2016 record: 6-9-1
Point differential: +10
Turnover ratio: +3
The impressive string of playoff berths for Marvin Lewis, Andy Dalton and the Bengals came to a crumpled end in 2017. A combination of injuries and decided lack of clutch performances sent the team to a 6-9-1 record. Now, the Bengals are hoping to bounce back on the strength of keeping the band largely together and hoping that better health and more consistent play throughout games will launch Cincinnati back to the playoffs.
There is still ample talent on both sides of the ball, and the draft brings a potentially exciting duo in John Ross and Joe Mixon to the offense. Concerns with both lines and the kicking game need to be answered positively, and Dalton must provide legit Pro Bowl-caliber play at quarterback once again to direct this Bengals team back to the 10-plus wins they were accustomed to for so many years.
Five questions for the Cincinnati Bengals
- What happened to the offensive line?
For years the Bengals have deployed one of the league’s better offensive lines. Some of that is a credit to venerable OL coach Paul Alexander, but they also drafted well and found skilled players who mixed well together.
That picture has changed, and not for the better. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right guard Kevin Zeitler are both gone in free agency. Each was a top-5 talent at his respective position and had been for several seasons. Replacing Whitworth is especially problematic as he was perhaps the most respected locker room leader on the team.
Trying to fill those shoes is Cedric Ogbuehi. Thus far the 2015 first-rounder from Texas A&M has been a major disappointment. He deservedly got benched last year after flopping at right tackle. The hope is he will respond favorably to moving back to his natural left tackle spot and getting a full, healthy offseason. Ogbuehi’s unnaturally wide stance has been too easily exploited by defenders thus far.
The team realized it missed Andre Smith more than expected and brought the former first-rounder back to take over right guard. He left for Minnesota in free agency after being a decent starting right tackle, though he got hurt and flopped for the Vikings. Smith brings power and tenacity, but even as a tackle he wasn’t close to as nimble or savvy in pass protection as Zeitler, the man he’s replacing.
Jake Fisher will be the right tackle for as long as he’s healthy. History has shown that will be about a month. Even his college days at Oregon were littered with injuries and nothing has changed in the NFL. When he’s on the field, Fisher is an exceptional mover for the position, though susceptible to bull rushes and DL gimmicks.
It says something that Russell Bodine and Clint Boling, the center and left guard, are the stalwarts. Bodine is an average all-around center on his best Sunday, and that’s a higher ceiling than Boling. The only depth anywhere is washed-up veteran tackle Eric Winston, though rookie J.J. Dielman does have some serious potential if he can stay healthy. Dielman is the most skilled center on the roster. He might be the best tackle on the line too, but he missed 2016 at Utah with a nasty leg injury.
- Where is the pass rush?
Part of the answer here is easy and positive. Geno Atkins remains one of the most disruptive interior rushers in the league, and edge Carlos Dunlap is long, physical and brings a barrage of moves and countermoves. Atkins topped the team with 9 sacks, one more than Dunlap, who also broke up an incredible 15 passes.
It’s the rest of the defensive front that is a big question. Veteran Michael Johnson is still a solid rotational piece, but his lack of burst and creativity just don’t bring a lot of heat. He can finish and he works well opposite Dunlap, but Johnson’s better as a run defender. That’s why the rookie class figures so prominently.
The Bengals tabbed Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson in the third and fourth rounds with the full intention of both getting ample playing time as rookies. Willis was highly productive at Kansas State and lit up the workout season with outstanding test numbers. Those impressive athletic qualities weren’t always easy to spot in college, where he generated a lot of his pressure from getting a running start and looping upfield around the outside shoulder of the tackle. Yet Willis does have some inside counters and good awareness of the blocking to go with quick play recognition. He could dramatically outplay his draft position.
Lawson was once considered a first-round talent but injuries slowed his Auburn career. He lacks length but uses his leverage well and has a better closing burst--to both the QB and the running back--than anyone on the DL outside of Atkins. It would be a boon if the rookie tandem could combine for 7.5 or more sacks.
