The final result wasn’t a surprise, but the path to that result raised various eyebrows, questions, expectations red flags and red flags.
The Cincinnati Bengals defeated the Cleveland Browns 34-27 Sunday afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium to even their record at 1-1, and start with that number for the fifth time in the last six seasons.
Perceived strengths like the front four (or the defense in general) and rushing attack were liabilities while weaknesses like the return game and big-play ability (outside of A.J. Green) carried the Bengals to their first victory of the 2012 season.
Adam Jones got the ball rolling with an 81-yard punt return score early in the first quarter to put the Bengals up 7-0. The home team maintained that advantage, making the score 17-10 at the half. Then things got interesting.
Toughts of a low-scoring slugfest were completely dashed when Andy Dalton hooked up with Brandon Tate for his first receiving touchdown in stripes, a 44-yard connection that gave Cincinnati a 14-point cushion.
Despite a shaky first half, Dalton ended up with monster numbers, throwing for 318 yards and three scores against one interception.
The Browns flipped field position and responded when Trent Richardson took a toss in the flat 23 yards for a score to make it 24-17 after 45 minutes.
With BenJarvus Green-Ellis largely ineffective, Andy Dalton dropped to pass six times on an eight play scoring drive that finished with Andrew Hawkins 50-yard catch and run that pushed the lead to 14 for all of three minutes.
With that score, Hawkins joined Tate as Bengals scoring their first touchdown with the team on Sunday. Additionally, Cincinnati reached the 31-point mark against Cleveland for the first time since September 2007.
The celebration was short-lived as the Bengals again allowed Cleveland to answer. The Browns marched 72 yards for a quick response capped by Weeden’s 24-yard scoring strike to Greg Little. But a late-blooming rushing attack and a rare big catch from Jermaine Gresham set up Mike Nugent’s game-sealing field goal.
The seven-point margin of victory was exactly what the oddsmakers in Vegas expected but the path to victory was something both exciting and worrisome.
Dalton’s response after missing multiple throws in the first half was encouraging and a receiving corps that is weak on paper behind A.J. Green boasted four players with 50 or more receiving yards and three with touchdowns. With constant pressure being applied by a hungry Browns squad, the Bengals didn’t give in and always kept their in-state rivals at arm’s length.
There should have been more breathing room than “arm’s length” however. Weeden, whose debut featured four interceptions and a rating of 5.1 threw for 322 yards and two scores with no INTs Sunday as he posted 114.9 rating. The line wasn’t getting to him like we’ve come to expect and Cleveland was winning the battle at the point of attack for much of the afternoon.
The defense as a whole was disappointing and that’s going to be a concern moving forward. Cincinnati has allowed 434.5 yards and 35.5 points per contest against two teams that aren’t offensive juggernauts by any stretch of the imagination.
With Mike Zimmer still running the defensive side of things and players like Carlos Dunlap and first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick coming back soon (right? Soon?), there’s still hope for this unit that was one of the league’s best in 2011.
We’ll t to be fair and not make many big judgments before Week 4 but something will have to be done about these negative defensive trends or else we’ll all be in for a very long – and frustrating – season.
Enough negative for now, though. The team is 1-1, like many expected. Has it been ugly? Yes. But that just means the best football is still ahead for this team. With Baltimore’s loss to Philadelphia this afternoon, Cincinnati will travel to Washington next week tied for the AFC North lead.