This hot Bengals start feels different ... and that's a good thing

ByJohn Clayton ESPN logo
Monday, September 28, 2015

BALTIMORE -- A 3-0 Cincinnati Bengals start isn't unusual. The Bengals started 3-0 last year. Hot starts in Cincinnati are no longer a reason for heightened optimism because in each of the last four seasons, things have always ended the same way: a loss in a wild-card game. It's been too predictable.

But I'll go ahead and say it: This year, there is a different feel to the Bengals' 3-0 start, because this is as good as they've been from a personnel standpoint. They are loaded at wide receiver, at tight end and in the backfield. On defense, defensive tackle Geno Atkins is back to dominating in the middle of the defense, and the secondary is deep. You could argue the Bengals have the most complete team in the AFC North, and that's including the QB situation, because Andy Dalton is playing better. This version of the QB might finally be ready to become a factor in the playoffs.

"Every year, Andy improves a couple things in his game," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "This year, it's his leadership and his ability to take control of the offense and the game."

Dalton showed his growth in the fourth quarter of Sunday's 28-24 win over the Baltimore Ravens. Elvis Dumervil hit him with 6:49 left in the game, and the ball bounced to linebacker C.J. Mosley, who ran 41 yards for a touchdown; the Ravens jumped to a 17-14 lead. You could hear the muttering in the press box and back in Cincinnati: "There he goes again, giving away another big play in a fourth quarter."

But Dalton bounced back in a way few expected. He came out on the next offensive play, sent A.J. Green down the left seam and rifled a bullet that landed perfectly between two Ravens defenders covering him in a rare zone look. Green fought off tacklers and went 80 yards for a touchdown that put the Bengals ahead.

Joe Flacco answered with a 79-yard touchdown drive, but again Dalton answered, completing four of five passes in an 80-yard game-winning drive.

"The last touchdown [a 7-yard touchdown pass to Green] was huge," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "The one where he had the fumble, he tried to hold on at the last second. He thought he had a play there. He's always learning, and that's the good thing about Andy Dalton. I'm just pleased for him today."

Dalton will never be confused with the top handful of quarterbacks, but he is starting to make plays that the best QBs make. Sunday's win over the Ravens marked three straight wins and four wins in the last five times he's faced Flacco. Last year, he beat Matt Ryan, Flacco twice, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning.

Earlier in the week, Ravens coach John Harbaugh called the Bengals the most talented team in the league, and while that quote could have been as much about motivating his team as complimenting an opponent, the Bengals are playing like one of the best teams in the league. With the Ravens 0-3 and the Pittsburgh Steelers awaiting news on how long they will be without Roethlisberger, the Bengals can start to take control of the AFC North.

"I still remember last year," Whitworth said. "We got off to a 3-0 start and we were playing a New England team that everyone was writing off because of their start. We get beat big [43-17]. But this is different than last year."

Quietly, that difference is also tied to the ownership and how players feel in Cincinnati. For so many years, Bengals players wondered (and griped) about the frugal nature of ownership. Over the past few years, the Bengals have become one of the most active teams in the league in retaining (and paying) top talent.

Dalton got paid. Green got paid. Whitworth just got a new deal done. Welcome to a happy locker room.

Dalton is having a blast. Despite his playoff losses, his teammates believe in him. After the game, he joked with Green about a dropped pass early in the first quarter and how Dalton is going to throw him the first pass of the game so Green can come back and have a 227-yard day like he did Sunday. Last week, he yelled over a crowd of reporters around Giovani Bernard, encouraging him to give good answers.

"I'm not the only one out here making plays," said Dalton, who finished with 383 yards. "We have players like Jeremy Hill, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. Plus, we have two of the best tackles [Whitworth and Andre Smith]in the league."

After three weeks, this Bengal team is for real. Perhaps this is the year we see it in the postseason.

Inside the Huddle

The Ravens defense isn't the same without Terrell Suggs. Dumervil remains a great pass-rusher, but he can now can be doubled or simply handled if facing a top tackle. Against the Bengals, the Ravens resorted to more blitzes and stayed in man coverage most of the game. Over the past two weeks, the Ravens have given up 65 points.

The Big Ben injury comes at a bad time. Over the next six weeks, the Steelers face the Ravens (Thursday), Chargers, Cardinals, Chiefs, Bengals and Raiders. That's a tough stretch that includes a quick turnaround.

Miami Dolphins coach Joe Philbin rightfully put the embarrassing 41-14 home loss to Buffalo on himself. He said the accountability starts with him. With his team 1-2, Philbin is clearly on the coaching hot seat after a disastrous two-week stretch. His offense is averaging 17 points a game and his team has been outscored 57-20 in the first half of three games. The team heads to London next week to play the New York Jets.

A couple backup quarterbacks put up great stats. Luke McCown completed 31 of 38 passes for 310 yards for the Saints in a 27-22 loss in Carolina. Brandon Weeden was 22-of-26 for 232 yards in a 39-28 loss to Atlanta. The problem was that neither backup had a touchdown pass.Ryan Mallettwas efficient enough in the Houston Texans' 19-9 win over Tampa Bay. Jimmy Clausen had no chance against the Seattle Seahawks in a 26-0 loss in Seattle. Overall, backups were 2-2 Sunday, 2-3 if you include Kirk Cousins in the Redskins' loss on Thursday night. This Thursday, Michael Vick will get the start against Baltimore.

Hitting the reset button on 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick might have been a mistake. In making the offense simpler for Kaepernick, it made life easier for opposing defenses. "Their passing game has just simplified so much, it was easy for us to anticipate routes, gets some good breaks on the ball," said Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu after a 47-7 blowout of the 49ers. Kaepernick completed 9 of 19 passes for 67 yards and four interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns.

Injuries clearly affected running backs in several games, but overall we saw an uptick in production. Marshawn Lynch of the Seahawks was questionable with a calf injury. He had only five carries for 14 yards and left the game with a slight hamstring injury. Lamar Miller of the Miami Dolphins was also questionable, in his case because of an ankle injury. He had seven carries for 38 yards in the loss to the Bills. The Philadelphia Eagles finally got their running game going with 123 yards on 39 carries in the 24-17 win over the New York Jets, but they did it withoutDeMarco Murray, who was inactive with a hamstring injury. Overall, though, it was good week for backs,with eight 100-yard games so far in Week 3. The first two weeks had eight total.

The Raiders won in Cleveland, 27-20, their first road win since 2013. Derek Carr threw for 314 yards and hit Amari Cooper on eight of 11 targets for 134 yards. With that win, the Raiders have become favorites next Sunday in Chicago. That's also a first since 2013.

Though scheduling can never be perfect, the league needs to look into some of the competitive disadvantages of having a good team wait until Week 3 to get its home opener. Five teams had their home opener this week, and none of those teams have winning records. The Lions and Ravens are 0-3. Seattle, Miami and Tennessee are 1-2. Scheduling 32 teams isn't easy, but having playoff-caliber teams trying to dig out of slow starts isn't ideal.