With the 2013 NFL season rapidly approaching, we’re taking a spin around the league for a closer look at all 32 teams. Track all of our Snapshots here.
In the last five years, Marvin Lewis' Bengals have as many 10-win seasons as four-win campaigns (two each) but a total of 19 wins in the last two years. Today's Bengals, it's safe to say, are certainly an interstellar improvement over the versions that went from 1991 through 2004 without a single winning season. But now more is expected from an organization that hasn't won a playoff game since a January 1991 win over the Houston Oilers.
So, when you haven't advanced in the postseason since Madonna's "Justify My Love" was the number-one song in America (no, really), and you're finally good enough to get past that issue, the question becomes: What's standing in your way? The Bengals have a lot of playmakers on offense, and a defense good enough to stack up with any in the NFL at its best, but two straight wild-card losses to the Houston Texans have fans -- and possibly players and coaches -- pointing in one direction.
- Biggest storyline: Do the Bengals have an upper-tier quarterback in Andy Dalton?
Cincinnati selected Dalton out of TCU in the second round of the 2011 draft. Back then, he was a run-and-read thrower in a somewhat complex offense, with a limited arm and a lot of intangibles. Coming into his third NFL season, Dalton is a quarterback talented enough to have thrown 47 touchdowns against just 29 interceptions ... but his performances in those two playoff losses (41 completions in 72 attempts for 384 yards, no touchdowns and four picks) speak more succinctly to his limitations. Dalton has a better-than-average arm when things are going well, but he struggles under pressure, and frequently lacks the velocity to make stick throws under pressure.
Many other physically limited quarterbacks have succeeded throughout NFL history, and Dalton has some of the advantages common to those examples. He has a good offensive line, a decent running game, the best young target in the league in receiver A.J. Green, and an offensive coordinator in Jay Gruden who understands the West Coast offense best suited to what Dalton does well. No matter how or why, the best quarterbacks find ways to transcend their surroundings in the most important circumstances, and Dalton must join that group if the Bengals are to take the proverbial step.
- Most intriguing positional battle: Strong safety.
This is one of the few undefined spots in Mike Zimmer's excellent defense. George Iloka missed last week's game against the Tennessee Titans due to a wrist injury, and that gave Shawn Williams and Taylor Mays more chances. Williams responded with 11 tackles (six solo) in just 53 snaps, while Mays logged four tackles in 41 plays. Iloka is the projected starter at this point, but nothing is sure for the 2012 fifth-rounder out of Boise State. Mays, a second-rounder in the 2010 draft, has estimable athletic talent which he's trying to turn into actual production, and Williams (this year's third-rounder out of Georgia) could be the sleeper here. Williams was overlooked in college because people were more focused the flashy and spotty play of teammate Bacarri Rambo, but Williams was the more consistent defensive back -- then and now.
- New face, new place: OLB James Harrison.
The five-time Pro Bowler and 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year is making a transition from the "endbacker" role he played in Pittsburgh's 3-4 fronts to more of a traditional strong-side linebacker in Zimmer's 4-3 defense, though the Bengals' fronts are more variable than you might think. Harrison said early on that the adjustments are minor in his new home.
"I'm playing SAM, so I'm basically doing the same thing I do in a 3-4 defense," he told the team's official site in May. "It's just that I'll switch where I'm lining up. I'll be in a 40 or 30 [front], stacked behind a tackle or guard or whatever it may be. And I'll do my job from there."
The 35-year-old Harrison struggled with injuries over the last two seasons, and his sack totals have declined in each of the last three years, but the hope is that he can provide edge pressure as a rotational defender over the short term.
- Impact rookie: TE Tyler Eifert.
Part of Dalton's problem is that opposing defenses have been able to over-emphasize their coverages on Green, due to a lack of reliable complementary targets. That could change with the addition of Eifert, the former Notre Dame star selected in the first round. His college tape occasionally brings Rob Gronkowski to mind, and Eifert was one of Notre Dame's few bright spots in the BCS Championship game, as he made some very impressive plays against Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner. In a new offensive system led by a quarterback very much in need of a short-yardage escape hatch, Eifert should be the early favorite to be the most productive NFL rookie at his position this season.
- Looking at the schedule: It could be a lot tougher than it looks.
According to Football Outsiders' Projected Average Opponent metrics, the Bengals have the 17th-hardest schedule in the 2013 season, which is pretty encouraging unless the AFC North remains the bruiser conference most expect it to be. Outside of the divisional battles with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, and Cleveland Browns, there's a tough season opener at Chicago, and the Bengals welcome the Packers to Paul Brown Stadium. After a Week 5 game against the Patriots, there's a relatively easy month with trips to see the Bills, Jets, and Dolphins, and home against the Jets.
December's five-game stretch starts at San Diego, then home against Indianapolis, and a game against the Vikings sandwiched in-between what could be division-deciding games against the Ravens and Steelers.