more points considering that when he’s clean in the pocket, he’s a much better player.
Behind an overhauled offensive line that has new offensive line coach Frank Pollack, Dalton’s confidence appears to be similar to his breakout 2015 and 2016 seasons.
Just as important for the health of the offense is the increased effectiveness of slot receiver Tyler Boyd. Boyd’s become a solid player in the last year, showing more power after the catch. Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley was out of the game, and Boyd was able to exploit his backup’s slow feet and inefficient tackling.
Again, the Bengals just had more talent. A simple crossing route that was the primary read shouldn’t have led to a 14-yard touchdown, but having playmakers capable of winning in space leads to easy production.
Outside of Green, the other star on the offense is running back Joe Mixon. Mixon has incredible wiggle, balance and change of direction for his thick frame. He’s occasionally going to guess incorrectly with his lane choice, but his eyes are always searching for where he can create yards.
The above run highlights this. The Bengals’ line still isn’t great, and his negative runs are almost always due to early penetration as opposed to him trying to bounce every run. Because of that, these types of positive creation plays are critical as avoiding third-and-long situations for Dalton is the top priority for the offense.
With two interceptions, four sacks, and eight quarterback hits on Joe Flacco, the Bengals’ defense was also able to showcase their talent.
The Bengals are getting an absurd amount of contributions from their young players. Rookie defensive end Sam Hubbard created an early sack, and rookie safety Jessie Bates nabbed an interception and a quarterback hit. Rookie corner Darius Phillips also recovered a fumble.
Their 2017 class paid off as well Thursday night. Carl Lawson had two solo tackles, Jordan Willis grabbed a fumble, and linebackers Hardy Nickerson and Jordan Evans combined for 14 tackles.
All of the youthful talent contributing this early, while also not being a schematic juggernaut, is encouraging for what this team is and can become. Young players are volatile in nature, but the Bengals haven’t self-cannibalized outside of a quiet third-quarter that featured an offense that became too conservative, and a defense that went into too much Cover 2 shell looks.
Those are avoidable in the future for this staff, and they were able to become more aggressive when they needed to in the fourth.
Cincinnati wasn’t viewed as a realistic playoff option prior to the season, but at 2-0, they’re going to be in position to challenge for at least a Wild Card spot if they can go at least .500 from this point forward. That should be possible barring major injuries, since they’re going to be at least as talented as all but a small handful of teams on their roster.