For the next two weeks the Cowboys will face opponents that they don't get to see that often in the Bengals and Steelers. During the offseason, coaches will take that time to work on studying teams like this for just that reason: You don't see them as much as you do NFC opponents.
On tape, the Bengals are an interesting squad just because of the amount of talent they have been able to add in just two to three drafts. For years, Cincinnati had the smallest scouting staff in the NFL and relied mainly on its coaches for how it went about scouting and acquiring talent. Head coach Marvin Lewis has a background in scouting with some outstanding teams, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, so you see his influence in how he has shaped his current roster.
Over the years, the Bengals have always played with a quality quarterback, whether it was Ken Anderson or Boomer Esiason, but there was also a period of time when they went from Jeff Blake to David Klinger to Akili Smith. They just could not get the position right and the team suffered for it.
With this current squad it appears that the Bengals have once again got it right with Andy Dalton. What Dalton lacks in physical talent, he makes up for in smarts and preparation. In the games I was able to watch, he just didn't make mistakes, and with the weapons that he has – A.J. Green, Jermaine Gresham and BenJarvus Green-Ellis – his ability to just be steady helps them to consistently move the ball.
In this offense, you see coordinator Jay Gruden put Dalton in positions to make plays without putting him in great risks. Where Dalton takes advantage of his opportunities is by allowing his playmakers to just simply make plays. Dalton might not have the best arm strength, but he doesn't need to when he can just throw the ball to Green on the move and watch him work.
Where Dalton helps his team the most is in not taking sacks. He has this trait that if something is not there, play-wise, he just gets rid of the ball to get to the next play. The one mistake he did make that I observed was he didn't see a Chargers linebacker buzzing underneath a route on the curl and he threw a pick six. Still, Dalton does an outstanding job of not only getting rid of the ball quickly, but also generally getting it to the right guy. You don't see him force passes to receivers. He really does a nice job of playing within himself.
I mentioned Green and what his skill set is for the Bengals entails. He is one of those young receivers that came from a passing offense at Georgia and has from the word "go" made his mark in this league. There are so many traits to like about his game, but the one that catches your attention first is his ability to catch the ball wherever Dalton puts it. If it is near him, then he is going to catch it. He is a vertical player with rare speed, as well as an inside player with quickness and explosiveness to take short passes and make them long ones.
Opposite Green had been rookie Mohamed Sanu, but last week in practice, he suffered a stress fracture in his foot and was placed on injured reserve on Tuesday, which was a huge blow to the club. Against the Chargers last Sunday, they went with Andrew Hawkins and Marvin Jones at the spot. Hawkins is not a tall receiver, but you see him play big. He's not afraid to carry his route in the middle of the field and make a tough catch. With this group, you see a great deal of bunch formation to take advantage of their quickness.
In a season where Ryan's defense has faced some outstanding tight ends, Jermaine Gresham now makes an appearance. Gresham is to Dalton what Witten is to Romo, a big body that can get up the field and make reliable plays in traffic. Gresham is the type of target that is a quarterback's best friend because his hands are outstanding, and like Green, when you throw it in his direction, he is going to make the catch. Gresham also has the size to help in the running game by getting push at the point of attack, so you have to deal with him in that area as well. In previous games, Ryan has handled these tight ends differently in coverage. Against Carolina, he used cornerback Mike Jenkins, but now that he is the full time nickel, that job will likely fall on safety Danny McCray.
Where the Bengals have done some good with their team is on the offensive line. Andrew Whitworth is a talented left tackle that plays with an ease of movement. Where he tends to get into trouble is when his technique breaks down, and by that I mean he doesn't always punch to control his man. Instead, he will try and use his natural strength and footwork to steer the rusher past Dalton. His game is very similar to what Ware faced when he went against Joe Thomas in Cleveland.