If Andrew Billings can get on the field in the middle of the line, that would solve a lot of issues. Like Lawson, Billings was a potential first-round pick before a knee injury ruined his draft stock. It also wiped out his rookie season. He’s a rare breed of attacking nose tackle and much more nimble and creative than Domata Peko. They need it to improve from 23rd in sack percentage.
- Can the offensive skill position players stay healthy?
This has been a recurring problem for the Bengals, who have rarely had standout TE Tyler Eifert, All Pro-caliber wideout A.J. Green and both featured running backs all at full speed at the same time. When they did back in 2015, the Bengals went 12-4. Green missed the playoff loss to Indy the prior season, too.
Eifert has played in just 37 games in his four NFL seasons, missing time with a litany of injuries. When he’s played he’s been a dynamic force, handily one of the league’s best receiving tight ends. He missed half of last season after undergoing back surgery. Recovery from back surgery is never a given, and it’s the type of issue which can flare up at any time. Green missed the final 6 games of last season, though he still nearly hit 1000 yards and led Cincinnati in receptions with 66.
Green missed six games last season, a black mark on an otherwise stellar and pretty durable career. The Bengals cannot sniff the playoffs without Green at full speed. His blend of size, strength and attention to detail make him one of the league’s best weapons, both down the field and in the red zone. When he’s on his game, few can slow him down.
The rest of the receiving corps is asked to do way too much when Green and Eifert aren’t together. That’s why so much rides on first-round pick John Ross, who presents the team with a legitimate vertical threat. Ross has major durability concerns of his own, and many considered him a reach based on that; from his post-draft report at Rotoworld:
Ross reached 400 yards in just one college season and showed poor durability, enduring a right meniscus tear followed by microfracture surgery, a torn left ACL and meniscus, and a torn shoulder labrum from which Ross is now recovering.
Ross will miss at least part of camp and preseason as he continues to rehab from that shoulder. I love his potential but it’s asking a lot for a rookie with his litany of down time to make a big impact with no real reps.
Brandon LaFell is the de facto No. 2 outside wideout until Ross takes the job. He’s a decent player but essentially a possession receiver. A full 10 percent of his 862 yards came on just one of his 64 catches in his first season in Cincinnati. That drops his per-catch average over a full yard, which is more commensurate with his prior journeyman career. Tyler Boyd showed sure hands but not much creativity or explosiveness in his rookie season. They’re fine as complementary pieces but if the top 3 receiving options above them aren’t right, they’re asked to do too much.
The durability issues struck the running backs, too. Gio Bernard is still recovering from the ACL he tore late last season. They need his versatility as both a runner and a receiver. Jeremy Hill has not been able to build off a strong rookie season, unable to make tacklers miss and not showing the giddyup that made him effective early on. Fortunately the team drafted Joe Mixon, a very talented back who combines the best of what both Bernard and Hill offer. Mixon has his off-field baggage but he has the potential to make a lot of these worries go away. The second-round pick from Oklahoma can be a dynamic force, able to run inside or outside. He’s very polished in the receiving game too. He’s the X-factor for the entire team, one that desperately needs his talents after versatile Rex Burkhead departed and Bernard is no lock to get back to his old self. The early reports from training camp are positive for Bernard, which would be a very good thing for Andy Dalton.
The quarterback gets too much negative press, but at the same time he needs all hands on deck. Dalton is not a QB who can elevate talent around him to new heights, but he’s proven a steady, accurate performer with leadership skills. When the team around him, notably the line in front of him, has been good, Dalton has proven more than capable of being good enough. That’s his NFL lot.
- Can they improve in close games?
The 6-9-1 record last year saw them lose five games by less than a touchdown, along with the tie with Washington. Those close losses scuttled away a positive overall point differential. Turning even half of those losses into wins puts Cincinnati back in the playoff picture.
