The Cincinnati Bengals are a quarter of the way through the 2011 regular season, so it's time to evaluate their progress thus far. While not quite ready for the honor roll, the team has pleasantly surprised thus far, going 2-2 and shutting down some critics who thought this team might finish 0-16.
Offense-C+ The offense has been a mixed bag thus far, as we all thought it might. A rookie quarterback working with a whole new set of wideouts under a brand new offensive coordinator without any off season preparation doesn't suggest a quick start out of the gate. The Bengals have moved the ball fairly well between the twenties, but have bogged down in the red zone. Cincinnati ranks 21st in the NFL in red zone scoring percentage at 41%. The other obvious offensive issue is on third down. The Bengals have converted just 28% of their third downs, placing them tied with the Chicago Bears for 29th in the NFL. Even so, there is great promise with this unit. Andy Dalton has shown himself to be much more poised in the pocket than the typical NFL rookie and his resilience after mistakes is encouraging. AJ Green is an emerging star who will demand double coverage. Cedric Benson has been steady in the backfield. With Bobbie Williams back this week, the offensive line should improve as well. The NFL doesn't grade on a curve, so the grade stands, but this mark is higher than most expected at this point in the season.
Defense-A- The Cincinnati Bengals have the number one ranked defense in the NFL at the quarter pole. It's been the stubbornness of Mike Zimmer's unit that has kept the Bengals in games at Cleveland and against Buffalo, allowing the offense to come back and win. They've done well against the run, shutting down Peyton Hillis and Frank Gore. They've also managed consistent pressure with their front seven, allowing the secondary to remain in coverage. More than anything, the Bengals have tackled extremely well. Teams just aren't getting additional yardage from whiffs by defenders. With a couple of exceptions, Cincinnati has forced opponents to mount extended drives to score and hasn't yielded too many big plays. The only downside is their lack of turnovers. The defense has forced only four turnovers in four games thus far. Given their ability to keep opposing offenses pinned on their side of the field, a few more turnovers giving the offense a shorter field could make a considerable difference.
Special Teams-A Mike Nugent and Kevin Huber are a big part of the team's success thus far. Nugent is getting touchbacks on 67% of his kicks thus far and has made all ten of his field goal attempts thus far. The kick coverage teams are also doing a nice job hemming in returners when they do come out, keeping kick return average under 30 yards and guaranteeing long fields to navigate against the defense. Huber is averaging 43.8 yards per punt, which is only 20th in the NFL, but he's put nine punts inside the 20 thus far, second in the league. He's also tied for fourth in number of fair catches off his punts, indicating his hang time is very good as well as the Bengals' coverage. The consistency of these two have made up for some of the offense's shortcomings thus far and kept the team in a position to win.
Coaching-B The coaches have done well so far. Jay Gruden has done a nice job calling plays and a better job working with and teaching this young offense. We've seen improvement on a weekly basis which is all we can ask for. Mike Zimmer is once again showing himself to be among the elite of NFL defensive coordinators. His players are playing disciplined football, and even though there are several new faces on that side, they've been very good at maintaining their responsibilities. Particularly impressive has been his work with the defensive line which is developing into a very deep and powerful group. Head coach Marvin Lewis has shown a steady hand with his team. I'm sure he's relieved at not having to deal with the drama he's been forced to confront over his tenure in Cincinnati. I still question some of his in-game decisions, most glaringly not trying to score against the 49ers at the end of the first half and eschewing a Mike Nugent field goal to attempt a fourth and short in that game. Overall though, this group of coaches has handled what could have been an adverse situation very well.
The next quarter is crucial for the Bengals. They're presented with the opportunity of playing just one team, Tennessee, who has a winning record in that span. If the Bengals could get through the next four at 3-1, then we could be talking about them making a legitimate playoff run in the second half. Not many thought that possible when the season began.
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