Now a big-money QB, Andy Dalton must finally deliver wins in the postseason. But simply getting there is no gimme in the tough AFC North
By Dan Greene
I’m in downtown Cincinnati, in the figurative shadow of Paul Brown Stadium, where the Bengals hold training camp on their practice field across the Ohio River Scenic Byway. You may have heard there was some breaking news in town today, with Andy Dalton inking a six-year, $115 million contract extension. As media reports trickled out in the morning before the deal was officially announced at a 1 p.m. press conference, Dalton just went about his usual business. Backup quarterback Jason Campbell overheard someone discussing it in a stairwell and then tried to confirm it with Dalton, who downplayed everything because the ink hadn’t yet dried on all the particulars. Campbell then joked that he’d like to be treated to a steak dinner.
One vivid memory from watching practice
The pass coverage, particularly by the linebackers. Vontaze Burfict had a nice interception of fourth-string QB Max Scott, which he began to return before flipping a lateral to Emmanuel Lamur just as coaches whistled the play dead. Moments earlier, Jayson DiManche had nonchalantly swatted down a short pass intended for tight end/fullback Ryan Hewitt, drawing laughter and high-fives from Burfict and Lamur as he walked back to the sideline. Burfict told me that new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, who was promoted from linebackers coach to replace Mike Zimmer (now the Vikings head coach), has emphasized tightening the pass coverage. It showed.
How this team can go 12–4
Coming off an 11-5 season, it will take more of the same: a stout defense coupled with an offense that routinely puts points on the board (the Bengals scored 430 points in 2013, sixth most in the NFL; their D allowed just 305, the fifth best mark). Though many familiar faces are returning on both sides of the ball, there will be new ones calling the shots—in addition to Paul Guenther, former running backs coach Hue Jackson has replaced Jay Gruden, who left the offensive coordinator job to be the head coach in Washington. The good news is that there’s no reason to anticipate any drop-off. Guenther has maintained Zimmer’s defensive structure and scheme, and he’s so highly regarded that both Zimmer and Gruden reportedly tried to court him to their own staffs. The biggest concerns on D have to do with health, as All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins (torn right ACL last October) and cornerback Leon Hall (a torn right Achilles the same month) work their way back to full health. The staff has been cautious with Atkins, the centerpiece of the unit.
On offense, Jackson will be tasked with ironing out Andy Dalton’s performance (particularly under pressure) and getting the kind of consistency that will alleviate external doubts about his contract. He’ll also be focusing on improving the power running game that eluded Cincinnati last season, in which it averaged 3.8 yards per carry (only four teams ranked lower). In 2010 and 2011, when Jackson was the Raiders’ offensive coordinator and then head coach, Oakland ranked second and seventh, respectively, in that category.
How this team can go 4–12
Barring unforeseen injuries, they won’t. There’s too much talent returning on a good team for the wheels to fall off. That’s not to say there aren’t a few areas of concern, beginning with the aforementioned rehabs of Geno Atkins and Leon Hall. There’s also the age of Hall’s fellow cornerbacks: Terence Newman will be 36 by Week 1, and Adam Jones will be 31 at the end of September. If those two show their age (or if Hall suffers a setback), then first-round pick Darqueze Dennard will likely be pressed into significant action. It’s unlikely, but if new offensive and defensive coordinators Hue Jackson and Paul Guenther struggle to find rhythm and chemistry with their units, the Bengals could experience some early growing pains.
Now, from fantasyland …
1. Giovani Bernard is your guy. The second-year back should be the biggest beneficiary of Hue Jackson’s focus on the ground game; running backs coach Kyle Caskey has suggested he could see up to 300 touches. Bernard’s allure is too obvious for him to slip too middle rounds in most drafts, but he should be worth his price as a low RB1.
2. While A.J. Green remains a stellar wideout, all this talk of Jackson ramping up the running game should give you pause that Green’s numbers might take a hit. Don’t pass on him in favor of an unproven player, but know that Andy Dalton likely won’t throw 586 passes again this season.
3. Second-year tight end Tyler Eifert seemed to be a go-to target of Dalton’s on short and intermediate throws in practice. He’s someone to keep an eye on, though he and fellow tight end Jermaine Gresham will likely cut into one another’s fantasy values.
How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold:
|WR||A.J. Green||LDE||Carlos Dunlap|
|LT||Andrew Whitworth||NT||Domata Peko|
|LG||Clint Boling / Mike Pollak||DT||Geno Atkins|
|C||Russell Bodine||RDE||Wallace Gilberry|
|RG||Kevin Zeitler||OLB||Emmanuel Lamur|
|RT||Andre Smith||MLB||Rey Maualuga|
|TE||Jermaine Gresham||OLB||Vontaze Burfict|
|WR||Marvin Jones||CB||Terence Newman|
|3rd WR||Mohamed Sanu||CB||Leon Hall|
|QB||Andy Dalton||SS||George Iloka / Danieal Manning|
|RB||Giovani Bernard||FS||Reggie Nelson|
|FB||Ryan Hewitt||Nickel||Adam Jones / Darqueze Dennard|
|K||Mike Nugent||P||Kevin Huber|
Clint Boling, who had surgery for a torn ACL in January, will likely start at left guard. Mike Pollak could also be the backup center… George Iloka, the 24-year-old incumbent at strong safety, is still first on the depth chart but will be pushed by the veteran Danieal Manning, a free-agent pickup who played under new secondary coach Vance Joseph in Houston… Leon Hall will cover the slot when three corners are on the field, meaning either Adam Jones or Darqueze Dennard will line up outside. Expect Jones to be there in the early going, despite a strong offseason from the rookie known as “No Fly Zone.”
Best new player in camp
Russell Bodine, a fourth-round center from North Carolina. The Bengals sent a sixth-rounder to Seattle to move up 12 spots so they could grab the 6’3”, 306-pounder, and Bodine has responded by earning the starting job out of the gate. Of note: His 42 bench press reps of 225 pounds were six more than any other prospect at the combine.
Strong opinion that I may regret by November
Giovani Bernard, who had 1,200 yards from scrimmage last year, breaks into the 1,500-yard range. Just six running backs reached that mark last season: LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte, Knowshon Moreno, Marshawn Lynch, and Reggie Bush.
Something I’ve never seen before
Not a sight, but a sound. As the media gaggle awaited the offensive players to return from their morning meetings to the locker room, we were treated to a Drake Pandora station that was enjoyably heavy on the Kendrick Lamar. The station took an amusing turn when it pulled up Pittsburgh native’s Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow,” which has become something of a Steelers anthem. Unfortunately there were no players in the locker room to grill with hard-hitting questions about a rival’s song coming up on a playlist they don’t directly control anyway.
What I thought when I walked out of camp
After three straight one-and-done trips to the playoffs—how many times has Andy Dalton already been asked if he’ll win a postseason game to back up the big money?—this could be the team that finally takes the next step. Although they’re hoping for more (witness the black T-shirts with a tiger paw-scratched Lombardi Trophy hanging in each player’s locker) at least two postseason victories should be more than enough for critics to lay off Dalton. But in a tough AFC North, and with four interconference games against a rising NFC South, simply getting to the playoffs will be no gimme.