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Joe Burrow Not Alone, Bengals Boast NFL's Most Underrated Defense

Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard

The Cincinnati Bengals are back.

Sitting at 5-3, they’ve managed to dig themselves out of a 1-3 hole and are right in the thick of things in the AFC and the AFC North. At one point this season, they were teetering on the edge of being out of the playoff picture because of their slow start. But after a massive win on Sunday Night Football against the Buffalo Bills, they look like a team that could be dangerous when the playoffs roll around. 

A big reason the Bengals have strung together four consecutive wins over the past month is the improved play of QB Joe Burrow, who is significantly healthier than he was in the first five weeks of the season. Over the previous four games, he's thrown 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions. More importantly, he’s starting to make plays with his legs. 

He is moving around the pocket and is a threat to run again. While Burrow has never been known for his running ability, he has made several plays with his legs to extend drives over the last few games. His pocket mobility has always been one of his biggest strengths, and you can tell he is finally healthy. The Bengals' offense looks fantastic, but it's not why the rest of the teams in the conference should be incredibly nervous about Cincinnati moving forward.

Shutting Down the Deep Passing Game

The Bengals’ defense has been lights-out against some outstanding teams over the last month. In the previous four games, the Bengals have allowed a combined 68 points. Against the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, and Bills, they did not allow more than 18 points in any game, and in all three games, the Bengals forced at least two turnovers. They've completely neutralized some of the best and most efficient offenses in the league recently. And that is the key for them to have success in the postseason. 

One of the reasons this defense has been so good lately is their outstanding secondary play. Despite losing safeties Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates in free agency last spring, the secondary is even better. It’s not littered with top-end talent, but it is clicking and has done a fantastic job of not getting beat over the top. And when it’s time to make a big play, someone is always stepping up to the play.

In Week 9, they contained the passing attack of Josh Allen and the Bills. The Bengals allowed just one completion beyond 20 air yards and had an interception on one of Allen’s sideline throws.

Taking away the deep passing attack of the Bills is hard to do, especially with their weapons. Allen has an incredible arm, and his athleticism allows him to get outside the pocket and buy time for his receivers to get open. Against the Bengals, they just didn’t have any success making throws down the field. Take a look at Allen’s passing chart in this matchup via the NFL’s Next Gen Stats:

Not only did the Bengals only allow one completion beyond 20 air yards, but Allen only attempted three passes of that variety all game. Cincinnati forced him to throw most of his passes at or near the line of scrimmage, which significantly hinders what Buffalo's offense does well.

The Bengals have done a fantastic job of limiting the deep passing attacks of all their opponents, not just the Bills. They are forcing teams to play dink-and-dunk football, and they’ve been highly successful. They want teams to play that style of offense, forcing opponents to put together 12-14-play drives to beat them.

The hope is that eventually, their opponents will mess up, whether that be due to a penalty, a turnover, a dropped pass, etc. Throughout the drive, something will go wrong, and the Bengals will capitalize. And to their credit, that usually happens.

Personnel Makes All the Difference

One of the reasons why they’ve been so good at playing that style of football is due to their linebackers. Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt are the league’s most underrated linebacker duo. They create turnovers, and they fly to the football. Over the past two weeks, Wilson and Pratt have created three turnovers and a bunch of tackles. So, when teams can’t throw the ball deep, they are forced to attack the line of scrimmage. That fits right into the strength of the Bengals with their linebackers. 

But the real key to the success of the Bengals is their front four. Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard, D.J. Reader and BJ Hill are the starting four for Cincinnati, and they play nearly every snap.

 This group is so good because they are as good against the pass as they are against the run. They allowed just 68 yards rushing to the Bills on Sunday night, with 44 coming on Allen's scrambles. James Cook and Latavius Murray combined for just 24 yards on eight carries. The Bengals' defensive line dominated, and that’s what they’ve done over the last month to help them on this winning streak.

Still Scary Season in Cincinnati

If the Bengals' defense continues to hold opponents under 20 points with a few turnovers each game, they will be a tough out in the AFC. Over the last month, they’ve looked like the best team in the conference, and they have a quarterback starting to find his groove. 

We know what Burrow is, and we see the offense's potential. But this defense has taken several steps forward this year, and they are deeper than ever. They can win games by themselves and have a proven track record of shutting down elite quarterbacks and premier offenses. 

The Bengals are officially back and have the eye of the tiger going into the second half of the season. It helps that Burrow is healthy. But it’s the defense that makes this team scarier than ever.

Marcus Mosher is an NFL writer with a decade of experience in podcasting and writing for various NFL websites, including Bleacher Report, Pro Football Focus and The Athletic. He's currently a managing editor at USA Today Sports Media Group and the host of the Locked On Cowboys Podcast. Marcus has been working full-time covering the NFL since 2015 and works as a betting expert for You can follow him at @Marcus_Mosher.