The Bengals shocked everyone in 2011, going from 4 wins to 9 and securing the AFC’s 6th and final playoff spot. Every year since 2003, at least one team has improved from 5 or fewer wins and made the playoffs and last year that was the Bengals. Andy Dalton not only beat the odds as a rookie quarterback, but also as a 2nd round pick quarterback, the history of which has not been strong in the NFL. The Bengals also topped off their surprise season by trading Carson Palmer, who they weren’t even using, to the Raiders for a 1st and 2nd round pick.
However, things are not all good. The Bengals, while they made the playoffs, did not beat a single playoff team, going 0-8 (including playoffs) in 8 games against playoff teams and 9-0 against non-playoff teams. They also finished 3-6 in their final 9 games after a 6-2 start and Andy Dalton completed just 56.1% of his passes for an average of 6.5 YPA and 8 touchdowns to 9 interceptions in their final 9 games, as opposed to 61.5% for an average of 6.6 YPA and 12 touchdowns to 7 interceptions in their first 8 games. Finally, teams that go from 5 wins or fewer to the playoffs often regress the next season, averaging 2.8 fewer wins than their playoff season.
I got into Andy Dalton 1st/2nd half splits in the intro. A big part of the reason for his struggles late in the season was because the Bengals’ schedule got tougher. They had to face Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Houston 6 times in a 9 game stretch, while their toughest 2 games in the first half of the season where Denver and San Francisco. Sure enough, Dalton’s splits against playoff and non-playoff teams were not pretty.
Against non-playoff teams, Dalton completed 61.8% of his passes for an average of 6.7 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions. However, against playoff teams, he completed 55.6% of his passes for an average of 6.5 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. Good teams knew how to make him struggle so it’s no surprise he was 0-8 in those 8 games.
Heading into his 2nd season in the NFL, many expect him to take the next step as a quarterback, but I expect him to do the opposite. Colt McCoy was a similar quarterback who had a similar rookie year. Both played well in the 1st half or so of their rookie year, but struggled down the stretch. McCoy started 2-3 in his first 5 games, despite playing Pittsburgh, New Orleans, New England, Jacksonville and the Jets, and only lost one game by more than a touchdown. He completed 63.8% of his passes for 7.7 YPA and 3 touchdowns to 3 interceptions. However, in his final 3 games, he completed 56.8% of his passes for 6.3 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, losing all 3, including 3 by double digits.
The Browns still were a popular sleeper coming into 2011, before McCoy showed his true colors, completing 57.2% of his passes for an average of 5.9 YPA and 14 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. He has since been benched for 1st round rookie Brandon Weeden. Like McCoy, Dalton is physically limited, but accurate and intelligent.
Offensive Coordinator Jay Gruden did a masterful job of masking his flaws and taking advantage of his strengths with a great offensive game plan during the first half of the season, but the problem with that is that defenses eventually catch on and figure out how to scheme against you. It’s the same reason why Kyle Orton went 6-0 in his first 6 starts in Denver with Josh McDaniels and 5-22 in his next 27.
Many people, including some who know the game a lot better than me, have cast doubts on Dalton’s ability to be a franchise quarterback long term. The Bengals have run a good PR campaign in response to accusations that people within the organization had doubts about Dalton’s upside, but what do you expect them to do? Count me in the non-believer group when it comes to Dalton. Quarterbacks fall to the 2nd round for a reason and there’s a reason why the list of quarterbacks drafted in the 2nd round in the past decade or so to have long term success starts and ends with Drew Brees.
The Bengals have run a one back system for 3 years with Cedric Benson. Benson, however, is easily the worst back to finish in the top-10 in carries for 3 straight years (Maurice Jones Drew, Ray Rice, Chris Johnson, Steven Jackson). On 895 carries, he rushed for 3429 yards (3.8 YPC), scored just 20 times, and caught just 60 passes. Illustrating how little the league thinks of Benson, he is currently still unsigned as of this writing. I know he’s old, but if he were anywhere near talented enough to deserve to be in the company he was carries wise, he’d have a contract right now, easily, even at his age.
