It took five weeks, but the Cincinnati Bengals’ defense finally saw big improvement on third down.
The Bengals (4-1) moved from the bottom of the league in third-down defense after holding Miami to 31 percent efficiency in a 27-17 win on Sunday as the Dolphins converted on just 4 of 13 third downs (30.7 percent).
Cincinnati’s third-down defense now ranks 31st at 53 percent, right above Atlanta, which fell after a blowout loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday. The Steelers come to Paul Brown Stadium this Sunday.
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“I thought our guys were working at the third downs, I thought we would be better at them and we were,” Bengals defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “We’re going to continue to get better at them.”
Cincinnati had two games with percentages above 50 percent, including a season-worst of 73.3 percent in Week 4 at Atlanta. The third-down defense against Miami was a season-best performance.
The progress is perhaps a little misleading, though, as Miami is among the worst teams in the league converting on third down. The Dolphins have a tendency for big plays on first and second down but are 17 of 55 (31 percent) on third down.
“We did a little better on defense on third down, but we still had some that we could defend better, make a tackle on the third and longs,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “That was key (seeing improvement).”
Last week, much of the talk going into the game was how the return of linebacker Vontaze Burfict could help improve the defense; however, the stops on third down can’t be pinpointed back to Burfict.
He didn’t have a single tackle on third down and much of the time he wasn’t even on the field for those snaps. Austin mostly stayed with Nick Vigil and Preston Brown on third down and even a little Hardy Nickerson when Brown was out briefly getting his ankle looked at in the second quarter. Jordan Evans relieved Burfict once the Bengals had a lead in the fourth quarter.
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There were a few occasions where the Bengals maybe could have used him, but Lewis said his snaps were limited at times because of his lack of football conditioning. Burfict missed all four preseason games with an ankle injury and then sat out – completely away from the team – the first four weeks of the season because of suspension.
“He understands it was good we were able to get the lead at the end and get him out and get guys who have been doing it in there,” Lewis said Monday in a press conference at Paul Brown Stadium. “We’re working on the football conditioning part, but the only way to do that is play football. This is the first outing now. Hopefully he continues to take steps forward. There are some new things he wasn’t quite exact on, and we’ve got to be a little better all the time, but you have to feel good about the rest of the group and their contribution.”
Burfict played 34 defensive snaps (53 percent) and finished with seven tackles, which was second most on the team, but wasn’t in the game on the Dolphins’ biggest third-down play. Tannehill completed a third-and-4 pass to Danny Amendola for 16 yards that set up Miami’s lone touchdown the very next play.
Austin said it was important to keep Burfict on a short leash but his playing time will continue to increase moving forward.
“That was a good amount of work for him,” Austin said. “… We got a few more plays than we thought. You feel him in there in the game. He’s a big body, he’s stout, he’s got a real good feel for the game. It was good to have him back out there. Each week, the biggest thing, like anything, is trying to get him back into football shape. It’s different than offseason conditioning shape. That’s our next thing. We’ll continue to manage and keep him going until he’s ready for the full plate.”