This year has been a quirky year in the NFL. Since the lockout started in March, things have just been…abnormal this year.
The Bengals have been one of those abnormalities. At 7-4, the Bengals are just one win away from my preseason prediction of 8-8. They are winning games with a (mostly) stingy defense, pretty solid special teams, and an offense that can score when it needs to.
This team has baffled me from the get go this year, however. Three of the most important positions on offense were filled with rookies this year. QB Andy Dalton and WR AJ Green have looked like seasoned vets, to date, not the rookies they truly are. The third rookie is offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. One would not expect a team with rookies at these positions to be in the playoff hunt.
The offense has certainly hit some speed bumps. They were ranked 22 in the league going into this week’s game against the Browns. Andy Dalton has occasionally made the expected rookie mistake, but he normally atones for it later. The running game has been a huge disappointment. Cedric Benson is averaging only 3.9 per rushing attempt, and his backup, Bernard Scott, is averaging only 3.4. I don’t know if its poor scheme or poor blocking (probably a mix of both), but there just aren’t places for the Bengals’ backs to run. It could be schedule, as well. The Browns, Ravens, and Steelers, whom the Bengals have to play twice a season, are all top-five defenses. The 49ers also have a stout run defense, as does Jacksonville, and both are teams that the Bengals had trouble running against earlier this year. I can’t pinpoint the problem, but the running game was supposed to carry the offense this year so the rookies could develop, not the other way around.
Andre Smith has been an issue, too. Many people have claimed that he’s finally living up to his 1st-round potential, and that may certainly be true in the run game, but his pass-protection is horrific. It seems on some plays he’s out there with a red cape screaming “Ole!” as pass-rushers go through him like a turnstyle.
Jerome Simpson has been inconsistent, as well. At times he makes highlight-reel catches. Other times, he drops the easiest catches.
In recent weeks, the defense hasn’t been as solid as it was earlier in the year. They’ve had some injuries there, though. Leon Hall is out for the year. Carlos Dunlap missed a couple of games with a pulled hamstring. Rey Maualuga missed almost a month due to an injury. The play of the safeties has been suspect. Reggie Nelson and Chris Crocker have a tendency to get pulled out of position and give up huge plays as a result.
Overall, the Bengals are winning games, and I am truly enjoying it. On the other hand, I feel they have the potential to be so much better than they are. Nonetheless, they are finding ways to win and it seems now that Marvin has no emotional baggage to worry about (hello Ocho Stinko, T.O., and Carson Palmer![or is it goodbye?]) the team chemistry has been great. Andy Dalton’s calm demeanor combine with his intense competitiveness to provide the team with leadership skills that Palmer never had. There are no more divas on this team and it shows when they play. Hopefully they keep finding ways to win.