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Cincinnati Bengals: 2022 Preseason Predictions and Preview

Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals

Joe Burrow and the Bengals look to prove that last year's Super Bowl appearance was no fluke.

The Bengals officially kicked their timeline into overdrive in 2021, coming one drive short of what would have been one of the most improbable Super Bowl victories in NFL history. Even though it came up just a few plays short of the sport's ultimate triumph, Cincinnati — with its 25-year-old superstar quarterback, an even younger group of talented offensive playmakers, a beefed-up offensive line and an athletic, opportunistic defense — can still be considered a team on the rise. The Bengals have the capability to be even better in 2022. In a loaded, unforgiving AFC, they're going to have to be if they want another crack at the Lombardi Trophy.

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OFFENSE

There wasn't a better quarterback than Joe Burrow to close out the 2021 regular season. Over his final five games, Burrow completed 72.3 percent of his passes for an average of 355 yards per game, with 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions. At that point, it became clear Burrow wasn't just a young quarterback on the rise — he'd arrived, and the rest of the AFC was going to deal with another elite signal-caller for years to come. So, how can he be better in Year 3? Cutting down the interceptions is the easiest place to start, as Burrow finished among the league's leaders with 14 in 2021. He threw at least one pick, including a couple of costly ones that were returned for touchdowns, in all but one of the six losses he started. As the season progressed and Burrow grew more and more comfortable with his talented receivers, the uncharacteristic bad throws became fewer and farther between. Burrow didn't throw any interceptions in his final four starts of the regular season and had just three in the final seven games.

The Bengals surely know they'll be making a much bigger investment in their quarterback, and that's why they set out to protect him better in 2022. Cincinnati had one of the league's best offenses despite an offensive line that put Burrow in harm's way far too often and had its warts exposed throughout the playoffs. Burrow took 51 sacks during the regular season and 19 more in four playoff games. That's why the Bengals went to work in a hurry, signing two proven interior linemen — guard Alex Cappa and center Ted Karras — at the start of free agency. The cherry on top came a few days later when the Bengals and Burrow, who has already emerged as one of their top recruiters, lured another former LSU star, La'el Collins. That gives Cincinnati three new starters on the offensive line to pair with left tackle Jonah Williams and left guard Jackson Carman.

Now the playmakers — there's an argument to be made about their status as one of the league's best groups. Ja'Marr Chase is coming off one of the best rookie wide receiver seasons in NFL history after racking up 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns. Though he and his former college QB have been together for just one season in the NFL, their chemistry and rapport are already at an advanced level. Chase is not only a threat deep down the field, but also on the short and intermediate throws he's proven able to break into big, big gains. The threat he poses on opposing defenses makes a receiver like Tee Higgins even more valuable. Higgins quietly posted 74 catches for 1,091 yards and six TDs. Those are WR1 numbers on a lot of teams, but Higgins is a dynamite No. 2 who provides a big target for Burrow across the middle on third downs, in tight windows on the sideline and in the back of the end zone on 50-50 balls. The ever-reliable Tyler Boyd — 3,743 receiving yards over the past four seasons — completes the trio, which could very well produce three 1,000-yard receivers.

All of this sauce in the passing game has made life easier and better for RB Joe Mixon, who is coming off a career year that included his first invitation to the Pro Bowl. The three-time 1,000-yard rusher, who will also benefit from Cincinnati's revamped offensive line, should have a clear path to a fourth 1,000-yard season if he stays healthy.

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DEFENSE

The Bengals bet big on free agents last season to help fix what was a porous defense. More often than not, that strategy doesn't work in the NFL. For Cincinnati, though, it was yet another success story in its season of dreams. The defense, guided by coordinator Lou Anarumo, just kept getting better and better and truly hit its stride during the playoffs, when it bottled up the Raiders and Titans before flexing its muscles in the second half of an improbable victory over Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. Just about everyone from that group is back for 2022, and so is Anarumo, whose buzz for head coach openings came a little too late for him to see any real opportunities in last year's cycle.

Cincinnati spent big on Trey Hendrickson in free agency after seeing Carl Lawson leave for the Jets, and all Hendrickson did was deliver the best season of his career. He collected 14 sacks during the regular season and another 3.5 in the playoffs to cement his status as one of the league's best pass rushers entering 2022. The rest of the defensive line is just like Cincinnati's defense as a whole — steady and solid enough to not be a liability. Sam Hubbard is durable and reliable on the other side of the line while DJ Reader and B.J. Hill combine to provide 650 pounds in the middle of a defense that ranked fifth in the NFL against the run last season.

At linebacker, the Bengals appear to be in good hands with their young core of Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt. Injuries have hindered Wilson in each of his first two seasons — he's missed four games both years — but he should be considered a true riser after compiling 100 tackles and four interceptions in 13 games last season. He was even better in the playoffs, where he led the team in tackles, including four for a loss. Pratt, meanwhile, has seen his production increase in each season since Cincinnati picked him in the third round of the 2019 draft. Most importantly, Pratt has been a rock, starting a combined 30 games over the past two years and missing just two games total in his three NFL seasons.

The Bengals continued to stock the secondary with young talent for 2022. Cincinnati used its first-round selection on versatile defensive back Dax Hill, who can play multiple positions, and its second-rounder on CB Cam Taylor-Britt. Mike Hilton was a great free agent success story for Cincinnati's defense, proving he was more than just a product of the Steelers' perennially daunting defense. The star of the unit, safety Jessie Bates III, is back for at least one more season, as the Bengals locked in the Pro Bowler with the franchise tag. Cincinnati hopes to keep him with the team long term, but for now it can count on having one of the league's best safeties in the prime of his career manning the back of its sneaky-solid defense.

SPECIALISTS

Placekicker Evan McPherson has become an instant star for Cincinnati after making a whopping nine field goals from 50-plus yards during the regular season and connecting on all 14 of his kicks — including three more from 50-plus — in the playoffs. It'll be a tough act to follow in his second year, but McPherson appears to have the special mental makeup and the necessary powerful leg. The other specialist roles are a little less certain; Kevin Huber will try to hold on to his punting job, and draftees could fill return roles.

FINAL ANALYSIS

The unfortunate reality for Cincinnati is it could improve in every aspect and still not get back to the Super Bowl. The positive reality for the Bengals, though, is there is every reason to believe they can be a better team in 2022 and beyond. With one of the NFL's best quarterbacks and wide receivers still playing on their respective rookie deals, the Bengals are officially in their window to set their goals for nothing less than what they already achieved in their memorable 2021 season.

Prediction: 1st in AFC North