Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins said his team flipped on game tape this week from its season-opening meeting with the Ravens.
They were "amazed."
On Sept. 10, Baltimore handed Cincinnati a 44-13 Monday Night Football beating to start the season, sending a loud proclamation that the Ravens were the team to beat in the AFC North.
"Seeing that game and seeing how we are playing now is like night and day," Atkins said. "You can see a huge stride with everything."
Now 16 weeks later, the Ravens (10-5) are officially division champs. But the Bengals (9-6) are right on their heels and will join them in the playoffs.
As the two teams prepare to face each other once again, the Bengals look like a different team than the one that took one on the chin in Baltimore. And Adkins isn't the only one who sees it.
"I think they're the most improved team in football, to be honest," running back Ray Rice said. "If you look at them from the time they played us [earlier in the year] to the time we're playing them now, that's a totally different football team. They've figured it out on all ends."
Here are five ways the Bengals have changed since Week 1:
Atkins Has Become A MonsterThe third-year player was a Pro Bowler last year when he had 7.5 sacks. Now his 12.5 sacks lead all NFL defensive interior linemen and he's in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year. Atkins has continued to use his short stature (6-foot-1) and power to provide great leverage against opposing blockers. "He's a great player," center Matt Birk said. "He's very quick, slanting, trying to get in gaps. Size is only relative to the strength you have. The guy can just flat out play and that's obvious."
Bengals Defense Became One Of The Best
The Bengals defense didn't look strong when Baltimore shredded it with 430 total yards in Week 1, but it has since rebounded. Cincinnati ranks sixth in total defense, allowing just 317.5 yards per game. Its 47 sacks are the second most in the NFL, trailing Denver by one. Defensive ends Michael Johnson (9.5) and Carlos Dunlap (5.0) complement Atkins to make a fearsome front four. Their 29 total turnovers are tied for seventh in the NFL. They got three last week in Pittsburgh and five the week before in Philadelphia.
WR A.J. Green Took The Next StepBefore the Week 1 meeting, Head Coach John Harbaugh called Green "maybe the best receiver in football." Green responded with five catches for 70 yards, and did not reach the end zone. Since then, Green has lived up to Harbaugh's billing. He's fifth in the NFL in receiving yards (1,324) and his 11 touchdowns are tied for second-most in the league. After the game against the Ravens, Green had a stretch of nine straight games with at least one touchdown.
The Law Firm Became A WorkhorseRunning back BenJarvus Green-Ellis was a complementary piece to Tom Brady and the passing attack in New England, his team before signing with Cincinnati last offseason. This year, "The Law Firm" has become a major part of the Bengals offense. His 278 carries are sixth most in the NFL, by far a career high. Green-Ellis notched over 1,000 rushing yards for the second time in his career. He has, however, become more prone to fumbles with extra work. Green-Ellis never had a fumble in a regular-season game in his first four years in the league. He has three this season.
Bengals Are Now Quick StartersThe Ravens held a 10-0 lead by the end of the first quarter in the Week 1 meeting. Since then, the Bengals have been the best starters in the NFL. Cincinnati has scored the most points (113) and allowed the fewest (35) in the first quarter this year. Cincinnati hasn't trailed by the end of the first quarter since Week 9 against Denver.