THE MONEY YEAR
This is an article from the Sept. 7, 2015 issue
Here we go. Again. Maybe for the final time.
For four seasons the Bengals have been the NFL's ultimate tease. They are talented in so many areas and consistent enough to lock up postseason berths, but not good enough, for whatever reason—cough, quarterback—to win a single playoff game in that span.
This year looks to be much of the same. The talent is there for a Super Bowl run. But it's the same players and coach that have repeatedly left fans flummoxed. A precipitous drop is more likely.
Is there anything that could forestall SI's predicted regression for this team? Perhaps urgency. Many key players, including a whopping 12 starters, will be unrestricted free agents at year's end, and that might not be a bad thing. It means those players have much to play for: themselves as a group for the final time, and as individuals to improve their free-agent prospects.
The Bengals have entire units involved in this potential exodus, starting with the top three receivers: A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones. Both starting tackles, Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith, could walk. The secondary stands to lose the four players who were on the field for the most snaps last season: safeties George Iloka and Reggie Nelson, and cornerbacks Leon Hall and Adam Jones.
Some of the paydays they find will certainly be elsewhere, as the Bengals have players poised to fill those spots. In the draft Cincy doubled up on highly rated tackles, taking Texas A&M's Cedric Ogbuehi (coming back from right-knee surgery) in the first round and Oregon's Jake Fisher in the second. At receiver the Bengals have Brandon Tate and Denarius Moore, who underachieved in Oakland after a promising start to his career. At cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard are recent high draft picks who are ready to take the next step. And former third-round pick Shawn Williams could grab a starting spot at safety this season if Iloka or Nelson slips up.
Much, of course, will depend on how well Andy Dalton directs a talented offense in the biggest games, but the defense must reestablish itself as the backbone of this team. That unit has broken down too often in key spots, and last year it regressed seriously; in 2013 it was third in yards allowed and fifth in points, but in '14 it finished 22nd and 12th in those categories. The drop coincided with assistant Paul Guenther's taking over for former coordinator Mike Zimmer, who left to coach the Vikings.
The Bengals need defensive tackle Geno Atkins and linebacker Vontaze Burfict to return to form. Atkins was the best three-technique lineman (if not all-around defender) in the NFL before an ACL injury ended his 2013 campaign. In the 25 games before the injury Atkins had 18½ sacks. Last season he had just three in 16 games. And his decline was a big reason for the Bengals' league-worst 20 sacks. (The other was the team's failure to adequately replace end Michael Johnson, who signed with Tampa Bay but is now back in Cincinnati.) The good news is that so far in training camp Atkins is far from "just a guy," which is what Guenther called him last season.
Then there's Burfict, who was the team's leading tackler in 2012 and '13 but had concussion issues and then a left-knee injury which ended his season in Week 5. His playmaking was sorely missed. Burfict is still working his way back, but the Bengals drafted a potential sub in the third round in P.J. Dawson (TCU) and also signed longtime Packers middle linebacker A.J. Hawk, who is sound in his assignments but hasn't been an impact player for some time. Burfict, whose off-field issues raised red flags coming out of college, has developed into an exemplary leader on the field; his return is essential to a postseason breakthrough.
The secondary, until free agency breaks it up, can match the best in the league with talent and depth. Cornerbacks Hall, Kirkpatrick, Dennard and Jones can all play man-to-man effectively. Nelson and Iloka carried the D in 2014, mostly because the front seven left so much for the safeties to clean up. That can't happen again.
This could be the final run of one of the most frustrating teams in recent NFL history, and one that could cost coach Marvin Lewis his job. So talented ... so little to show for it.
SI'S PREDICTION: 6--10
ANDY BENOIT ON THE BENGALS' NEED TO RUN
When you see the loaded offense surrounding Cincinnati's decidedly average quarterback, know that the Bengals haven't been built this way by accident. They fully understand Andy Dalton's strengths (high presnap IQ) and limitations (arm strength and erratic postsnap decision making), and they've constructed their roster accordingly. At wide receiver Dalton has one of the game's best in A.J. Green, a limber, wide-radius target. Green's acrobatics, though, may have given his quarterback a false sense of security; the 6'4" receiver has been the intended target on 28 Dalton interceptions since 2011, the most for any duo in the NFL during that span. Granted, some of these picks have been Green's fault, but it's a reminder that a time-tested way to cater to an average quarterback is to support him with a strong backfield—hence Cincinnati's second-round selections of running backs Jeremy Hill (above) last year and Giovani Bernard the year before. Hill has the power and light feet to be a 1,500-yard downhill bruiser. The 5'9" Bernard brings to mind Maurice Jones-Drew. These two provide a strong ground game and an electricity on screen passes, and they should be play-caller Hue Jackson's focus in 2015.