Right tackle Andre Smith doesn't physically look like he has his weight issues under control, but when it comes to using his mass to get movement, he is well schooled. If he can lean on you, he has you, although his feet are good but not great, so linebacker Anthony Spencer needs to make him try and run. The harder he goes up the field, the better chance he has to cause problems.
Rookie right guard Kevin Zeitler is a player the Cowboys scouts really liked and he has preformed well. Where the Bengals have had their issues is at center and left guard. Trevor Robinson started last week at center with Clint Boling at guard. Watch the matchup inside with Boling, as I'm not sure that he can be physical enough one-on-one.
The Bengals will come into this game and try to run the ball with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and to be honest, I can't say that I blame them because without Sean Lee, Bruce Carter and Kenyon Coleman, it's been difficult for the Cowboys defense to play the run. If that happens to be the case again, the Bengals will lean on this line and the legs of Green-Ellis.
I asked head coach Jason Garrett during his press conference on Wednesday if the Bengals' defensive alignment is similar to another that they might have faced already this season, but his answer was simply that they had faced a four-man scheme before. What I wanted to know was if it was similar to the Bears or Buccaneers?
I think it's more like what they faced against Tampa Bay with its active, moving front, which gave them trouble in that matchup. When Mike Zimmer was the defensive coordinator here in Dallas, we had La'Roi Glover to play the three technique and he did it at a very high level. Zimmer's Glover is Geno Atkins and when I watch him play, he reminds me so much of Glove.
Atkins, like Glover, explodes up the field and is on the guard in an instant. He can be difficult to block because he is always moving and he never stops to allow blockers to get to him. He plays with tremendous power and leverage and can walk his man into the quarterback or beat him around the edge.
Next to him is Domata Peko, who plays the heavy-one technique and really is strong holding the point of attack. On the ends, Michael Johnson is a long, rangy player that has nice stop-start quickness. Carlos Dunlap doesn't get the up-field push of Johnson, but he does a nice job of playing the run and folding back inside to make stops. Robert Geathers, Pat Sims and Wallace Gilberry are the main backups and will see action in a nice rotation.
Earlier I mentioned the small scouting staff that the Bengals have with their coaches doing the majority of the evaluations. Sometimes that works and other times it doesn't. When coaches are in the mix, you take more risks on character players.
In this case, the Bengals took a shot on inside linebacker Vontaze Burfict, and even though they didn't draft him, by signing him as a free agent they thought it was the right move and it appears to have paid off. Nobody wanted the talented Burfict out of Arizona State, but in college he was all over the field, and through 12 games for the Bengals, he has done much of the same at the NFL level. He has a trait that you see in Bruce Carter in that when he makes a tackle, he hurts you. Burfict is a physical, get-to-the-ball 'backer who can make plays.
Next to him is Rey Maualuga, who can work his way through traffic to find the ball and finish plays. Strong outside linebacker Manny Lawson is the weakest of the group and there are times where you see him struggle in coverage.
In the secondary, there are some former Cowboys lining up for Zimmer: Terence Newman and "Pacman" Jones. There are not many things different about Newman's game you see technique-wise, but what has helped him the most is the Bengals' pass rush. You still see some off-coverage with some press worked in there, and there are times where the ball doesn't go his direction, but he is stumbling in the route or is having to grab his guy. He still plays with quickness, although the tackling hasn't gotten any better.
Jones, on the other hand, remains an outstanding punt returner, and when he plays snaps on defense, he still has the ability to run with his man and stay in position. Jones has always been a guesser or gambler, but when it comes to playing the ball in the air, he always has a chance.
Leon Hall will line up at the nickel corner with Nate Clements and Reggie Nelson at safety. Nelson has had his problems throughout his career in coverage, so maybe keep an eye out there for some Witten matchups down the field. The biggest surprise to me about the Bengals is that I didn't see much of rookie Dre' Kirkpatrick, who I knew had a knee problem this summer and must be working his way back into the mix.
It will be interesting to see if Garrett does make Newman have to play more on the physical side in this game, but again, a lot of that will have to do, as always, with protection.