BENGALS QB ANDY DALTON VS. DOLPHINS DC KEVIN COYLE:
Dalton, about to claim another AFC Offensive Player of the Month after his unbeaten October of 2011, tries to finish off this one at 5-0 Thursday (8:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5 and NFL Network) against a familiar face and old nemesis.
In his return to Paul Brown Stadium after serving as the highly-regarded Bengals secondary coach for the previous 11 seasons, Coyle blanketed the Bengals last October when the Dolphins stifled wide receiver A.J. Green on 65 yards with a long of only 18 in a 17-13 loss in which Dalton suffered his second-worst passer rating of the season at 63.5.
But both are in different spheres than Oct. 7, 2012.
Dalton is the hottest passer on the planet with a scorching 116.8 passer rating and he's operating behind an offensive line that has begun to give him space in the pocket so he can survey the field. Coyle doesn't have the man that shut down Green last season in 6-2 cornerback Sean Smith and the Dolphins went to their fourth straight loss last Sunday in Foxboro when Tom Brady put up 24 points in the second half.
But Coyle does have new, faster linebackers he likes to blitz in Phillip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe, not to mention an exciting, young pass rusher at right end, Dion Jordan, the third pick in the draft that spearheads a faster, sleeker group looking to speed to the quarterback.
And just like he did here, Coyle's DBs get their hands on the ball. Five of his cornerbacks have at least one interception.
A new look. But not that new.
"I think so; quite a bit," Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden says of the carryover of the Dolphins defense to Coyle's Cincinnati days. "I think he learned a lot when he was here. He's brought some new stuff and he's his own person, but there's a very similar style."
In Cincinnati, Coyle worked for four different coordinators, but he worked the longest with current chief Mike Zimmer for four seasons and his last year was Dalton's rookie year. Zimmer and Coyle both run 4-3 schemes with strong fronts that they often rely on to get pressure on the passer. But the duo aren't afraid to bring the blitz and they'll mix coverage in the back end.
"Kevin's got some different blitzes but it's the same style," says Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham. "He shows that double blitz look in the A gap where Zim walks the linebackers up between the center and guard.
"I think that's good for a short week, preparation-wise. They run a lot of the same stuff, same blitz packages. So recognition and communication won't be as big an issue as it has been the last couple of weeks. It's going to be interesting to see what Kevin does. He may decide this is a passing team and he'll play Cover 2 with two safeties deep and say, 'Run me out of it.' "
That's what he did last year as expressed by Green following that game.
"They played a lot of cloud to my side with (Smith) just bumping and running," Green said. "They're playing two-deep the whole time. We couldn't get our running game going as well as we needed. It was nothing special. They played a lot of two-deep safeties and it was hard to pass. The linebackers were dropping very deep."
The Bengals would like to think they're a lot better and a lot more committed to the running game since then. That's the day they lost speed back Bernard Scott for the year with an ACL injury after he had the club's longest gain of the year and the backs ran it just 14 times. Just two weeks ago the Bengals ran it 17 times even though Detroit played a front that dared them to pass and Dalton did.
But the Dolphins aren't a day at the beach to run against and that's not even counting left end Cameron Wake, their best defensive player just rounding into form from injury.
For the third straight week the Bengals are playing athletic big men at tackle and the Bengals offensive line is riding a marvelous streak. The Bengals pounded Buffalo's talented front for 165 yards before fending off Detroit's top 10 picks for just one sack. And last Sunday against the Jets the Bengals took a formidable front four and made them irrelevant in the pass rush.
This week it is a middle anchored by solid veteran Randy Starks and an emerging Pro Bowler in Jared Odrick. Odrick has run the gamut from 3-4 end to 4-3 end to finding his comfort zone as a 4-3 tackle. Comfortable enough that he beat Pro Bowl Patriots guard Logan Mankins last week for two sacks. Starks, at No. 5, and Odrick, at No. 12, is the only tandem both in the top 15 of Pro Football Focus's rating for defensive tackles.
"Every week it's been a challenge," says left guard Clint Boling. "We've gone from (Ndamukong) Suh and (Nick) Fairley to (Muhammad) Wilkerson to Odrick and Starks. Especially on a short week. (Odrick) is having a good year. He rushes hard and he's been in the league; he's got some experience."
Boling and his partner on the right side, Kevin Zeitler, are having a pretty good year, too, according to PFF. Boling is tied for 11th among guards with a better ranking than Mankins and another Pro Bowler in Marshal Yanda. Zeitler is in the top 10 in run blocking, although they've probably protected better than they've blocked the run the past few weeks.
The Bengals have certainly cleaned up the pocket since the Cleveland struggles of 30 days ago.
"There's more space in the pocket for Andy," says Lapham, the former guard who roomed with Ken Anderson and called the games of Boomer Esiason and Carson Palmer. "The running backs have done a good job helping with that. Even when people aren't blitzing the running backs are still going into the middle and chipping on the routes even if it's not a blitz and smacking a defensive lineman before they release. Anything to keep the pocket deep, giving him vision, giving him space. In my mind, space is more important than time.
"If you're 6-2 (like Dalton), you're throwing out of a hole if there's people in your face. It doesn't matter if you're 6-6. They're securing the depth of the pocket and they're doing a good job creating that separation for him."
With left tackle Andrew Whitworth (knee) sidelined from practice, the CW is Anthony Collins gets his 20th NFL start in a matchup that features the 6-5 Collins on the 6-6, 260-pound Jordan. Jordan has been taking about 25 snaps per game and made the Baltimore game close when he beat current Dolphins left tackle Bryant McKinnie in time for force an interception. He's athletic with a quick speed move, but Collins is extremely athletic for a big man.
No one's really sure if Coyle is going to shadow Green with Brent Grimes or keep Grimes and Dimitri Patterson on the same side. What we do know is that Grimes shadowed Baltimore's Torrey Smith in Miami's 26-23 loss in Baltimore and Coyle didn't seem to mind that Smith had 121 yards on six catches because he didn't have any touchdowns.
But that's one of six 100-yard receiving games against the Dolphins this season, three by receivers, two by tight ends and one by running back Darren Sproles. That may bode well for Bengals running back Giovani Bernard and the tight ends.
If Coyle is a little faster with a few more blitzes, he's working against a much different offense. Dalton threw to six receivers against the Dolphins last year and none were to wide receiver Marvin Jones, and, naturally, the rookies Bernard or tight end Tyler Eifert. Those three have combined for 10 touchdowns this season.
Does Coyle play the pass like he did last year?
"It will be interesting to see what Kevin does," Lapham says. "Actually, both quarterbacks work against this defense every day in practice. No surprises. It comes down to execution on both sides of the ball."