Three straight trips to the playoffs have produced nothing but disappointment, topped by last January’s 27–10 loss at home against San Diego. The Bengals have improved their record each of the last three regular seasons, going from 9–7 in 2011 to 10–6 in 2012 and then 11–5 while winning the AFC North title last season, but that’s little consolation to an organization that hasn’t won a postseason game in 23 years. The core remains intact, but the Bengals did little in the offseason outside of the draft when it came to adding frontline players. That sends the message that head coach Marvin Lewis and the front office believe the pieces are in place to get over that playoff barricade. The question remains how much longer the Bengals can stay with a cast that has repeatedly stumbled when the calendar turns to January.
Quarterback Andy Dalton has been good enough to win Player of the Week and Player of the Month honors, and he’s been bad enough to lose in the playoffs. Hue Jackson is the new offensive coordinator, replacing Jay Gruden, who left to take over as Washington’s head coach, and it’s Jackson’s job to get more out of Dalton. Jackson hopes to do so by asking less of Dalton. His 586 passing attempts equaled a franchise record, but his 61.9 completion percentage is lower than the team needs. While he set franchise records for yards (4,296) and touchdowns (33), Dalton also threw a career-high 20 interceptions. He had at least one pass picked off in 12 of the team’s 17 games, including the playoffs, and threw multiple interceptions in six games. Despite his postseason struggles, the team signed Dalton to a six-year, $115 million contract extension in early August, seemingly cementing his status as Cincinnati's franchise quarterback.
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As the Bengals ask Dalton to do less, they must simultaneously improve the efficiency of their run game. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a workmanlike back, but Giovani Bernard is going to get the ball more in his second season. Second-round draft choice Jeremy Hill is going to play sooner than later; he’s a younger, more explosive version of Green-Ellis.
The backs will get the focus, but the offensive line needs to improve its push. Andrew Whitworth will slide back out to play left tackle after the loss of Anthony Collins to Tampa Bay in free agency. Center is up for grabs after the Bengals released Kyle Cook in the offseason. Fourth-round pick Russell Bodine will push veteran Mike Pollak for the job. With left guard Clint Boling recovering from a torn ACL, Pollak could wind up starting in his place while Bodine takes over at center. Boling is a good candidate to start the season on IR and then be brought back after Week 8. The Bengals lack depth should Whitworth or right tackle Andre Smith go out.
Marvin Jones has become a dangerous No. 2 receiver opposite A.J. Green, who is the focus of attention for every defense the Bengals face. Like Dalton, Green is guilty of not playing his best in the postseason. He’s added about 10 pounds of muscle in his upper body this offseason with the hopes of taking his considerable production (260 catches for 3,833 yards and 29 touchdowns in three seasons) to a higher level. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Green has had 21 dropped passes the last two seasons after dropping just five passes as a rookie in 2011. A hot start from Green may be needed even more since Jones will likely miss the first month of the regular season after breaking a bone in his foot during training camp. Jones' absensce presents an opportunity for Mohamed Sanu or Brandon Tate to step up or perhaps tight ends Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham to become more of a factor in the passing game.
Linebacker Vontaze Burfict led the NFL in tackles last season. The secondary has six players who entered the league as first-round draft picks. But it’s the defensive line that drives everything the Bengals do on this side of the ball. Paul Guenther moves from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator, taking over for Mike Zimmer, now the head coach in Minnesota. The philosophy and system won’t change much. The Bengals still want to stop the run first and get after the passer with their front four as much as possible without having to blitz. There will be as many as eight players rotating throughout the game without much drop-off.
The return of All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins from a torn ACL is the most significant upgrade from a season ago. The Bengals still finished ranked No. 3 in yards allowed and tied for fifth in points allowed without Atkins for the final two months of the season. Brandon Thompson played well in his absence but doesn’t command double teams the way Atkins does. Carlos Dunlap has always had a combination of size, arm length and speed that made one take notice, and now he’s playing every down with greater consistency and a higher motor. Michael Johnson isn’t on the other side of him now after signing with Tampa Bay as an unrestricted free agent. Wallace Gilberry tied with Dunlap for the team lead in sacks (7.5) and will start at the right end spot, with second-year player Margus Hunt seeing increased playing time.
Burfict has gone from draft castoff to Pro Bowler in two seasons and he was rewarded by the team with a four-year, $20 million contract extension. He gets to the ball fast and is a sure tackler when he gets there. He stays on the field in nickel packages, which is vital these days as teams increasingly utilize multiple-receiver sets. Vinny Rey proved he belonged on the field last season when he stepped in for an injured Rey Maualuga and produced, including a three-sack game at Baltimore. He’s a little undersized but holds up well against the run. Maualuga is better against the run than he is in coverage. Emmanuel Lamur missed all of last season with a shoulder injury. His return should help in the nickel.
The secondary added another talented piece with the first-round selection of cornerback Darqueze Dennard. It was a pick with an eye toward the future, but Dennard has the ability to play right away. Leon Hall is coming back from a second Achilles tear in two years. This one is his left leg as opposed to the right one he injured in 2011. Hall turns 30 in December. Adam Jones and Reggie Nelson will each be 31 in the first month of the season, while Terence Newman will turn 36. Dre Kirkpatrick, the team’s first pick in 2012, has shown some flashes of ability but is far too inconsistent. The Bengals are still waiting for him to take playing time away from one of the veteran corners. Safety George Iloka will start next to Nelson in the back end.
Punter Kevin Huber returns from suffering a broken jaw and a hairline fracture of cervical vertebrae on a hit from Pittsburgh linebacker Terence Garvin. His ability to pin opponents inside the 20 without touchbacks (24-to-4 ratio in 2013) is his biggest attribute. Kicker Mike Nugent made 18-of-22 field goals last season, including 3-of-4 from 50-plus yards. Brandon Tate hasn’t always been a fan favorite, but all he’s done in three seasons is become the franchise leader in kickoff return average and second in punt return average.
The Bengals can win the division again, and it won’t be a shock if they do, but at some point their best players have to show up when the calendar turns to January. The talent is present to make a deep run in the postseason and challenge for a conference title. It falls heavily upon the shoulders of Dalton, Green and the defense to make that happen.