After only two games, the Cincinnati Bengals are beginning to flip the script in the AFC North.
Cincinnati were considered third in the division’s pecking order by many coming into the season, but impressive showings through the first two weeks have solidified their status as serious challengers to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens.
Baltimore experienced Cincinnati’s prowess first-hand on Thursday night, when they were dealt a 34-23 loss as the Bengals’ offence flexed its muscles in the first half.
Cincinnati haven’t lacked for weapons over recent years, but Andy Dalton’s inconsistencies have at times held back an attack that could otherwise be more dangerous.
That hasn’t been the case through two games this season as Dalton has utilised the skill players around him to get the offence rolling.
Against the Ravens, the quarterback led four first-half drives that ended in touchdowns, including three end zone connections with wide receiver A.J. Green.
From the start of the second half in their opener against the Indianapolis Colts, until intermission on Thursday, the Bengals scored six touchdowns and a field goal in eight drives. They’re the first team to drop at least 34 points in each of their first two contests since the 2013 Denver Broncos, who had a historic offence and reached the Super Bowl.
It’s highly unlikely Cincinnati’s offence will reach the same heights as that Broncos team, but there are reasons to believe they’ll sustain their improved play on that side of the ball for the rest of the season.
For one, this is the first full year Bill Lazor’s playbook will be used after the offensive coordinator took over from Ken Zampese following Week 2 of last season.
In Lazor’s system, Green has been liberally moved around the formation to keep defences on their toes, while the attack as a whole has opened up and used varying tempos.
Green, who has been targeted 17 times through two games, continues to flourish as one of the most underrated receivers in the NFL. He now has 61 touchdowns since entering the league 2011 – fifth-most among all players.
Cincinnati also have an emerging star in running back Joe Mixon, who clearly looks improved in his second season.
Mixon’s final stat line of 84 rushing yards on 21 carries and lone reception for 3 yards doesn’t jump off the page, but the 22-year-old has looked Le’Veon Bell-like with his patience and start-stop agility.
Like Bell did after his rookie season, Mixon came into the year with a trimmed physique and the results are speaking for themselves.
He’s also been helped by additions to the offensive line, which has looked more than capable after being one of the worst lines in the league last year, especially at run-blocking.
The Bengals haven’t even got second-year wide receiver John Ross going, with last year’s ninth overall pick catching only two of his six targets for a total of 11 yards. At some point, Cincinnati will leverage Ross’ blazing speed to take the top off defences.
Tougher tests await as the Bengals have so far faced a lacklustre Colts defence and a Ravens unit without suspended cornerback Jimmy Smith, but if Dalton doesn’t pull another disappearing act, Cincinnati could surprise.
At this point, Joe Flacco is what he is, which is an average quarterback who doesn’t inspire much confidence.
One week after looking like he was ready to take on the world with his sizzling performance against the Buffalo Bills, Flacco looked mediocre in the defeat to Cincinnati, completing 32-of-55 passes for two touchdowns and two interceptions.
No one will confuse the Ravens’ receiving corps for the one in Pittsburgh or Kansas City, but much of Flacco’s struggles against the Bengals were of his own making as he misfired several throws.
His most effective form of attack was just launching deep balls and hoping to connect on a big play – as he did in the second quarter on a 45-yard hook-up with John Brown – or drawing a pass interference flag, which bailed out the Ravens twice and led to touchdowns.
Flacco’s pass protection didn’t do him any favours as he was sacked four times, but the veteran quarterback doesn’t look like a different player after all the preseason talk of him being highly motivated to prove Lamar Jackson’s time is still a ways off.
If anything, Flacco’s outing in Week 1 likely had plenty to do with Buffalo being a mess at the moment.
It would be a bit of surprise if Jackson takes over as the starting quarterback this season, but it’s not completely unimaginable if Flacco has more performances like the one he had against the Bengals.
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