Benson has been replaced by a two back system, but I don’t know if things are any better. The two backs in the system, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Bernard Scott, both averaged less than 4 yards per carry last season. BJGE (3.7 YPC) is coming over from New England. As a Patriots fan, I watched about 16 or 17 of the Patriots’ 19 games last season (including playoffs) and I can’t tell you how many times I saw BJGE run for 3 yards through a hole. Among eligible backs on ProFootballFocus, the Lawfirm was 61th out of 67 in yards after contact per carry with 2.0.
Belichick loved him because he doesn’t fumble (0 fumbles in 510 career carries) and New England’s passing offense was so good that all they needed him to do was run through holes and not fumble, but that’s not the case in Cincinnati. They’ll need their running game to open things up for the passing game because I expect Dalton to continue to struggle and BJGE is not that kind of back, especially now that he’ll no longer be facing spread out boxes fearing the pass like he was as a Patriot.
He scored 24 times in New England over the past 2 seasons, but 18 of those were in goal-to-go situations. He won’t get nearly as many of those types of touchdowns on a more stagnant offense in Cincinnati. He also offers nothing as a pass catcher, catching 21 passes in 2 seasons with the Patriots, despite having one of the best in the business throwing passes.
His partner in the running back tandem is Bernard Scott (3.4 YPC). Scott has a little bit more speed, while BJGE has a little bit more power, but Scott has never been an effective back in the NFL. There’s a reason he’s only managed 247 carries in 3 seasons as the #2 back to Cedric Benson, who we’ve already established is not very good. He’s also only caught 29 passes. Unless they get some sort of breakout year from 6th round rookie Dan Herron, the Bengals figure to have the least running back talent of any team in the league.
I specify that they figure to have the least running back talent, rather than saying they’ll be the league’s worst running team, because of their offensive line. They don’t have the talent to take advantage of it, but they actually have one of the best run blocking offensive lines in the league. In fact, they are one of the best offensive lines in the league in general, as they allowed just 25 sacks last year, good for 4th fewest in the NFL. That obviously helped Andy Dalton.
Their offensive line figures to be even better this year as they upgraded their only weakness, guard. Left guard was manned by Nate Livings, who graded out well below average on ProFootballFocus with a -13.4 rating. He somehow got a good contract from the Cowboys, but he didn’t deserve it. Opposite him at right guard, Bobbie Williams played alright, but missed a lot of time with injury. The soon to be 36 year old was not brought back. In his absence, Mike McGlynn was awful.
Replacing Livings and Williams/McGlynn are Travelle Wharton and Kevin Zeitler. Wharton struggled some in pass protection with the Panthers last year, allowing 2 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 27 quarterback pressures, but made up for it by being a strong run blocker and by only getting penalized once. He finished last season with a -2.6 rating overall and he’s been better in the past. Heading into his age 31 season, he’s still a solid starter.
Zeitler, meanwhile, was the 27th overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft. While I thought it was incredibly stupid for the Bengals to trade down from 21 to 27 and pass on a once in a decade prospect in David DeCastro, letting him get to division rival Pittsburgh nonetheless, Zeitler is still a very good football player. The Bengals had him rated higher than DeCastro. I disagree, but he should still be a very solid pro for at least 10 years. With Zeitler and Wharton coming in, that should be enough to take the Bengals from a solid run blocking team to one of the best in the league. Sandwiched between Zeitler and Wharton is Kyle Cook, a solid center, whose strength is run blocking.
Rounding out the offensive line are tackles Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith. Whitworth wasn’t quite his usual self last year, ranking 7th among offensive tackles with a 13.1 rating, but most of that can be blamed on his struggles as a run blocker. In pass protection, he was as pristine as ever, allowing just 3 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, 16 quarterback pressures, and committing 8 penalties. He ranked 2nd on ProFootballFocus as a pass blocker, very typical for him as he’s ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked offensive tackle in pass blocking efficiency over the past 3 years, behind only Joe Thomas and Jake Long. In 2010, he was ProFootballFocus’ top overall offensive tackle and he was much better as a run blocker then. The fact that this guy has never made a Pro Bowl exemplifies what’s wrong with Pro Bowl voting.
