1. Andy Dalton’s career has been a story of highs and lows. Never was that truer than last season. When Dalton had room in the pocket to throw, he exhibited serviceable arm strength and savvy decision-making. But when his pocket was muddied, he floundered. Here’s the problem: Dalton doesn’t have a great feel for nuanced pocket movement. He lacks the Tom Brady sixth sense for subtly sidestepping defenders and giving himself more space and time. And so those muddied pockets that he struggles with come around more than they should. When Dalton gets better in the pocket, he’ll be a more consistent passer.
2. Dalton wasn’t solely to blame for all the muddied pockets in 2016. Anyone who watched this team knows the O-line must play better. The interior three (which has since lost its top talent, right guard Kevin Zeitler, to division rival Cleveland), struggled to pick up pass-blocking assignments on the fly. On the edges, young right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi simply couldn’t handle the bull rush. Now he’s being asked to replace one of the league’s steadiest left tackles, Andrew Whitworth. (Yikes.) That means the starting right tackle will be Jake Fisher, who didn’t get on the field regularly last season despite the struggles of Ogbuehi and washed up veteran Eric Winston. (Double yikes.)
3. Rookie running back Joe Mixon’s arrival likely means Jeremy Hill’s demise. Besides more decisiveness on runs, Mixon, a gifted receiver, can another dimension to the offense on first and second down. Coordinator Ken Zampese loves to do a lot of presnap shifting. Expect him to feature Mixon here.
4. The man drafted a round before Mixon, wide receiver John Ross (ninth overall), won’t see the field often in 2017. Besides missing valuable reps rehabbing a shoulder injury this past offseason, Ross joins a receiving corps that’s already balanced and set. A.J. Green is obviously a true No. 1. Brandon LaFell, a consummate professional, does all the little things that make an entire offense better. He’ll remain the No. 2. And Tyler Boyd, who improved his route running late in his rookie season, has a chance to become a viable slot receiver. Also, the coaches love 2016 sixth-rounder Cody Core. Ross was a luxury pick for 2017; his role will be carved out in 2018.
5. Tight end Tyler Eifert is an important mismatch-making piece in the passing game, particularly in the red zone. Mismatch-making tight ends are valuable because how they line up can often reveal the defense’s coverage.
6. Paul Guenther is one of NFL’s best blitz designers, and yet he blitzed with less frequency than every defensive coordinator in the league last year. Marvin Lewis is comfortable playing straightforward zone concepts (the Bengals feature a lot of Cover 2 and Cover 4), but it would behoove the Bengals to drift a little closer back to the variegated pressure concepts they ran under previous defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
7. Guenther is well versed in the double A-gap pressure designs that defined Zimmer’s scheme, but he also has some designs of his own. Whenever an offense sees bull-rushing extraordinaire Geno Atkins aligned directly over the center, and both defensive ends in wide-9 positions, it should be on high alert for some sort of zone blitz, with D-linemen dropping back and deeper defenders rushing.
8. We think of blitzes as third-down tactics, but some of Guenther’s best calls come on second down. That’s because about 80% of second-down-and-long plays in the NFL are passes. And those pass concepts are less likely to have a built-in answer for blitz.
9. Not to beat a dead horse, but another reason Guenther needs to dip more into his bag of blitzes is the Bengals don’t have consistent edge-rushers. Left defensive end Carlos Dunlap is long and talented but, inexplicably, he disappears for stretches. At right defensive end, Michael Johnson, at this point, basically disappears for months at a time. It’s a little surprising the Bengals didn’t work harder to find a replacement this offseason.
10. Adam Jones is almost 34 and, at right cornerback, somewhat mistake-prone (his tend to come in bunches). At what point do the Bengals consider putting 2016 first-round pick William Jackson at right corner? Would they really make Jackson sit and wait for two full years like 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick did? Or like 2014 first-rounder Darqueze Dennard basically has?
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