The Cincinnati Bengals have reached the "mid-term" with surprisingly good marks. To this point, they've been like that kid in class all the teachers had just assumed would fail based on the past, but somehow starts getting A's and B's. All the teachers look on in surprise wondering just what has changed. With that in mind, here's this instructor's Bengals mid-term report complete with comments.
Offense: B Cincinnati entered the season with a remade offense in terms of skill position players and offensive coordinator, all of whom had the duration of training camp to get things together before the season started. The preseason games offered absolutely no encouragement that the offense would be anything but a disaster, and at times through the first four games, the spotty execution put the team in some holes. Compared to last season, the offense is averaging 15 fewer yards per game. Somehow they're scoring five points more per game though. Two developments explain this rise in efficiency. First, although the offense struggled mightily on third down in the first four games, they've been a model of efficiency in recent games. Overall their conversion rate is at 37%, good for 18th in the league. More telling is an increase in red zone efficiency. Cincinnati is converting 52% of the time inside the 20 compared to just 48% last year. That might not seem like much, but considering last year Cincinnati lost seven games by less than one score, the difference between a field goal and a touchdown can be the difference between winning and losing. Cincinnati's 2011 margin of victory thus far is a little deceiving. The results say that only two of their six wins have been within one score, but a closer look shows that every victory was in question down to the final minutes. Late touchdowns against Cleveland, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, and Seattle all increased the final margin of victory, but each conversion has been critical.
Defense: A Mike Zimmer's defensive unit has been the driving force behind the Bengals' success. Last year's defense surrendered 24.7 points per game and finished 15th in the league. This year's defense is ranked fourth after eight games, giving up only 17.5 points per game. Shaving an entire touchdown off your average points allowed will go a long way toward helping your bottom line. A lot of that credit must go to the offense which has exercised excellent ball security and not put the defense in positions where they have to defend short fields. Opponents are averaging an additional five yards per point scored this year compared to last year. Another offensive factor is the degree to which the Bengals have controlled the clock, especially during this five game winning streak.
Special Teams A Darrin Simmons' special teams unit has also played a huge role. A healthy Mike Nugent has returned and converted all but one of his field goal attempts. Last season the Bengals connected on only 77% of their field goals. In fact, had Marvin Lewis had more faith in Nugent, the team may be 7-1 right now as Nugent wasn't allowed to attempt a 50 yarder in a two point loss at Denver. Nugent also ranks in the top ten in touchback percentage on his kickoffs. The Bengals rank third in the NFL in non offensive touchdowns, including Brandon Tate's crucial punt return for a touchdown in Seattle. It was Tate's and Adam Jones' return skills that led directly to 17 Bengals points in that victory. Perhaps the biggest improvement is in the punting game. Kevin Huber ranks third in punts per game in the NFL and has been a legitimate weapon in that department. He's tied for fifth with 14 punts placed inside the 20 and fourth with 12 opposing fair catches, a testament both to his hang time and the coverage.
It's truly been a team effort that has gotten this previously marginal "student" to the head of the class. But it's only mid-term. Final grades don't come out yet for eight more weeks. That kind of concerted effort will have to continue if the Bengals are going to graduate with honors.
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