2014 Preview: Cincinnati Bengals
Chris Kern takes a look at the AFC North champions and the reasons their fans have to be confident of a repeat or worried for a year of disappointment.
2014 Preview: Cincinnati Bengals
The Cincinnati Bengals had, by all accounts, a successful 2013 regular season. Marvin Lewis steered his team to a division crown, winning the AFC North by a comfortable margin on the back of an unblemished home record at Paul Brown Stadium. Offensively and defensively the team performed well, ranking in the Top 10 in yards and points per game on each side of the ball. Claiming five victories out of their last six games, the Bengals finished the season strong.
Optimism soon gave way to an abrupt halt as the Bengals played one of their worst games of the season in their home playoff game, exiting in the first-round for the third consecutive year. Rarely a major player in free agency, the Bengals in 2014 are banking on the continued development of young talent stockpiled over the past few years and the return of a certain defensive lineman you may have heard of.
Five Reasons To Be Confident
1. Return of Geno Atkins
While the defense performed admirably after Geno Atkins tore his ACL against the Miami Dolphins in Week 9 of 2013, it was never quite the same without its dominant force in the middle. Since entering the league, Atkins has never dropped out of the Top 5 in Pass Rush Productivity. The ridiculous +73.6 he amassed during the 2012 season is, by far, the highest cumulative grade we’ve seen since we’ve been grading for interior linemen. Offensive guards and centers have been no match for his unique blend of speed and power. He has played sparingly during the preseason, but assuming he’s fairly healthy, expect him to terrorize quarterbacks on the schedule regularly.
2. Emergence of Marvin Jones
Highly-touted A.J. Green is without a doubt the primary receiver in the Bengals’ offense, but surprisingly, the highest-graded receiver on the squad last year was 2012 fifth-round pick Marvin Jones. Though his rookie season was a bit of a struggle, Jones made his mark in 2013 earning an overall +11.0 on over 500 snaps. A legitimate deep threat, Jones had a 57.1% catch rate on deep passes (20 yards or more), fifth-best among wide receivers with at least 10 targets. He has good hands to go with it as he dropped only three catchable balls in 54 chances, totaling a Drop Rate of 5.56% which was bested by only 16 other receivers. An unfortunate injury (broken foot) during training camp may slow him a bit early in the season, but Jones looks to have positioned himself to have another big year as a secondary option in the Bengals’ passing attack.
3. Giovani Bernard
The Bengals took it slow with Giovani Bernard, easing him into action early on in the 2013 season. However by Week 4, Bernard was already seeing the field to the tune of 50 snaps against the Cleveland Browns. Dynamic as a runner and pass catcher, Bernard racked up over 1,000 yards from the line of scrimmage as a rookie. Clearly difficult to bring down as well, he broke 44 tackles en route to a Top 10 finish in our Elusive Rating. Bernard has been the lead back through camp and preseason and it appears the coaching staff has designs to unleash him this year. With positive grades across the board last year, including a +3.0 pass blocking grade, Bernard has shown he can be a three-down back. With the roster spot of BenJarvus Green-Ellis in question, it may be the Bernard show in 2014.
4. Dalton’s Blindside
The Bengals’ offensive line was solid last year, in large part due to the fantastic play of Andrew Whitworth at two different positions. The consummate team-player, Whitworth slid over to left guard after an injury to Clint Boling. Despite playing only five games there, he finished seventh among guards with a cumulative grade of +16.8, showing well as a pass and run blocker. He wasn’t a slouch at left tackle either, playing nine games there and ranking 15th among all tackles with a grade of +17.8. Pass protecting for 571 snaps at both guard and tackle, Whitworth yielded only 23 pressures over the course of the year including the playoffs. With Marvin Lewis proclaiming that Whitworth will be moving back to tackle full-time, it looks as though the position will be one of strength for the Bengals in 2014.
