Why the Bengals are the real deal
The Bengals have been building one of the league’s better rosters for a number of years now, but they have never been able to take that next step and win when it matters—in January.
With the team now 3-0 and a game up over the Steelers—who will be facing several weeks without their star quarterback due to a knee injury—can the Bengals now take that next step?
If they do, why now, and not before?
To start, the Dalton-coaster is only going in one direction, for once. Andy Dalton’s career has been a study in consistent inconsistency. He has always graded out as an average quarterback, but usually with massive highs and lows in a season, netting out to a guy who couldn’t raise his game when it mattered. This season, Dalton has been playing well, with no poor games yet, and is currently the sixth-ranked PFF quarterback through three weeks. His passer rating under pressure is 108.9, and when blitzed, it’s a ludicrous 140.0. He has thrown just one interception so far this season, compared to eight touchdowns, and (adjusting for drops) has been accurate on 70.7 percent of his passes.
Nobody has ever doubted that Andy Dalton has ability, but his ability to sustain his best performances has always been an issue. If he can do that this year, the Bengals are instantly a different animal.
Another plus for Cincinnati is the return of Geno Atkins back to his best self. In 2012, there was no better defensive tackle in the game, but the knee injury he suffered derailed that progression as one of the game’s great interior forces. Though he played last year, the Atkins we saw was a mere shadow of his former self; another season removed from that injury, we are seeing the real player emerge once more. Atkins already has three sacks and 12 total pressures over his 154 snaps. He trails only Aaron Donald in our DT grades.
Atkins has the kind of ability that can completely disrupt an offense, both from collapsing the pocket inside as a pass-rushing force, and from blowing up runs with leverage. If he plays to this kind of level all season long, he’ll be right back in the conversation for the best DT in football, and the Bengals will be a much tougher proposition to attack.
The team is bristling with weaponry on offense. The Bengals have always had a pretty good line, but now they have an abundance of skill players too. A.J. Green doesn’t have to be the guy any longer, with Marvin Jones, Giovanni Bernard, and Tyler Eifert, in particular, all capable of conjuring a big play from nowhere at a moment’s notice. Eifert actually had a bit of a nightmare against the Ravens, surrendering a sack and a hit as a pass-protector, dropping one of the two passes sent his way (and catching none), as well as being manhandled as a run blocker, but despite all of that, he still has a positive grade on the season (his previous two games were so good).
This is a team that should be there come January, but that has been the case for awhile. Now they look like a team that can contend for real; the only question remaining is whether a couple of weak links be exposed later in those key matchups. So far, Cincinnati is rolling, and needs to be taken seriously.