As head coach Marvin Lewis said after the win against Tampa Bay, the Bengals' current bye week is important for evaluation heading into the final two months of the season.
The Bengals are one of nine teams with at least five wins and trail the Steelers by percentage points for the AFC North lead at the half-way mark. For them to make a run at the postseason, they'll need to iron out the inconsistencies of the 5-3 start. Here are some of the factors they can build on:
Red Zone Success – The Bengals lead the NFL in red-zone touchdowns on 19 of 25 trips with a new offense and an improved line. Over the past 10 seasons more than 74 percent of the NFL's offensive touchdowns were scored inside the 20, which is why coordinators like Bill Lazor pound the red-zone area in practice. Lazor has experimented with various route combinations and personnel groupings for that part of the field while also improving the team communication and play timing.
The Bengals have been as diverse as any team with wide receivers A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd and John Ross, running backs Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard and tight ends Tyler Eifert and C.J. Uzomah all scoring touchdowns in the red zone. Although Eifert is out for the season and Bernard and Ross have missed a significant amount of time, the offense has continued to find ways to score inside the 20.
The Emergence of Boyd – In the NFL, the future success of every organization typically rests in the hands of draft choices rather than free agents and one of those draft choices from 2016, second-round selection Tyler Boyd, is blossoming into one of the NFL's top receivers.
After encountering a sophomore slump in 2017, Boyd bounced back and is looking like a Pro Bowl wide receiver. He leads the Bengals with 49 catches and ranks second on the team with 620 yards and five touchdowns. He also ranks in the NFL's Top 15 in receptions, yards and touchdowns.
A big reason for his success is his versatility. The 6-foot-2, 203-pound Boyd can play both outside and in the slot to maximize his athleticism and create mismatches throughout the field. He has earned the trust of quarterback Andy Dalton as a go-to receiver with one of the best examples in Atlanta when Dalton completed one third-down pass and two fourth-down throws to Boyd in the final minutes of the game.
Defense Causing Turnovers – Increasing the number of takeaways was stressed all throughout training camp after seeing the numbers decrease for the Bengals defense in 2016 and 2017. During Lewis' term, a plus-differential in turnovers is linked to a big plus in wins.
The Bengals defense has 13 takeaways through the first eight games and are 3-0 when on the plus side of turnover differential. While the Bengals young defense has given up a lot of yards, they have made decisive fourth-quarter plays.
In the season opener, the Colts were driving for a winning TD in the final minute when safety Clayton Fejedelem caused a fumble with a big hit on tight end Jack Doyle at the 17-yard line, scooped up the ball and returned it 83 yards for a TD with 24 seconds left. Not to be outdone, safety Shawn Williams the following week capped a three-turnover night against Baltimore with a strip sack on Joe Flacco in the closing minutes. Even rookies like Sam Hubbard, returning a fumble for a 19-yard touchdown against Miami, and Jessie Bates, recording a pick-six versus Tampa Bay, have joined in.
Offensive Line Continuing To Grow – During training camp many pundits were concerned about the guys up front, especially the right side. The concerns only grew after rookie center Billy Price exited the Baltimore game in Week 2 with a foot injury and didn't return to practice until Oct. 24.
But the line has been one of the better groups in the NFL through eight weeks. The Bengals have allowed only 16 sacks, which is good for 12th-best in the NFL. The right side with guard Alex Redmond and tackle Bobby Hart, who had to earn starting spots in training camp, continue to be pleasant surprises. The Bengals rank sixth in the NFL with 11 rushes to the right side that have gone for 10 yards or more. While both Redmond and Hart each have six penalties on the season, they have brought stability in pass protection as well helping the Bengals be among the NFL's best in total offense and points scored.
The Next Man Up – Injuries are a part of every NFL team. The good teams overcome them while the bad teams struggle to do it. From multiple week injuries to key players like linebackers Nick Vigil and Vontaze Burfict, as well as Bernard, to season-enders for Eifert, rush end Carl Lawson, defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow and tight end Mason Schreck, the Bengals have had to dip into their depth earlier than usual.
Injuries have no doubt limited them in all three phases, but players Uzomah and linebacker Jordan Evans have taken advantage of the opportunities. Uzomah already has two touchdowns and is close to setting career-bests in receptions and yards. Evans, starting for Vigil at SAM, broke out against Tampa Bay with his first career sack and interception while logging a game-high 11 tackles.
The "It" Factor – No late-game scenario has been too daunting for the Bengals in 2018.
All three phases have each made winning plays in the first half of the year. From overcoming a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter against Miami behind two defensive touchdowns to executing a 16-play, 75-yard drive at Atlanta, to Randy Bullock's last-snap field goal to beat the Buccaneers, the Bengals continue to find ways to win.
One giant element to the team's unflappability is Dalton leading four game-winning drives. He now has 24, the most in Bengals history, two more then the mark Boomer Esiason held.
The best images from the special teams unit in the first half of the season.
"The quarterback continues to play at a very high level and run the offense and handle the situations and understand it. Live to play the next play — that's really important — and deliver accurate throws in those opportunities," Lewis said after the Tampa Bay game.
Next up for the Bengals is a showdown against future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, Nov. 11 at 1 p.m. at Paul Brown Stadium.
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