5. Tyler Eifert
An effective tight end is the ultimate security blanket for any young quarterback. After two years of dreadful TE play, with Jermaine Gresham (double-digit negative grades in 2012 and 2013) the primary culprit, Andy Dalton may have found his man in Tyler Eifert. Eifert isn’t going to maul defenders in the run game as evidenced by his -2.5 grade, but he had a productive rookie campaign as a pass catcher pulling in 39 balls and scoring two touchdowns. His overall grade of +1.7 is nothing to balk at given the difficulty of transitioning from the college to the professional game at the TE position. With a year of experience under his belt, look for Eifert to contribute in a big way this season.
Five Reasons To Be Concerned
1. Andy Dalton and Consistency
Andy Dalton enters his fourth season as signal caller for the Bengals after signing a huge extension tying him to the franchise for the foreseeable future. It has been a mixed bag for Dalton in his time with Cincinnati, flashing moments of brilliance but also exhibiting head-scratching moments. Dalton finished 2013 with a +8.4 overall grade, good for middle of the pack, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. When he played well, he really peaked. Dalton had three individual games where he graded at or above +5.9, all of which the Bengals won by 14 points or more. On the flip side of that, Dalton had five games where he earned a grade of -2.8 or below, with his worst grade of the season coming in the playoff defeat (-6.2). Unless Dalton performs more consistently, the Bengals are going to be in for a wild ride this season.
While Kyle Cook didn’t exactly set the world on fire manning the middle of the offensive line, he was a known quantity and an experienced player on the depth chart heading into the season for the Bengals in 2013. Cook is now retired, which leaves questions at the center position. Veteran Mike Pollak (400 snaps last year mostly at guard), third-year player Trevor Robinson (78 snaps last year), and fourth-round pick Russell Bodine have all taken snaps at center during training camp and the preseason. Bodine seemingly has the inside track after playing the entire first half against Arizona, though that may change after getting manhandled by Cardinal nose tackle Dan Williams. Bodine struggled specifically in the run game, earning a -2.1 run blocking grade.
3. Brain Drain
Marvin Lewis found himself in the awkward position this offseason of losing both of his coordinators to head coaching positions in less than a week, leaving a substantial void to fill with his top two lieutenants jumping ship. Jay Gruden accepted the head Washington job, while Mike Zimmer made his way to Minnesota. Coach Lewis, as he made clear, believes in continuity and was quick to promote from within. He tapped running backs coach Hue Jackson to lead the offense and linebackers coach Paul Guenther to head the defense. Whether there will be a noticeable drop-off by either unit remains to be seen, but losing two talented coaches certainly can’t help your cause.
4. Tough Road Schedule
While perfect at home, the Bengals struggled at times on the road in 2013. They were winless away from Paul Brown Stadium within the division and lost winnable games at Chicago and Miami. Road wins will be a challenge this year as well. Outside of the divisional games, the Bengals travel to New England, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Houston, and a rebuilt Tampa Bay. The latter two would seem very winnable, but fortunes change very quickly in the NFL and every win is hard-earned. The others are division winners all likely to contend for division titles again. Good teams win road games, will the Bengals be a “good team” in 2014?
5. Michael Johnson in Tampa Bay
After slapping the franchise tag on Michael Johnson following the 2012 season, the Bengals chose to let him walk rather than cough up the hefty sum it would have required to keep him around. With big money devoted to the defensive line already in Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, it’s hard to argue with the move despite the productive season Johnson had in 2013. Though his sack numbers were down, Johnson totaled 61 total pressures on 582 pass rush snaps, ranking 14th among 4-3 defensive ends. His Stop % of 8.4 ranked fifth among 4-3 defensive ends. The Bengals turn to, in his place, veteran lineman Wallace Gilberry. Gilberry performed significantly worse than Johnson in 2013, earning negative grades in run defense and pass rush. The biggest drop-off will be in run defense, where Johnson really excelled. Keep an eye on second-year player Margus Hunt, who made our Top Preseason Grades recently, to push Gilberry for playing time at left defensive end.