32 Teams in 32 Days: Cincinnati Bengals
This year's Bengals are looking to take the next step and make noise in the playoffs. Jake Liscow examines the reasons for optimism and pessimism in Cincinnati.
32 Teams in 32 Days: Cincinnati Bengals
The Cincinnati Bengals went into the 2012 season with high expectations after making the playoffs in 2011, despite grading as a very average team on both sides of the ball. What they produced was improvement across the board offensively and some huge strides on defense, where the Bengals got strong coverage from their top three corners, the run defense took a step forward, and a certain defensive tackle emerged as a superstar.
Returning essentially their entire core in 2013, the Bengals have high hopes of still more improvement.
Today’s 32 in 32 looks at the reasons Bengals fans can be confident, and why they should be concerned, as their team tries try to reclaim the AFC North throne in 2013.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Geno Atkins and the Pass Rush
Geno Atkins had a monster 2012, achieving the best defensive tackle performance in PFF history, grading at +80.0. If Atkins can repeat his dominant campaign the Bengals’ defense should only improve around him in 2013. The Bengals return the majority of last year’s squad that produced 56 sacks and 294 pressures on the season, good for the fourth-highest pass-rush grade in 2012 at +28.9. Adding to the group, they picked up veteran linebacker James Harrison, whose injury may have slowed him down in 2012, and second-round freak Margus Hunt. Former second-round pick Devon Still should get more playing time in his second season. We’ve glimpsed Carlos Dunlap’s potential as an outside rusher, and if he can stay on the field and get more snaps the Bengals’ pass rush will improve in 2013. With those toys, Mike Zimmer will have fun. Zimmer is among the best at putting players in position to generate pressure, commonly deploying three defensive ends in nickel packages. He needs to make sure weapons like Dunlap get more pass rushing opportunities to continue that trend in 2013. The Bengals blitz just 27.1% of the time, less than the 31.6% league average, but manage to generate pressure nearly 34% of the time with a four-man rush. Using personnel rotations, Zimmer can maximize pressure with little cost elsewhere, a trend the Bengals hope to continue in 2013.
2. A.J. Green and the Young Offense
Last year, we hinted that A.J. Green was approaching the NFL’s elite tier of wide receivers. As a sophomore, he entered that conversation. In his third year, Green’s elite tools should continue to translate into elite production for the Bengals. The major difference in 2012 should be certainty at the WR spot opposite Green. Sophomores Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones will be targets 2A and 2B, as both flashed different but complementary skill sets in 2012. Sanu was a reliable target in the slot in limited action last year, and Jones was a big-play threat on post, hitch, and out routes when split out wide, who got better as the season went on. Andrew Hawkins will reprise his elusive playmaker role, after contributing 350 of his 533 receiving yards last year after the catch, and forcing seven missed tackles as a receiver. First-round pick Tyler Eifert figures to be a major addition to the passing offense, as his hands and ball skills are reportedly as advertised. He’ll join Jermaine Gresham in two tight end sets, which the Bengals will likely use more than last year to create mismatches in coverage. The Bengals also added rookie Giovani Bernard, whose pass catching acumen and agility will be welcome additions after BenJarvus Green-Ellis contributed just 22 catches for 104 yards in 2012. Andy Dalton has the weapons he needs to succeed this year.
3. The Offensive Tackles and Big Z
Andrew Whitworth remains a pass blocking stalwart at left tackle for the Bengals, and while knee injuries may limit his ability to generate the push that he demonstrated in 2010, he remains in the elite pass blocker column as PFF’s highest-graded pass blocking tackle in 2012. Andre Smith, however, burst onto the scene as an elite right tackle in 2012,and in fact tied with Ryan Clady for the fourth-highest grade of the year. He emerged as an all-around talent, as the sixth-best run blocking offensive tackle and third-best pass blocking right tackle in the league. Meanwhile, Kevin Zeitler impressed as a rookie at right guard. If it weren’t for one miserable game against Pittsburgh, Zeitler would have been a Top 10 guard as a rookie. The strength of the offensive line is pass blocking, and if Zeitler adds power run blocking to his arsenal next to Andre Smith, the Bengals will add another dimension to their offense.
4. Depth and Redshirts on Defense
The Bengals boast excellent defensive depth. The defensive line features highly-drafted sophomores Devon Still and Brandon Thompson. At defensive end, you can look six deep on the depth chart before you find a question mark, and former third-round pick Dontay Moch still has great potential as an edge rusher if he can shake migraine issues. At linebacker, Mike Zimmer should be able to play more situational football, as Emmanuel Lamur should take over at nickel linebacker next to Vontaze Burfict. James Harrison and fourth-round pick Sean Porter make five linebackers who should see substantial playing time depending on the situation. The secondary is mostly stacked, especially at corner (see below) where the presumed fourth-string corner is a “redshirt” first-round draft pick. That’s not just depth — that’s high quality depth, including young players with a year of practice under their belt. One or two injuries won’t derail this unit.
