The good, the bad and the ugly in Bengals’ 35-17 win over the Falcons

We’re starting to see a team we recognize now with this rendition of the Cincinnati Bengals. Shades of last year’s AFC Champion squad were prevalent this Sunday at Paycor Stadium, with the home team pounding the visiting Falcons.

Here are the best and worst facets of the Bengals’ 35-17 win over Atlanta on Sunday.

the good

Fun football is back (unless we see otherwise):

Winning is fun, there’s no doubt about it. A combination of losing, overall, and the way the Bengals were losing through the first five weeks took a toll on a squad that seemed to be suffering the telltale signs of a Super Bowl runner-up hangover.

Yet, these past two weeks, the smiles have been more prevalent and the body language far more positive. There’s a yin-and-yang thing here, in terms of if the change in attitude has sparked the offensive turnaround, or vice-versa.

One is inclined to think it’s the latter, but the fact remains that this team looks like the jovial bunch we saw on the magical run from last year. To boot, the fans are winners because the overall brand of football being witnessed is at a much higher level.

Aside from Joe Burrow’s inexplicable turnover woes in Week 1, the offense was plodding and ineffective throughout the first month-plus, complete with a bunch of hits and sacks on Burrow. It’s been much more fun watching this team adjust and begin to hit its stride as the second half of the season is on the horizon.

The wide receiver triumvirate:

What a day by Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. “Uno” put on a show, making both circus catches and showcasing his trademark breakaway speed with eight catches for 130 yards and two explosive touchdowns.

Boyd was absolutely dominant and remains the key to this “new-look offense” (if one can even call it that) with his myriad of ways to beat the opposition. He had an awesome 60-yard touchdown and seven others, totaling 155 yards on the day.

Higgins almost completed the triple play, in terms of his own 100-yard receiving day. He finished just short with 93 and should have had a touchdown on a high-effort reach that was questionably called just short.

Hayden Hurst Revenge Game No. 2:

In two emotional games this year against his former teams, Hurst has had his best performances. He scored a touchdown in the loss against Baltimore a couple of weeks ago, and upped the ante in some ways against Atlanta this week.

Hurst had the second-most receptions on the afternoon with six and had 48 receiving yards. He also had a fun, door-slamming moment wherein he surprised Atlanta taking a snap at the end of the game to draw them offsides and extending the closeout drive. We can’t wait for the Baltimore rematch at the end of the year.

“Hey—they’re all important, but that one meant a little bit more. I appreciate you all.” — H.H.

The young depth pieces on defense:

Cincinnati missed three key players on defense on Sunday—particularly with going up against a run-heavy team in the Falcons. DJ Reader and Josh Tupou were missed in the middle of the front, while emerging star linebacker Logan Wilson was also absent.

In stepped rookie Zachary Carter and second-year player Jay Tufele on the defensive line for higher volumes of snaps and Akeem Davis-Gaither on defense. Carter had a number of nice plays against the run with five total tackles, while Tufele racked up another tackle-for-loss—his third in the last two games.

Throw in Markus Bailey making a couple of critical tackles, including a touchdown-saver on a punt return, Cam Taylor-Britt stepping in at cornerback and Joseph Ossai notching a quarterback sack as Trey Hendrickson nursed a stinger and it was a nice development day for a bunch of first and second-year guys.

Joseph Lee Burrow…like a surgeon:

Cue the 1980s “Weird” Al Yankovic hit. Burrow played one of the very best games in his still-young pro career, which, by his many awesome past performances is saying something.

Burrow threw for 481 yards, good for the second-most in his career and third-highest single-game number in franchise history behind his own team record of 525 set against the Ravens last year and Boomer Esiason’s 490 versus the Rams back in 1990. He added in four touchdowns—three passing and one rushing—as well as an exceptional 138.2 quarterback rating on a day where he cracked over 500 yards from scrimmage.

The Bengals’ franchise quarterback sliced-and-diced the maligned Atlanta secondary, seeming to be as comfortable as ever in the pocket. There have been signs of a resurgence coinciding with the offensive adaptations in recent weeks, with the apex occurring Sunday.

Statistical signs of domination:

Cincinnati just dominated key areas of the football game—particularly one in which the opponent is a run-oriented team. The Bengals had the ball for about five more minutes, achieved 16 more first downs and had 323 more yards of offense than Atlanta.

The Bengals were also 7-for-11 on third down conversions to the Falcons’ 40% rate and had 3.3 more yards per play. The only way Cincinnati wasn’t going to win this game was if they shot themselves in the foot with turnovers (they had none), penalties (they had just five for 17 yards) and other gaffes.

the bad

Fourth down conversions—both on Sunday and this season:

Speaking from an in-game perspective, Cincinnati was 0-1 on fourth down on Sunday. After reeling from the furious second quarter by Atlanta, but getting a much-needed stop by the defense to start the second half, Cincinnati got well into Evan McPherson field goal range on their first possession of the third quarter.

They opted to go for it, likely because of a combination of factors (11-point lead, offensive and defensive performance throughout much of the afternoon). After lining up for a run under center on third down that predictably failed, Cincinnati then went empty. Nobody really got open and Burrow had a rare misfire to Higgins to give the ball back to the Falcons.

From a macro perspective, Cincinnati is really struggling on fourth down tries this year. They’re currently successful on just 25% of their total tries (tied for second-worst in the league), which is a far cry from last season.

the ugly

The second quarter:

Really, the only major negative of this dominant performance by the Bengals was the inexplicable sequence of events wherein the Falcons scored 17 points in three straight possessions, encompassing most of the second quarter. Atlanta did a little bit of everything in all three phases during that stretch to climb out of a 21-0 hole and make the third quarter more nerve-racking than originally designed.

At the beginning of the quarter, the Falcons scored on a bruising, trademark 16-play drive that chewed up over 10 minutes of game clock. Cincinnati answered with a somewhat-quick strike touchdown drive of their own, only to be literally one-upped by Atlanta on a one-play drive, which was a 75-yard bomb to Damiere Byrd.

Cincinnati then tried to drain the clock and was unsuccessful, complete with Chase leaving the field with an injury and punting. The Falcons returned it 56 yards to set up a quick, mind-boggling field goal to end the half. What was 21-0 quickly evaporated to 28-17 in a matter of a quarter.

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