Meanwhile, Andre Smith was looking like a bust after struggling with injury and weight problems in his first 2 years in the NFL, after going 6th overall in the 2009 NFL Draft, but he played well in 2011 at right tackle. Smith managed a solid -1.7 rating and allowed just 3 sacks, 8 quarterback hits, 17 quarterback pressures, and committed 8 penalties. He too struggled a little as a run blocker. However, overall, the Bengals have a strong offensive line that deserves more recognition. They figure to run and pass block very well this season. If only they had more quarterback and running back talent to take advantage of it.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
One other talent on the offense that is not fully being taken advantage of is AJ Green. Despite being a mere rookie off of a lockout shortened offseason, Green had an amazing year in 2011, catching 65 passes for 1057 yards and 7 touchdowns. He definitely makes Dalton look better than he is. However, if Dalton regresses this season, which I expect him to, it’ll hurt Green’s ability to take the next step as a receiver, at least statistically. His upside is off the charts if they can ever get him a legitimate franchise quarterback. One thing he can clean up is his 10 penalties, but I think you can chalk that up to him being a rookie.
Opposite him, Jerome Simpson is gone, but it’s not like the Bengals don’t have plenty of other options. Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, 3rd and 5th round picks in the 2012 NFL Draft respectively, were brought in and the organization is also high on Armon Binns, a 2011 undrafted rookie. Brandon Tate, a mediocre talent, will also be in the mix, but I think the job will go to Sanu.
Sanu was a steal in the 3rd round and is a perfect fit for the Bengals. Sanu is very limited in the things he can do on the football field, but he’s very good at a few things. He has 4.6 speed and only had 4 receptions of 20+ yards at his time at Rutgers, but he caught 210 passes total in just 3 years despite playing with 3 different freshman quarterbacks. He’s excellent at getting open underneath and is the definition of a possession receiver. He’ll compliment AJ Green well like TJ Houshmanzadeh complimented Chad Ochocinco.
One concern in the receiving corps is the health of Jordan Shipley. Shipley had a strong rookie year in 2010 with 52 catches for 600 yards and 3 scores out of the slot, but missed almost all of last season with a torn ACL, which he admits is still stiff. He was plagued by injuries at Texas in college, which is the reason why he was a 6th year senior when he eventually came to the Bengals as a 3rd round pick. He’s already entering his age 27 season. He could start the season on the PUP, in which case the Bengals would likely move Sanu to the slot in 3-wide receiver sets and play someone like Binns or Jones or Tate outside as the 3rd receiver.
At tight end, the Bengals have Jermaine Gresham. Gresham is an incredibly talented player and was a 1st round pick in 2010, but he hasn’t lived up to his talent. He hasn’t exceeded 56 catches for 596 yards and 6 touchdowns in either of his 2 seasons, though he somehow made the Pro Bowl last year (Jermaine Gresham Pro Bowler, Andrew Whitworth not, yeah, fuck you Pro Bowl). He could break out in any year, but he’s hurt by his quarterback’s limitations, as is AJ Green and the rest of what’s actually a very good receiving corps.
The Bengals had a top-10 defense in 2011, but like the rest of the team, they struggled in the 2nd half of the season. Including playoffs, they allowed 23.8 points per game in their final 9 games, as opposed to 17.5 points per game in their first 8 games. Part of that was the tougher schedule, but they also really missed Leon Hall. Hall tore his Achilles in November, week 10 against the Steelers. He’s expected to begin the season on the PUP, which means he’ll miss at least 6 games and he might not be himself the entire season. They have a great pass rush (45 sacks in 2011), but a leaky secondary is definitely a problem.
Their defensive line was obviously a big part of the reason why they had 45 sacks last season. They didn’t have anyone with more than 7.5 sacks in the regular season, but that’s because they use so much rotation on the defensive line. Only two of their defensive lineman played more than 700 snaps last season, playoffs included. They were defensive tackle Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson.
Atkins played incredibly well and has established himself as one of the league’s premier defensive tackles. No one at his position did better than his 34.9 rating on ProFootballFocus, as he managed 9 sacks, 16 quarterback hits, and 28 quarterback pressures on 490 pass rush snaps (10.8%), while playing the run well. Starting next to him at defensive tackle is Domata Peko. Peko isn’t nearly as good of a pass rusher with 3 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 5 quarterback pressures (3.7%), but he also plays the run well. He’s taken off the field on passing downs, so his struggles as a pass rusher don’t matter that much.
