Marvin Lewis has been the most successful coach in Cincinnati Bengals history by most measures. He’s coached the team longer than anyone, including founding father Paul Brown. He’s won more games (112) than any coach in franchise annals, and of the 14 times the team has reached the postseason, he’s been at the helm for half of them. That includes four of the 10 division championships won in team history.
But there is still the matter of winning in the postseason that eludes Lewis and the Bengals. Seven playoff berths in 13 seasons is a remarkable record. Seven straight one-and-dones, four of them with home-field advantage, is a different kind of remarkable.
Yet here the Bengals are again, readying themselves for Round 8. Will they once again be Charlie Brown, in a full sprint towards the ball only to have Lucy once again pull it away at the last moment? Or will this talented roster, with a quarterback in Andy Dalton who seemingly turned a professional corner last season, finally break through?
Dalton took his game to a higher level in 2015 only to see it halted by a fractured thumb in a loss to Pittsburgh in December. Ironically, the injury occurred when Dalton attempted to make a tackle following an interception, a mistake he rarely made as he began to shed the moniker of being just a game manager. Dalton’s decision-making and his protection of the ball — that final interception was just his seventh of the season — improved exponentially. It didn’t hurt having A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones healthy, but the Dalton whom Bengals brass expected finally emerged.
The receiving corps has undergone a shakeup as Jones and Mohamed Sanu have departed via free agency. Green and Eifert, who combined for 138 catches, 1,912 yards and 23 touchdowns, remain an imposing tandem. It’s open competition after those top two options. Brandon LaFell was signed as a free agent after being released by New England. He needs to overcome issues with drops, but he can come in and play on the outside or slot. Second-round draft pick Tyler Boyd left Pitt as its all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards, well ahead of legend Larry Fitzgerald in both categories. Mario Alford (5-9) is the lone receiver on the team listed shorter than six feet, but his speed and elusiveness with the ball make him an effective weapon. Someone may need to emerge sooner rather than later with the possibility that Eifert could miss the first few games of the season after undergoing ankle surgery in late May. Eifert sustained the injury playing in the Pro Bowl on Jan. 31. Even if everything goes according to plan the projected recovery period is at least three months.
If there was one good thing to come out of Dalton’s injury, it was that it allowed backup AJ McCarron to show what he could do. He has the poise to go along with the physical capabilities to be a starter — just not on this team at this point.
Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard give the Bengals a dynamic pair of running backs, but Hill has to recover from a down 2015, which was capped off by a lost fumble that began the chain reaction of events that ultimately led to Pittsburgh pulling out an 18-16 win in the AFC Wild Card playoffs in January. Hill has fumbled nine times in his two seasons (including the postseason), losing the ball six times. Bernard has averaged 5.4 yards per touch in his three seasons and is entering his contract year. Rex Burkhead has been used as a slot receiver in the past couple of seasons and could get more of chance there this season, but he and Cedric Peerman are also two of the team’s top special teams players.
Andrew Whitworth may be 34, but it doesn’t show. He remains an elite left tackle who rarely needs help in pass protection. Cedric Ogbuehi, last year’s No. 1 pick, will start at right tackle with veteran Eric Winston as his backup. Guards Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler are solid pass protectors but also athletic enough to pull on power run blocks, something that is a staple of the Bengals’ attack. Center Russell Bodine needs to improve his technique and keep from getting pushed back as much as he has, especially against the 3-4 nose tackles that the other three AFC North teams employ.
Geno Atkins is once again Geno Atkins, and that makes the rest of the defense go. The All-Pro defensive tackle commands double teams yet still is as disruptive an interior lineman as there is in the NFL. The attention other teams have to pay to him opens the opportunities for the rest of the defensive line, particularly ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson. Domata Peko is a solid partner alongside Atkins, but fourth-round pick Andrew Billings from Baylor could see a lot of action as the season progresses. Maybe there was a knock on Billings’ height (6-1) before the draft, but if that’s the reason he lasted as long as he did, the Bengals have no concerns. He has a quick burst off the snap and strength to spare. Margus Hunt will be pushed for time in the rotation by Will Clarke and Marcus Hardison. This is the deepest and most talented position group on the team, the foundation of the defense.
Vontaze Burfict will miss the first three games due to a suspension for repeated violations of safety-related playing rules. Maybe when Burfict comes back, Karlos Dansby can help teach him to rein in his play. Burfict has unmatched intensity and the ability to recognize what offenses are doing. His inability to stay on the right side of the thin line between aggressive and unsportsmanlike is what draws the ire of his critics and the league office.
Dansby, 34, was signed after being released by Cleveland, but he’ll fit right in as the Sam linebacker, where his coverage skills will be an asset in nickel situations. Rey Maualuga is best suited to play against the run. Vinny Rey may not be listed as a starter, but he got a new three-year deal because he can play all three positions with instinct and skill. Backups P.J. Dawson, Trevor Roach and third-round pick Nick Vigil will be valuable on special teams.
The cornerbacks room got another first-round pick in William Jackson III, but he’ll be behind Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard on the depth chart. Chris Lewis-Harris came into the league as an undrafted free agent, but he keeps earning his way onto the roster. Josh Shaw can play on the outside or in the slot. At safety, George Iloka, Shawn Williams (who signed a four-year contract extension in May) and Derron Smith are all versatile enough to step up against the run and cover at the line of scrimmage.
Long snapper Clark Harris, punter Kevin Huber and kicker Mike Nugent are entering their seventh season together. They are vital components to how the Bengals like to play to win the field position battle, especially Huber’s ability to pin opponents inside the 20. He’s put 182 of his 531 career punts inside the 20 compared to just 48 touchbacks.
Brandon Tate isn’t flashy as a kickoff or punt returner, but he’s reliable. This could be a spot where the Bengals give Alford a look, although they’ll still use Jones as often as possible.
Same old story for the Bengals: They are good enough to win the AFC North and contend for the Super Bowl. Dalton is a mature quarterback and good enough to give them that opportunity. The roster has been built through the draft, with development and by emphasizing retaining their own players as a core belief. Now, can they just get out of their own way?