Last Sunday had to be the luckiest win I have ever watched in the Marvin Lewis era. The Browns had everything going for them at the start of the third quarter: they had the momentum that started from a game changing kick return, which led to a span of 283 yards of offense and 14 points for the Browns to the Bengals 97; the Bengals starting QB was on the bench; and the Bengals defense looked to be on the ropes. It was like when Han Solo was captured trying to blow the defense shield. We all thought for sure they were up shit creek and we were heading towards another Bungal's second half ass whooping. However after the Browns went up 17-13, the most improbable thing happened. The Browns could not put the game away.
And it was all because of this guy:
In their first drive of the third quarter, the Browns drove 50 yards to the Bengals 3 adding to their lead to make the game 17-13. One more score and the game was over. However, it was the last time of the game the Browns offense would move the ball into the Bengals territory. Literally, the Browns offense never moved the ball across the 50-yard line the rest of the game. Like the Battle of Thermopylae, Zimmer made his stand by letting loose his underappreciated front four rotation and his rebuilt LB corps to make up for the weaker Athenians (the secondary in this case). During the stand, Zimmer's squad stopped the Browns in their tracks holding them to the following stats:
No. of Brown's drives: 6
No. of plays: 33
Avg no. of plays per drive: 5.5
Avg yards gained per drive: 10.3
Avg yards per play: 1.9
No. of rushing attempts: 9
Avg yards per attempt: 1.0
No. of sacks: 2
No. of forced fumbles: 1
No. of turnovers: 1
We may disagree, but this is a unit on the rise again after a series of good drafts. Even with Mike Brown doing his best to screw it up by failing to address serious holes for several years (safety), or, in typical Mike Brown fashion, creating new ones (like letting one of the team's top defensive weapon leave town and then filling his spot with another first round cast off).
(Authors sidenote: It is not that Joseph left that is the key factor to me since he was entilted to do so and there are valid reasons not to sign him (injuries). It is more the quality of the talent that filled his spot. Had management been on top of the situation, they would have gone after the top tier CB's in FA to push Joseph's decision. Instead they did the typical Mike Brown thing in that they sat back and waited for the dust to settle, which forced them to go pick up a CB at the last minute. Since it was a last minute decison they acquired a player who is past his prime and a downgrade to the position.)
If - the big if - Zimmer can build upon this defensive stand when they travel to Denver, there is a good chance this team starts out 2-0. Denver is coming into the second week with key members injured (most importantly Moreno and Lloyd) and their offensive line looked overwhelmed against the Raiders front seven. In the past, I would say the injuries would not make a difference. Traditionally for the Bengals, opponent injuries seem like they are the equivalent of the Cubs playing at home with the wind blowing out - anytime the media mentions them it almost guarantees a loss.
Here is how the Bengals pull the upset in Denver:
1. Grind it out - Both sides again need to control the LOS. The offensive line did a really good job against the improved Browns front seven. Against the Broncos they should have a more favorable match up and should again be able to apply the "body blows" strategy. On the other side, Zimmer's DL was able to dominate the Browns OL for 3/4 of the game. This is a huge statement since the Browns have one of the best OL's in the NFL right now. The loss of Steinbach was a noticeable setback for them, that helped in allowing the front four to consistently pressure McCoy and allow Zimmer to drop seven into coverage. I personally can't remember a time when the Bengals defense was able to get pressure on a consistent basis by only rushing four; you may have to go back the 1981 team. Against a less talented OL in Denver, expect to see the front four repeat their performance.
2. Don't play stupid - Last Sunday the Bengals only committed three penalties and did not commit a single turnover. Read that again because it seems like that has not happened since 1988. Mike Brown may dilute the talent on this team, but, aside from a couple of breakdowns, Marvin and company demonstrated the sharpest execution I have seen from the squad in years. If they continue this trend, it should allow them to stick to their game plan and grind down the undersized Broncos. All three aspects of the game need to be executed perfectly to pull off the upset two weeks in a row.
3. Let the kids play - Dalton is the real deal, and has tremendous upside before he eventually gets Mike Browned. I now understand why Gruden wanted him so badly in a way that made me feel dirty reading about it. He is surrounded by a nucleus of young talented players that could gel into a solid group as the year progresses. If they can keep the game plan simple like they did last week, while mixing it up the punch combinations, then the kids should be able to focus on playing ball rather then being concerned about their assignments.
This has a thin margin of error, because although I would like to see them throw a few more uppercuts during the game, Mies van der Rohe is right is this case: less is more. Gruden needs to be smart and follow the KISS formula while keeping Dalton under a tight leash since he is a just a rookie starting in his second NFL game with only six weeks of preparation under his belt. High schools have more time to prepare than that these days. You don't want those really bad rookie mistakes to kill you, and we all know they are going to eventually show up to the party at some point this season.