Are the Bengals Now the AFC’s Best Team?

The Broncos’ defense looks atrocious. The Patriots’ defense doesn’t look much better. Rob Gronkowski is done for the season. It’s safe to say that the AFC’s top two teams have glaring vulnerabilities. But is there a better AFC team out there somewhere? Are the 9-4 Bengals perhaps suddenly a serious contender to reach the Super Bowl?

Defensively, the Bengals have taken some hits themselves. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins and starting cornerback Leon Hall are both done for the year, two huge blows. Adam Jones, formerly the nickel corner, has taken Hall’s place. 2nd-year defensive tackle Brandon Thompson has taken Geno’s place.

So far, Thompson has done a decent job. Jones has been…beatable. Now a starter, the more he’s been on the field, the more he’s been exposed. Jones was pretty much abused by Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen in Week 13. The new nickel, safety Chris Crocker, now plays inside where Leon Hall used to in nickel packages. Crocker is not exactly the type you want matched up in the slot on a Wes Welker-type receiver. Even worse for the Bengals, their other starting corner, Terence Newman, is out with a knee injury for a few weeks, leaving the secondary even more vulnerable.

The Bengals D-line is still a solid unit. They’ve kept teams under 100 rushing yards in 3 of the 4 games since Geno went down. However, their pass rush is significantly lacking. They haven’t gotten to the quarterback once in the last 3 games. The front four isn’t getting there on it’s own, and blitzes aren’t quite as effective with a lower level of talent behind them in the secondary.

The Bengals linebacking corps is also a solid unit. They’re aggressive against the run, plugging holes quickly as soon as they recognize the play. However, their aggressiveness gets them beat in pass coverage, as they are susceptible to play-action. In man coverage, they are at a disadvantage vs good tight ends and pass-catching running backs. Against the Colts, they struggled against the shallow crossers Indy kept running at them.

However, while we’ve pointed out many of the weaknesses on their defense, the Bengals still rank 6th in the NFL with 18.8 points allowed per game and 8th in the league with 320.5 total yards allowed per game. Overall they are still a solid unit with a good mix of speed and strength. Of the AFC teams either in the playoffs or competing for a spot, they might in fact have the best defense. That could be a difference-maker in this year’s postseason where several weak defensive units will be on display.

On offense, Andy Dalton has been up and down all season. His inconsistent play has prevented Cincinnati from possibly having the #1 overall seed. At his worst, Dalton stays on his receivers too long, not recognizing soon enough that the defense has eliminated them as an option. He also predetermines a lot of his throws instead of reading the coverage and reacting to it.

However, last week against the Colts, Dalton played the way he’ll need to if Cincinnati plans on going deep into the playoffs. A large part of this was due to offensive coordinator, Jay Gruden, putting him in good situations. Gruden distributed his personnel brilliantly, aligning A.J. Green all over the field, spreading his two tight ends out across the formation, and getting Giovani Bernard isolated on linebackers.

One play in the 2nd quarter stood out as a great illustration of what Gruden did right. On a 1st-and-10 from their own 34, Gruden decided to go with 3 wide receivers, a tight end and Giovani Bernard. The Bengals lined up in shotgun with an empty backfield. Bernard was aligned in the slot to the left, with a receiver outside of him. To the other side, there were two more receivers and a tight end. As you can see below, this spread out the defense, clearly defining the man coverage for Dalton:

Gio in slot 1

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

The Colts ended up blitzing the slot corner to Dalton’s right, with the safety behind him taking his man. But Dalton had a linebacker matched up on Bernard. For a running back with Bernard’s athleticism, this is a huge mismatch, and one that Dalton knew he could exploit right away. This virtually rendered the slot blitz irrelevant. Bernard attacked the linebacker, driving him outside initially:
Gio in slot 2

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

Then Bernard cut back inside, easily creating separation. Because of the man coverage, no one was there to help in the middle of the field. Dalton was able to get rid of the ball quickly for a 22-yard gain.
Gio in slot 3

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

The biggest thing about this type of play is that it got one of the Bengals’ best playmakers isolated in a favorable matchup. It’s self-explanatory why this is so important. The other thing it did was define the coverage QUICKLY for Dalton. He was able to make his decision early and fire the ball with confidence. This throw in particular wasn’t necessarily a tough one. But it was a microcosm of the decisive passes Dalton was able to make all day on Sunday.

When the coverage is clearly defined for Dalton, he is at his best. He can throw the ball with confidence, which always increases accuracy. If Gruden can continue to consistently put Dalton in successful situations where he can get his best play-makers the ball, the Bengals will have a legitimate shot of representing the AFC in the Super Bowl.

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