As the proverbial gun signaled the end of the first half and the Cincinnati Bengals trotted into the locker room with a 24-10 lead over the Washington Redskins, a strong current blew through FedEx Field, playfully teasing Robert Griffin III’s dreadlocks and further pushing back Mike Shanahan‘s already receding widow’s peak.
But it wasn’t an easterly wind coming off the Chesapeake Bay; it was a wall of collected sighs of relief coming from Who Dey Nation in the west.It took defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer a couple of weeks, but he finally had his boys back on track. Specifically on the defensive line where starting DE Michael Johnson and DT Geno Atkins decided to celebrate the return of recovering DE Carlos Dunlap by combining for 4 sacks (3 for Johnson, 1 for Atkins). Even Dunlap decided to get in on the action in a big way when he ran over Griffin III and recovered the resulting fumble, which set up a go-ahead touchdown drive that started on the Redskins’ 12-yard-line.
It was, by far, the most triumphant halftime of the season for Bengals fans as they stood up in unison, took Cincy’s 35.5 points-allowed average from the first two games and told the rest of the league to shove it where the sun don’t shine because THESE were the real Bengals. THIS was the team bound for a second consecutive playoff berth, but why stop there when there’s a beautiful, shiny Lombardi Trophy just beyond the horizon.
Then the second half started.
In all fairness, the Bengals were only outscored 21-14 in the second half, and they did fight off RGIII long enough to secure a 7-point win after forcing the Redskins offense into a damn-near-impossible 3rd and 45 hail mary attempt to push the game into overtime. Still, what’s so disconcerting about this fairly surprising victory is how easily the Bengals slipped back into their old, faulty defensive ways after showing so much promise early on.
Fans who watched closely even saw the Bengals pack all of their defensive woes in one metaphorical nutshell when they surrendered an 80-yard touchdown drive at the top of the 3rd quarter after only allowing 68 yards in the entire first half. Finally, when it became clear that the Redskins would not go quietly into that good night, the Bengals decided to crack open another cold can of offensive explosion for the second week in a row. In the second half, Bengals QB Andy Dalton turned on the jets, throwing for 2 of his 3 total touchdowns, one coming on a hard-fought 6-yard catch-and-run from TE Jermaine Gresham – his first of the season – and the other on 59-yard sprint from emerging Y.A.C. machine, WR Andrew Hawkins.
At this point, it is quite clear how offensive coordinator, Jay Gruden wants to conduct business on that side of the ball. He’s got a high velocity group of young, speedy receivers itching to hit the home run, and Gruden is tuning his game plan so they get every chance to do just that. It’s also apparent that Hawkins is the No. 2 option behind WR A.J. Green. For the second straight week, both Green and Hawkins recorded touchdown catches. It simply feels different when those get their hands on the ball; you hold your breath in anticipation that you are about to see a small pass over the middle turn into a lightning-fast surge to the endzone.
Of course, this doesn’t happen unless Dalton does his job under center, but that quite frankly (shout out to Stephen A.) hasn’t been an issue at all over the last 2 games. The jury is definitively in on this guy; he stands tall and confident in the pocket and never seems rattled after he is driven in the turf, which is an absolute godsend considering the Bengals offensive line has surrendered 12 sacks over the first 3 games – the most sacks given up in that time frame since the 2000 season.
As it stands now, the Bengals are 2-1 and currently sitting in second place in the AFC North behind the Baltimore Ravens after they pulled out an unlikely 31-30 victory over the New England Patriots late in the 4th quarter on Sunday Night Football. So far, Cincinnati’s run-and-gun tactics have worked well for them, yielding an average offensive output of 36 points over the last two weeks.
However, despite their impressive point tallies, their average margin-of-victory is 7. Even though the Bengals defense came out strong in the first half, putting enough distance between them and the Redskins to pull out a road win, the same major issues remain for Cincinnati when it comes to stopping the other team.
Simply put: the last team this offensively potent to win a championship was the 2009 New Orleans Saints, but even then they needed a massive defensive improvement and a stellar turnover differential to lift the hardware in February. The Bengals won’t be able to do this forever, especially when they have 3 more games slated against the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Ravens.
From now on out, getting the opposing offense off the field and putting the ball back in Dalton’s hands is absolutely paramount; it has to be. If this team can impose its will on defense and still bring the offensive fireworks, this could be a historic year for this franchise; I sincerely mean that. But if they can’t, Who Dey Nation should prepare to chalk this season up as another drop in the orange and black futility bucket because they will inevitable get exposed by those tough AFC North defenses.
FINAL SCORE: Cincinnati (2-1) 38 Washington (1-2) 31
Top Performers: WR A.J. Green: 9 receptions, 183 yards, 1 TD
DE Michael Johnson: 6 total tackles (4 for-loss), 3 sacks, 1 pass defended, 7 QB hits