5. Quality at Corner
Leon Hall is one of the best slot corners in the league, leading the NFL in yards allowed per slot coverage snap and coverage snaps per reception allowed. Fellow starter Terence Newman ranked fourth in Run Stop Percentage and had a resurgent season in coverage. Adam Jones plays outside cornerback in nickel personnel packages, and had the sixth-highest coverage grade among corners last year. Former first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick has had an excellent training camp so far as the fourth corner on the depth chart. Newman will be 35 on opening day this year and could lose a step, but the Bengals have plenty of young talent with Kirkpatrick, Brandon Ghee, and fifth-round pick Shaun Prater waiting in the wings. This should be a top unit in 2013.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Can Andy Dalton Take the Next Step?
Dalton (-1.0) graded as near to 0.0 as any quarterback last year. He posted strong traditional stats for a second-year QB, with nearly 3,700 yards, 27 touchdowns, and an 87.4 passer rating. Still, he graded -5.0 as a passer and his numbers seem to be more of a product of him being an average quarterback with Green as a target. He’s in the middle of the pack in accuracy (72%), but was below average in deep accuracy (32.8%), ranking 20th of 23 qualified QBs. He struggled under pressure, and despite being one of the fewest-pressured QBs in the NFL, took the third-most sacks in the NFL — eight of which we attribute to Dalton himself. He needs to step up his performance, and seemingly that comes down to improving with his secondary and tertiary reads. He was much worse on plays where he held the ball for 2.6 seconds or longer, which aligns with the scout’s narrative that he locks on to his primary target and has trouble adjusting. It’s worth remembering that Dalton is entering just his third pro year, and his passing touchdown production in his first two campaigns put him in rare company (only Dalton, Peyton Manning, and Dan Marino have thrown for at least 20 TDs in each of their first two seasons), but he needs to take a step forward for this offense to leap into the top crust.
2. Second Safety
The Bengals are set at starting safety, but it is unclear who will start alongside Reggie Nelson. Taylor Mays graded positively in limited action in 2012, but the Bengals relied on veteran Chris Crocker for most of the year. Third-round pick Shawn Williams is getting snaps with the starters in training camp, but there’s an open competition between Williams, Mays, and 2012 fifth-round pick George Iloka for the second starting safety job. All three guys are essentially unknown quantities, and one of them will have to step up for the Bengals to have a complete secondary.
3. Rey Maualuga
Rey Maualuga had a nightmare 2012. He was PFF’s worst linebacker in 2012 and looked lost on the field far more often than a veteran linebacker should. However, Marvin Lewis and the Bengals stood by Maualuga with a contract extension, and he’ll still get 4-3 base snaps in 2013. He was targeted by opposing QBs 80 times in the regular season, making him the second-most targeted linebacker in the NFL last year. He gave up an opposing QB Rating of 107, 10.7 yards per reception, a 76% completion rate, and missed 18 tackles in coverage — one every four attempts. He ranked near the bottom of the league in Tackling Efficiency at 7.3 tackle attempts per missed tackle. He should escape some of those coverage situations this year, as Emmanuel Lamur has been taking snaps in the nickel package in training camp. He had 394 coverage snaps in the nickel last year and only 193 in the base 4-3, so the Bengals can and should do a better job of hiding him from coverage in 2013.
4. Running Game
The Bengals hoped Green-Ellis would help revive the running game. Unfortunately, the former Patriot turned in a flat performance (-5.8 overall, -6.2 in rushing) as a feature back without the threat of Tom Brady’s offense. The Bengals offensive line needs to improve in run blocking, but the Bengals are hopeful that rookie Giovani Bernard can provide a spark in the ground game. He will probably start the season as a third-down back, capable of bouncing outside and catching it out of the backfield (though this hasn’t been a staple of Gruden’s offense), but current speculation suggests that he will earn a carries split with the ‘Law Firm’ this year.
5. Youth as a Double-bladed Sword
One of the Bengals’ great strengths is their relative youth at key skill positions compared to the rest of the league. Andrew Whitworth, 31, is their only offensive starter over age 30 — the rest are 28 or younger, with most having four or fewer years of NFL experience. Green and Dalton are in their third year, Sanu and Jones in their second, Bernard and Eifert are rookies. They’re more experienced on the defense, but they’ll be relying on Burfict for another big year, Lamur in nickel packages, and youth for their second starting safety and to back-up many other positions.
What to Expect?
The 2013 Bengals are arguably the most talented edition of Cincinnati football since the 2005 squad’s Super Bowl hopes went down with Carson Palmer’s knee. Continuity bodes well for Cincinnati’s talent to coalesce and turn into something special, and this is a squad that has the air of a team ready to break out. They don’t have any glaring holes, and they have young players that could take the next step and propel them to the next level in Andy Dalton and Carlos Dunlap.
The Bengals have drafted well, by consensus, for the past few years, and it looks like those efforts could pay off this year. They have to deal with perennial contenders in the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, but should contend for the AFC North. For their fans, a playoff win would be a step in the right direction, but for Marvin Lewis and his team, they’ve got to think a Super Bowl is within reach.
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