What an important win for this Cincinnati team early in the 2017 season.
Heading into their last home tilt before a Week 6 bye, the Bengals had to face an incoming 3-1 Bills team that had been covering with technique what they generally lacked in talent. As with other well-coached teams who do the same thing, the Bengals responded by asking their most talented offensive skill players to physically dominate the competition.
A.J. Green, despite a couple mistakes, answered that bell in a big way. Because of his impact on the game, the Bengals head into their bye at 2-3, with three consecutive strong performances, two consecutive wins, and very real forward momentum to help push them down the stretch.
Four Quick Notes
1.) It wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops for Green – he only pulled in 7 of his total 13 targets, and both of Andy Dalton’s interceptions were on throws to him that were accurate and should’ve been caught. Green later gave up a fumble while he was trying to shake free of a tackle from Bills safety Micah Hyde and allowed linebacker Lorenzo Alexander to hit him from behind.
It’s fair to say that, as much as Green was a reason that Cincinnati won this game, he had more to do with the final score being as close as it was than any other player. He was the star of the show for the Bengals this week, for better and for worse.
2.) On the flip side, the box score scout would take a much greater issue with Andy Dalton’s performance in this game than he deserves. In rainy conditions, Dalton completed 22 of his 36 passing attempts for 328 yards and a touchdown – a line that would look much nicer without the two interceptions that largely weren’t his fault. Both picks were near or over 15 yards down the field as well – even without accounting for YAC, Dalton would’ve been around 10.0 yards per attempt (and Green would be above 200 yards).
This is a third in a series of relatively strong games that Dalton has had since Lazor has taken the helm of the offense, and the comparison between Dalton in three games with Lazor versus his first two games under Zampese is striking. Without breaking down every detail: his completion rate is up from 54.6 to 74.2, and his 0-4 touchdown-interception ratio is up to 7-2. In a division where every starting quarterback has fallen flat in multiple weeks, Dalton’s consistently strong performances with Lazor are a huge boon.
3.) Divisional Notes: Expanding on that idea with Dalton: Ben Roethlisberger put up a garbage line at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars, throwing five interceptions without a touchdown in a 30-9 loss. Cleveland decided to change quarterbacks at halftime in a 17-4 loss to the New York Jets, which gives the team a bad look despite backup Kevin Hogan’s respectable numbers in relief. In Oakland, the Ravens to a 30-7 road victory against a team fielding a backup quarterback, with Joe Flacco going 19/26 for 222 yards, no scores.
The Bengals will have two weeks to prepare for a matchup in Pittsburgh that looks far more favorable than most would’ve thought entering the season. At 2-3 and third in the division, with Pittsburgh leading the division by tiebreaker at 3-2 over Baltimore, Cincinnati could lead the AFC North race by the end of October, after a home tilt against an Indianapolis team that may or may not have Andrew Luck returned to them by then.
4.) Conference Notes: The AFC is unusually wide open in 2017 – aside from the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs, no team has more than three wins on the season through week 5. Aside from the Chiefs and the New York Jets, who’ve won their last 3 en route to a 3-2 record, the Bengals are the only AFC team on a consecutive multi-game winning streak.
Cincinnati is currently the 12th seed in the AFC playoff picture, but with the Bills in 2nd sitting at 3-2 and the Colts at 14th sitting at 2-3, the seeding is essentially just tiebreakers attempting to linearize a puddle of oil. It’s an even more futile exercise than organizing playoff teams after five games usually is.
• A.J. Green: Even though Green had a handful of critical errors and cost himself and the team several yards, he still had a monster game. Like Dalton (although not nearly as bad to start), Green has had a strong string of games since Lazor took control of the offense, finishing each of the last three games with a touchdown while accumulating 363 yards on 22 catches.
In a season where Green has had to cover for missing skill players on offense, he’s answered the bell in terms of production. In terms of fantasy production, Green’s 98.4 points on the season is behind only DeAndre Hopkins’ 101.3 and Antonio Brown’s 100.5 at the position, and substantially ahead of fourth-best Stefon Diggs at 86.3. For multiple years, even the best national opinions of Green have ranked him a cut below the likes of Brown, Odell Beckham Jr., and Julio Jones. This may be the year he finally joins that club.
• Vontaze Burfict: A number of other defensive players had strong games – Geno Atkins, Carl Lawson – but Burfict has to get his due after not having a shot through the first three games. The linebacker lead the team with 10 tackles, including a sack on his lone pass rush attempt, and broke up a pass when he dropped into coverage.
Burfict has come back strong from his suspension, and the defense looks set at the linebacker position with him playing alongside Kevin Minter and Nick Vigil (and Lawson, if he must be counted as a linebacker).The group rounds out a defense that, through five weeks, is second in the NFL in both yards (262.8) and points (16.6) per game, behind Denver and Buffalo respectively. If Burfict is truly the emotional leader of this defense (as many players said when he was suspended) that’s an endorsement of him.
• Tyler Boyd: Boyd didn’t have a particularly bad game or anything, but he suffered an MCL sprain against Buffalo and should miss a couple weeks. Even with a bye week between now and Cincinnati’s next action, Boyd still has to face an uphill battle against the receiver depth chart when he returns. Brandon LaFell reemerged against Buffalo after disappearing earlier in the season, recording 5 catches on 8 targets for 32 yards, and John Ross may return and assert a spot in the lineup before Boyd is healthy.
Pittsburgh, sitting on the other side of Cincinnati’s bye week, is a team that’s been under the microscope nationally throughout this season. After several projected the Steelers to have a world-class offense coming into the season, it’s a unit that’s only played well in bits and pieces. They’re 3-2, but their wins and losses have both come in situations in which they were substantially favored, not against perceived top-level competition.
Now, coming off the aforementioned bomb of a loss at home against the Jaguars, the Steelers have one road game before they get to host the Bengals. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, that game is against Kansas City, who’s won every game this season with authority and have perhaps the best home-field advantage in the league. It’s possible that Roethlisberger’s offense can rally, but strictly on prior results it seems likelier that Pittsburgh faces Cincinnati with even lower team morale then they have now.
A more detailed breakdown of the matchup will be included in the Week 8 preview.
– Andy Hammel is the managing editor for cover32/Bengals and covers the Cincinnati Bengals for cover32. Follow him on Twitter at @Andy_Hammel, and the cover32 Bengals team at @cover32_CIN.