Yesterday's narrow loss to the Denver Broncos was a bitter pill in many ways, but it proved one thing: Andy Dalton and this offense can move the football. Yes, they need to improve on their third down and red zone conversion, but the fears that without Carson, Chad and TO this offense would struggle appear to be unfounded.
Over the next six weeks, the Bengals will face opponents who are eminently beatable. Not until the second week of November when the Steelers come to town will they face a foe who looks better on paper. The now 2-0 Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans look to be their stiffest tests.
That's not to say that the Bengals will be favored or a prediction they will win these games. This is a young team, thin in some key areas, that is working with very little wiggle room, as witnessed yesterday. They'll need to minimize mistakes and convert on opportunities given much better than yesterday if they're to make a run.
Two areas jump out as areas needing immediate improvement: short yardage situations and safety play.
In short yardage, the Bengals are struggling. They did a decent job in keeping Dalton in reasonable down and distance yesterday, and yet were miserable in converting, not getting a single conversion on third down until under two minutes remained in the game. Some of it appears to be schematic, but the majority is offensive line push. The center of the line just isn't controlling the line of scrimmage in those situations. Either Livings and Boling do a better job, or Jay Gruden needs to call more plays to the perimeter.
The Bengals safeties gave up big chunks yesterday. Chris Crocker badly misjudged his angle on Eric Decker's touchdown, knocking off Nate Clements instead of the Denver receiver. Reggie Nelson was largely invisible after a good game against Cleveland, but even there, he lost coverage for a long touchdown pass. The defense is doing a very good job on an every down basis. For the safeties to break down and allow a couple of huge gainers every game negates that effort. And like yesterday, it can cost the Bengals the game.
The next six games before the Steelers come to town will make or break this season in Cincinnati. If they can go 4-2 or better, they enter the second half at 5-3 with a key divisional opponent at home. This young Bengal team has already impressed out of the gate. If they can continue to improve, they may continue to surprise as well.
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