The Bengals think of themselves as Super Bowl contenders. Their roster says they should be in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy. So does their experience. All that’s left for them to do is to prove it on the field following Wild Card playoff losses at Houston the last two seasons.
The entire starting offensive unit returns, but after struggling down the stretch last season, there is much room for improvement. The offense produced just seven touchdowns in the final six games. There are plenty of weapons in the lineup in Andy Dalton’s third season, so if the Bengals are to take that next step it is on the shoulders of their red-headed quarterback.
The defense is top-10 quality with the ability to dictate and win games, headed by All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins.
They have no excuses.
Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 5th
The numbers say Dalton improved in 2012, and surely by simple maturity he did, but it’s hard to get past those final five regular-season games and the postseason game in Houston and not have questions. Will Dalton be more than what he is now? Have defenses figured out his limitations? Does negating wide receiver A.J. Green render the rest of the offense manageable for the defense?
Dalton and the Bengals weren’t as effective passing deep in 2012 compared to 2011, with an accuracy percentage of just 26.0 percent and 633 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. By comparison, they gained 922 yards and were accurate on 43.1 percent of Dalton’s deep throws in his rookie season.
Green, who has 162 catches, more than 2,400 yards and 18 touchdowns in two seasons, will win his one-on-one battles and a good percentage of his double teams, but Dalton has to be able to go elsewhere with the ball with confidence. Tight end Jermaine Gresham has three straight 50-plus-reception seasons, but he disappears at times and leaves Bengals fans wanting more too often. He had 10 drops in 99 targets last season.
The selection of tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard in the first two rounds of the draft were aimed at giving Dalton more options. Expect more two-tight end formations, and the Bengals will even split both Gresham and Eifert out at the same time. Bernard is the speed complement to BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ power style.
Three of the five offensive line spots are secure with left tackle Andrew Whitworth, right tackle Andre Smith and right guard Kevin Zeitler. Kyle Cook should win back the center position now that he’s healthy after an ankle injury last season. That said, Trevor Robinson gained valuable experience playing in Cook’s absence. Left guard will come down to Clint Boling and veteran Travelle Wharton.
Everything starts up front for the Bengals, who have developed one of the more dominant defensive lines in the NFL. Atkins is stout and quick, forcing teams to game plan for him. Ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap are long and have learned to play hard every down. The rotation goes seven deep, and the pressure from the down linemen means defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer doesn’t have to blitz to get to the quarterback.
Signing outside linebacker James Harrison from Pittsburgh should help bring an edge in attitude. The Bengals are betting that Harrison, entering his 10th season, still has plenty left on the field even as he has to make the adjustment from the Steelers’ 3-4 zone blitz concepts to Zimmer’s 4-3 base. How well Harrison and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga can work in coverage will be key to the defense maintaining its top-10 level of play. The Bengals are leaving Maualuga in the middle and Vontaze Burfict outside. Burfict showed good ability to shed blocks last season, something that has hampered Maualuga in his career.
Cornerbacks Leon Hall, Terence Newman and Adam Jones are versatile enough to play inside or outside, and each of them can play the man-to-man style Zimmer wants out of his corners. The addition of Dre Kirkpatrick, last year’s No. 1 pick who had an injury-plagued rookie season, provides more depth. Kirkpatrick is taller (6'2") than the other corners but doesn’t yet have their savvy.
Finding a second safety to play alongside Reggie Nelson is paramount. The Bengals had to sign Chris Crocker after the season started last year to fill the void. Rookie third-round pick Shawn Williams is going to get every chance at winning the starting role over Taylor Mays. Nelson will roam the field and take chances sometimes, so whoever wins this spot is going to have to be disciplined.
Quality depth at linebacker and safety is a concern. The players the Bengals do have as backups don’t have much experience.
Mike Nugent missed the final month of the season with a calf strain but was re-signed in the offseason. He’s made 83.8 percent (67-of-80) of his field goal attempts in three seasons with the Bengals, including a club record-tying 55-yarder last season. Nugent has been consistent with his kickoffs, both in their depth into the end zone and placement away from the middle of the field, enabling the Bengals to become one of the top coverage units in the NFL.
Punter Kevin Huber was signed to a five-year extension, signifying how much the franchise values him. His career average of 44.0 yards is the best in team history. Huber has become adept at pinning opponents not just inside the 20-yard line but deeper as well; his 11 punts downed inside the 5-yard line were the highest total in the league.
Jones is a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball in the return game, especially on punts when the action is quicker to happen. He reads blocks well and still has that second gear, which helped make him a first-round pick of Tennessee back in 2005. The trouble is, he can’t be a full-time returner because of his importance on defense. Bernard has returned punts in college and is going to get a look on kickoffs as well. Brandon Tate and Bernard Scott have experience in these roles but will be in a fight to make the roster.
Final Analysis: 2nd in AFC North
The Bengals are good enough defensively and on special teams to win the AFC North and be a threat to reach the Super Bowl. But are they good enough on offense? Can Dalton take a step forward in his third year in the league? Can another playmaker emerge to complement Green, one of the truly elite wide receivers in the game? This offense has done enough to reach the playoffs in each of the past two seasons. But just enough won’t be enough this year. Dalton & Co. need to do more.
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New England (8/30)
NY Giants (8/30)
Green Bay (8/29)
San Francisco (9/3)