Bengals are good, but still seeking signature playoff moment
Marvin Lewis is dubbing this season a “revival.” There’s been new construction at Paul Brown Stadium to upgrade the training facilities for the players as well as the game-day experience for fans. It’s a visual metaphor for the team itself: While things have been good in Cincinnati the past few seasons, they haven’t been good enough.
Four straight playoff berths have equaled four straight first-round defeats. Each loss has been similar in nature; the Bengals play well in the first half only to be dominated and eliminated in the second half. The offseason didn’t bring major changes to the roster, but there have been subtle moves, such as bringing back defensive end Michael Johnson and adding former Green Bay linebacker A.J. Hawk for stability in the front seven.
Some things don’t change, such as the need for quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green to step up in the biggest moments. When that revival takes place, then the Bengals can be thought of as a real contender.
Dalton enters his fifth season as the starter. He has shown he’s capable of taking a team to the playoffs, but whether the Bengals have matched up against elite quarterbacks in the postseason (Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck) or the pedestrian sort (T.J. Yates, Matt Schaub), Dalton has been outperformed by the opposing signal caller. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson took the ball out of Dalton’s hands more than predecessor Jay Gruden last season, and there’s reason to expect the focus of the offense again this season to be running the ball.
The backfield combination of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard produced more than 1,800 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground, as well as 70 receptions. They are the most reliable weapons in this offense, and Jackson doesn’t care if defenses know they’re coming. Put it this way: Jackson wouldn’t have called for a pass on the goal line with the Super Bowl in the balance.
A return to health by numerous receivers should make Dalton more efficient and the passing game more productive. Green missed three games entirely plus significant portions of two others with toe and biceps injuries, then didn’t play in the postseason because of a concussion. Wide receiver Marvin Jones missed the entire season with a broken foot. Tight end Tyler Eifert had three catches in the opening game before suffering a dislocated elbow that sidelined him for the rest of the season.
The offensive line returns intact, led by left tackle Andrew Whitworth. The Bengals used their first two draft picks on tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher, but don’t take that as a sign that the heart and soul of the Bengals is going anywhere anytime soon. Whitworth sets the tone on the field and in the locker room. He may be 33 and entering his 10th season, but he’s still an elite left tackle. Left guard Clint Boling was re-signed to a five-year deal, while the Bengals picked up the option for 2016 on right guard Kevin Zeitler. Center Russell Bodine will be in his second season, while Andre Smith and Eric Winston will get competition from Fisher at right tackle.
This unit needs new life infused into it. A lot of that infusion needs to come from recent draft picks whose time has come to put up or shut up.
The Bengals are hopeful that the return of Johnson after an ill-fated season in Tampa Bay will help revitalize a defensive line that lost its moxie last season. The Bengals managed just 20 sacks. No player outside of Carlos Dunlap (eight) and Geno Atkins (three) had as many as two sacks. Bringing back Johnson will allow the Bengals to put Wallace Gilberry back into the specialist role in which he was so effective from 2012-13. Gilberry can play inside or on the end, but he played too much last season. The strength of the line in the past was in its rotation, but that rotation failed the Bengals last season. There’s a question as to whether Geno Atkins will ever regain the All-Pro form he had prior to an ACL tear in 2013. He was just another guy last year, showing only flashes of the power and quickness that made offenses fear him.
Margus Hunt was a project when the Bengals drafted him out of SMU two years ago. The Estonia native had played football for just four years when the Bengals took him in the second round. The project phase of Hunt’s development is over. It’s time to put that 6'8", 290-pound body to good use. Hunt was plagued by an ankle injury last season, but he needs to be more than a body on the field. His size and athleticism make him a perfect complement in the rotation with Dunlap and Johnson.
The great unknown of the defense is linebacker Vontaze Burfict. He played in just five games last season because of various injuries, including two concussions suffered in the first two games of the season. There aren’t many players with his aggressiveness and instincts for diagnosing a play and making the tackle. That was missing from the defense throughout 2014. Burfict had microfracture knee surgery in the offseason, so just how good he can be this year remains to be seen. That’s one reason Hawk was signed; the other is for his leadership. Much like James Harrison in 2013, Hawk is a player who’s been there and done that. He’s not at the top of his game anymore, but he can still provide a strong presence.
Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard were first-round picks in 2012 and 2014, respectively. They were stuck behind Leon Hall, Terence Newman and Adam Jones last year. That won’t be the case this season. They’ll be starting sooner than later. The Bengals are solid at safety with Reggie Nelson and George Iloka, a fourth-year player who is emerging as one of the better young safeties in the NFL.
The Bengals have a solid trio in kicker Mike Nugent, punter Kevin Huber and long snapper Clark Harris. Huber is finally getting some due for his ability to control field position with punts inside the 20. He has a career 4-to-1 ratio on punts inside the 20 vs. touchbacks. Nugent showed off his mental toughness by making 16 of his final 17 field-goal attempts, including a 57-yarder in the playoffs, after missing a 36-yarder in overtime against Carolina in October.
The scenarios for the Bengals haven’t changed much from a season ago. They have proven they are among the top six teams in the AFC. They are playoff-worthy. They have talent. Do they have the mental toughness to get over the hump? At some point you just have to make plays. Everyone has to deal with injuries. No team is always at its best. Sometimes you just have to find a way to win a game.