1. What the hell did Andy Dalton do this summer to transform from notoriously average quarterback to unbeatable football deity?
Have you not seen the new fierce mohawk/wave he is sporting? Clearly this is where he is deriving his new power from!
I think about half the league would like to know what he did in the offseason and have their quarterbacks do the exact same. He did spend a few weeks with quarterback guru, Tom House, and his mechanics (particularly his footwork) do look better. However, I think the biggest part of his improvement is a combination of three things:
First, he has his weapons back. Most who talk about Dalton’s struggles in 2014 forget that he was without both his number two receiver (Marvin Jones) and difference-making tight end (Tyler Eifert) for the entire season last year (well, all but about 10 snaps). On top of that, Giovani Bernard was banged up all year and missed a few games and A.J. Green missed about five games as well, including their playoff game. To give you an idea of how decimated the Bengals' receiving options were in 2014, with Eifert and Jones out all year, their top two receivers for at least two games (including the wild card game) were Mohamed Sanu (a solid number three) and Greg Little. I think a lot of fantasy football owners are starting to see just how good Eifert is and how his presence – or lack thereof – affected Dalton last season.
Second is the fact that it is Dalton’s second season in Hue Jackson’s system. When Dalton broke into the league in 2011, he had Jay Gruden as his offensive coordinator. Gruden’s system was never a good fit for Dalton. Gruden used the pass to set up the pass. He was completely unaware of how to use a running back (or a tight end for that matter) and required Dalton to throw way too much. Jackson’s system has implemented a strong running attack and focuses the passing attack on Dalton’s strengths and as a result, Dalton looks more comfortable and his numbers have greatly improved. Dalton can be very productive in the right system – like Hue Jackson has proven. He has some physical limitations and is not the type of quarterback that will carry a team like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, etc., but he is a very smart and very good quarterback, and surrounded by the right team, he can lead a team deep in the playoffs
Last is confidence. Dalton looks comfortable and confident this year, something I wouldn’t have said in the past. It seems as though the game is slowing down for him and he has really taken over this team as a leader.
2. If Cincy does have a weakness on their loaded offense, what is it and how can it be exploited?
They don’t have a weakness at any skill positions, and though their offensive line is a top five unit, they do have a weakness at center. Russell Bodine is a second-year center and has struggled against big nose tackles. Vince Wilfork may no longer be the player he once was, but he is a big, smart player, just the type of tackle Bodine struggles with. And, while all teams have to be aware of where J.J. Watt is lined up, the Bengals have to be especially cognizant to make sure if Watt moves inside or stunts inside that Bodine has help.
The other concern I have for Monday night is the right side of the line. Right tackle Andre Smith and right guard Kevin Zeitler are both very good lineman, but Smith missed the last game with a concussion and Zeitler left the last game in a walking boot. I believe both will play on Monday, but neither have practiced yet this week. If one or both cannot go (or are limited) on Monday, that could be a concern.
3. Does the Bengals' defense have a weakness at any position groups that can be taken advantage of?
On the defensive side of the ball, the Bengals' weakness is at the linebacker position. While the return of Vontaze Burfict has made this less of a weakness, he is still not 100% and this is where teams will try and exploit the Bengals - particularly in pass coverage. If I were an opposing offensive coordinator (unfortunately I am not), I would look to get someone matched up on Rey Maualuga or Vontaze Burfict. If you can get a good pass-catching tight end or running back matched up on one of those linebackers, it will normally turn out favorably for the offense. Remember Owen Daniels' big game in the 2012 wild card matchup? I (along with many Bengals fans) still remember watching Daniels run wild all over the field with a big mane of hair (Maualuga) trailing five yards behind him.
I sure hope so. I am getting very tired of these three hour stays in the playoffs!
This team feels different than the previous four that made the playoffs and lost in the wild card round. Of the Bengals' last four seasons, three of those appearances were as the wild card and they simply were playing a team, on the road, who was better than they were – and I think if Bengals fans were honest with themselves, I don’t think many thought they would win either game in Houston (2011 and 2012), and they were just too injured last year in Indianapolis. The one that hurt was the loss at home to the Chargers in 2013. That being said, I think we are seeing this team mature (particularly Dalton) and I do believe this team has the ability to not only win one game in the postseason, but make a deep run.
As for the Patriots, that is a great question and I hope we get to see it play out on the field in January. The Bengals have the more balanced team and a better roster top to bottom, but the Patriots, in my opinion, still have such a huge advantage at quarterback and head coach (oh, and six Super Bowl appearances with four rings) that the Patriots would have to be significant favorites. My confidence in the Bengals' chances would depend on where the game is being played. If it is in Foxboro (as I suspect it would be), I would give the Bengals a puncher’s chance - 25% chance at best. However, if the game is played in Cincinnati, I would give the Bengals about a 50-50 chance of winning. The Bengals are very tough at home and shut the Patriots down the last time the two teams played in Cincinnati (2013 – 13-6). Should they match up in the playoffs, I wouldn’t consider it a shock if the Bengals were to win, but I would consider it an upset.
5. What is your prediction for Monday Night's game?
The Bengals have struggled against the Texans in big games. While I wouldn’t say this is a big game, the Texans are still in the hunt in the AFC South, it is a Monday night game, DeAndre Hopkins is very dangerous, and any defense that has J.J. Watt has to be a concern. That being said, I think the discrepancy between these teams is just too wide and this will be the most potent offense the Texans have faced thus far. I will say Bengals 34-17.
A big thank you to Scott for stopping by. You can catch all of his and others' excellent work on the Bengals over at Cincy Jungle.
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