Considering they were starting a second-round draft pick at quarterback, few would have predicted that the Cincinnati Bengals would make the playoffs last season. However, thanks to some impressive performances from their defensive linemen and a rookie receiver, they did just that.
The bar has been set high now, however, and with a tough schedule ahead this season they’ll need to improve to repeat that feat.
Today’s 32 in 32 looks at the Cincinnati Bengals reasons to be confident and concerned of a repeat postseason berth in 2012.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) Studs on the Defensive Line
One of the biggest reasons, if not the biggest, for Cincinnati’s success last season was the play of defensive linemen Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, who each ranked in the top five at their position in terms of pass rush grade. Coming off a rookie campaign where he impressed on a limited number of snaps, Atkins upped his game even further in 2011 as he finished the season as our second-highest graded defensive tackle. Registering eight sacks, 15 hits and 26 hurries, he was a common feature in opposing backfields. The challenge now is to maintain that level this season, although we haven’t seen a reason to doubt him yet. Dunlap was 2011’s version of Atkins, albeit from the defensive end position, registering five sacks, 13 hits and 29 hurries despite only being on the field for 448 snaps. If he can do what Atkins did last season, the Bengals will continue to cause problems for opposing offensive lines.
2) Amazing A.J.
It’s obviously very early in his career but it looks like the Bengals landed themselves a superstar when they drafted A.J. Green with the fourth-overall pick in last year’s draft. Averaging 15.8 yards per reception, Green reeled in seven touchdowns while dropping just five of the 123 passes thrown his way. One aspect of his game he has to work on is cutting down on the penalties. He was flagged 10 times in 2011, two more than the next worst wide receiver. Those penalties, however, shouldn’t take away from his work as a receiver. He firmly demonstrated in his rookie campaign that he has all the tools to be a true number one receiver, and the potential to be mentioned among the league’s elite very soon indeed.
3) Andrew Whitworth
While Green is looking to establish himself among the league’s elite at his position, Andrew Whitworth proved that he’s already a top-five pass blocking left tackle in 2011. His run blocking, he finished the season with a grade of (-7.8), let him down but only Cleveland’s Joe Thomas had a better grade as a pass protector. Allowing Andy Dalton to be knocked down just six times and hurried another 16, Whitworth had just two games where he graded out negatively as a pass blocker. With question marks along some of the rest of the Bengals line, a repeat of last season (with some improved run blocking thrown in) would be perfect for the team as they bid to make the playoffs in back to back seasons.
4) Healthy Hall
The best news for Bengals fans at the start of training camp was that cornerback Leon Hall had been fully cleared to take part. The team’s best cornerback, particularly after Jonathan Joseph bolted to Houston last offseason, Hall was placed on injured reserve after going down with a torn Achilles in Week 10. The concern is obviously how he responds on the field after such a serious injury. Hall’s play (he didn’t allow a touchdown from Week Two onwards) and the question marks surrounding the rest of the corners on the roster, make his return huge.
5) The Law Firm
Adding a player nicknamed “The Law Firm” to a team widely known for players having brushes with the law writes its own jokes, but the addition of BenJarvus Green-Ellis to the Bengals offense is much more important. Green-Ellis was our 11th highest graded player at the running back position last year, forcing 20 missed tackles and scoring 12 touchdowns. He’ll replace Cedric Benson’s snaps at the position which is good news due to both his play and because Benson looked to be pretty close to being finished at the end of last season. Green-Ellis is accustomed to a running back-by-committee approach in New England and that is likely to continue in Cincinnati with Brian Leonard and Bernard Scott playing their parts.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1) Is Dalton the Answer?
The up-and-down first half of Andy Dalton’s season included enough bright spots to give hope to Bengals fans that they had found a replacement to Carson Palmer right when they needed him. The second half of his season just didn’t include any ups, he graded negatively in every game from Week 10 onwards including having his second worst game of the season in the Wild Card playoff loss to Houston. We’re not harsh enough to say that Dalton definitely isn’t the answer, he’s only had one season in the league after all. Overall, he’ll need to have more games like he had in the first half of the season for us to feel more confident in the Bengals chances with him at the helm. He needs to take a big step forward to be more consistent.
2) Who Starts Opposite Hall?
With Leon Hall locked in as the team’s top cornerback, the most intriguing training camp battle is deciding who will start opposite him. Nate Clements play in coverage was enough of a concern that the Bengals added Dre Kirkpatrick in the first-round of this year’s draft, while bringing in Jason Allen and Terence Newman via free agency. The problem is that none of them have shown the ability to start, Kirkpatrick is just a rookie and Newman and Allen via their play on the field. Allen didn’t look too bad in the second half of 2011, however we’ve seen him play well enough for a coach to take a chance on him before, only for it to backfire. Newman, on the other hand, was just flat out poor at the end of last season. He held opposing receivers to under 63 yards just once in the final seven games, before getting torn apart by the New York Giants in Week 17. The best case scenario for the Bengals is that Clements’ play in 2011 was just a blip and not the beginning of the end. The worst case scenario is that nobody steps up and they are left with a gap at the position.
3) Beyond Green
The good news for Bengals fans is that Jerome Simpson and his tendency to drop passes, nine in 2011, have upped at left for Minnesota. The bad news is that someone now needs to step up and replace the 758 yards and four touchdowns that left with him. Andrew Hawkins was a safe pair of hands out of the slot but it’s not likely that he could make the jump to become a starting wide receiver while Brandon Tate was little more than a return man last season. They added Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones in the draft but right now the reports from the offseason workouts indicate Armon Binns, who has yet to record a catch in his career, looks like the man with the inside track at the starting job. Regardless, it’s important that somebody steps up and takes advantage of the fact that A.J. Green will be the focus for opposing defenses.
4) Depth on the Defensive Line
The Bengals like to rotate their defensive line a lot, with seven players playing at least 400 snaps last year. The problem with this is that some of the players’ performance on the field hasn’t justified staying on the field for that many snaps. Michael Johnson had just five positively graded games in 2011, and will likely find some of his 728 snaps going to Carlos Dunlap this season, while Robert Geathers has struggled every year since we began grading in 2008. They added Jamaal Anderson and Derrick Harvey in free agency, neither of whom were particularly impressive last season. The Bengals will continue to rotate defensive linemen at the same pace this year but unless a few more players can step up it could prove to be more on a hindrance than a help.
5) Safety Concern
While Reggie Nelson is pencilled in as the team’s starting free safety, he still doesn’t inspire too much confidence. His solid play for most of 2011 was undone by two poor performances in Week 17 and the Wild Card round of the playoffs. However it’s the strong safety position that poses the bigger concern. Competing for the starting job are Taylor Mays, Jeromy Miles and George Iloka. Mays and Miles combined to get on the field for 65 defensive snaps in 2011 while Iloka was viewed as a project coming out of Boise State as a fifth-round draft pick. Mays looks likely to win the job and considering his poor play in coverage in the past, he could quickly become a liability for the Bengals defense.
What to Expect
On one hand there’s a lot to like about the Bengals roster, but on the other there is enough concerns to make putting faith in them making the playoffs for the second straight year difficult. With Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the division that’s always four tough games on the docket and with the NFC East to play this season it’s going to be a tough task. At the end of the day, their chances of reaching the playoffs likely rest on Andy Dalton’s development and how they answer the concerns stated above.