The easiest way to improve their fate in the close ones is to produce more turnovers. With all the talent in the secondary, they need to finish higher than 18th in takeaways. Starting safeties George Iloka and Shawn Williams each picked off 3 passes, which is fine production. They’re a solid do-it-all tandem, with Iloka’s improvement in coverage situations a nice development. Williams will run past some plays but brings intensity and power to every snap. The corners need to pick it up.
Adam Jones, Darqueze Dennard, Dre Kirkpatrick and William Jackson are all first-round picks. Despite the massive investment in the position, the productivity just wasn’t there last year. Kirkpatrick picked off 3, but the Bengals need more plays on the ball. The lack of PDs (passes defended) from the corners stands out; Kirkpatrick had 10, the only corner in the top 5 on the team. Jones had just 7, along with 1 INT, despite playing almost every snap. Josh Shaw and Dennard, who shared the nickel duties in their various roles, each struggled. Shaw got only 3 PDs while Dennard, who might be in peril of losing his job after another disappointing campaign, had just one.
Jackson didn’t play in his rookie season with a chest injury, and his presence could be the variable the team needs on the otherwise stable back end. The back-end cohesion will need to produce because the team is making changes at LB. Rey Maualuga is gone, which means more pressure on Vontaze Burfict and Vincent Rey. Burfict is a standout do-it-all backer, while Rey has been a consistent performer in more limited duty. The third thru fifth LBs will be some mix of unproven commodities like Nick Vigil, Paul Dawson and newcomer Kevin Minter, who played a lot but did very little in the last two years in Arizona. Minter and Burfict are both capable blitzers, which could create more takeaways with a strip sack or a forced pass.
Getting reliable kicking would also help. Mike Nugent got fired after missing too many kicks, notably 6 extra points. Randy Bullock only missed one of his 6 FG attempts, but the miss cost the Bengals a win against his old team, the Texans. To that end, the Bengals drafted Memphis K Jake Elliott, who has a bigger leg and generally better accuracy. At least punter Kevin Huber is a good one. There are plenty of capable return men fighting for the job, notably Alex Erickson and Adam Jones.
- What more can Marvin Lewis do?
Lewis has been the head coach in Cincinnati for 14 seasons. He led the team from a group of undisciplined underachievers to perennial playoff contender and did it in his own way. The Bengals made the playoffs six times in seven seasons prior to last year, though they never tasted postseason victory.
Now he’s in the last year of his contract. Many of the players have spent years under his tutelage, and that makes it harder to impact change. That’s not what Lewis is about, anyway. Consistency, even-natured discipline and measured emotions are some of the assets the coach brings. It’s a great structure, but it might be growing stale in Cincinnati. Coordinators Ken Zampese and Paul Guenther have both been on the staff for a decade, promoted from within. There is a real risk of stagnancy of message and approach. Continuity matters more, but innovation within that contiguousness is important too, and Lewis and this Bengals staff sure looked out of new tricks last year.
It’s on Lewis and his staff to prove they deserve to preserve the continuity. Keeping the team atop the fewest penalty yards per game standings is a good place to start.
Don’t call it a comeback. Last year had so many things go wrong, from key injuries to missed extra points. Most of the key pieces from the perennial playoff team are back, most of them healthy too.
This year’s forecast is much sunnier…at least on the surface. Potential storm clouds on the offensive line, receiver and kicking game, but there are above-average starters in place at a number of important positions on both sides of the ball. With A.J. Green and Geno Atkins, there are legit difference-makers on both sides of the ball too.
A strong start is imperative. The Bengals open with winnable home dates against Baltimore and Houston, but both of those are also potential losses. Four road games in six weeks follows, including trips to Green Bay and Pittsburgh. If Cincinnati can’t clear the first half of the schedule with more than five wins, it could be the end for Lewis and this core talent group. I think they scrape through early and seize second place in the AFC North with a 10-6 record, good enough to sneak into the playoffs as the AFC’s No. 6 seed. But they’ll need some luck to secure that elusive playoff win.