Last year, it was Jonathan Fanene, who also played some end, playing defensive tackle on passing downs. He was a decent pass rusher with 7 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, and 15 quarterback pressures on 332 pass rush snaps (8.7%), but he’s now with the Patriots. To replace him, the Bengals used a 2nd round pick on Devon Still. Pat Sims and 3rd round pick Brandon Thompson could also be in the mix, but Atkins, Peko, and Still will get the bulk of the snaps at the position.
At defensive end, the Bengals also lost someone as a free agent as Frostee Rucker took a ridiculous 5 year, 20.5 million dollar contract in Cleveland, even though he’s only a situational run stopper. He’s a good run stopper, who ranked 12th at his position in that facet, but managed a laughable 4 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and 5 quarterback pressures on 215 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 5.1%, pathetic for a defensive end.
With him gone, Carlos Dunlap is expected to see more of the field. Given how well Dunlap has done as a situational player, that could be a good thing. Playing only 448 snaps total, Dunlap managed 5 sacks, 13 quarterback hits, and 29 quarterback pressures. On 302 pass rush snaps, he had a pass rush rate of 15.6%. However, playing more would mean playing more snaps against the run, which is not a strength of his game. Plus, dating back to his days at Florida, he was always better as a situational player than as a starter, which is why a pass rusher as talented as him fell to the 2nd round in 2010. If Dunlap struggles with more playing time, the Bengals could use Devon Still at defensive end some on non-passing downs. Still played there some in OTAs and minicamp.
The other two members of their defensive end rotation are Michael Johnson and Robert Geathers. Both graded out below average on ProFootballFocus with ratings of -6.5 and -7.5 respectively. Johnson had 7 sacks, but just 6 quarterback hits and 15 quarterback pressures, good for a 6.5% rate on 433 pass rush snaps. Meanwhile, Geathers had 4 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 13 quarterback hits on 274 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 7.3%.
This basically shows a theme. The Bengals had a good amount of sacks last year, but the amount of quarterback hits and quarterback pressures they had, 68 and 142 respectively, was pretty average. Given that, they could have significantly fewer sacks in 2012 as some of their sacks turn to pressures or hits. There’s a reason why they only graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 12th ranked pass rushing team last year, despite the 5th most sacks in the league. And if Carlos Dunlap struggles as he’s counted on to play more, that would be a big hit to their pass rush. Against the run, meanwhile, they ranked a solid 8th with 3.9 YPC allowed. This is a solid bunch on the line for the Bengals, but not an elite one.
While they use a lot of rotation on the defensive line, that’s not so much the case in their linebacking corps. Rey Maualuga and Thomas Howard are every down players when healthy, Maualuga missed 3 games last year, while Brandon Johnson comes in for Manny Lawson in base packages. Howard and Lawson were afterthoughts in free agency in the 2011 offseason, but both played very well. Howard had a decent 2.4 rating, while Lawson, a much better fit in a 4-3 than he was in a 3-4 in San Francisco, had a 10.7 rating, good for 9th at his position, thanks to his strong play against the run. That’s all they really need him to do. Johnson, meanwhile, is a solid nickel linebacker.
Maualuga, meanwhile, had a down year in his 3rd year in the league after being an above average linebacker in his first 2 seasons. He had a -6.3 rating after ratings of 6.7 and 9.1 in his first 2 years in the league after going in the 2nd round in 2009. You can attribute that to injuries that cost him 3 games and limited him in several others. Maualuga had surgery on his bad ankle after the year and should be able to bounce back in 2012. He’s not much in coverage at 260 pounds, but he’s a big thumping run stuffer.
The secondary is the biggest problem defensively for the Bengals, especially if their pass rush regresses some in 2012. Leon Hall is, as of this writing, 8 months removed from a torn Achilles. He’s expected to start the season on the PUP, which means he’ll miss at least 6 games. Even when he’s eligible to return in mid-October, that will only be 11 months since his injury and this injury normally takes a year or more to recover from, especially fully. When he plays this year, he probably won’t be his old self.
In his absence, the Bengals are expected to start Dre Kirkpatrick opposite Nate Clements. Kirkpatrick is a talented player and was worthy of the 17th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, but rookie cornerbacks tend to take a year or two to adjust to the speed of the NFL. Even Patrick Peterson was terrible in coverage last year. Clements, meanwhile, is heading into his age 33 season so his best days are obviously behind him. He was solid last year with a -0.2 rating, but he’s no sure thing going forward.
Free agent acquisition Jason Allen could push him for that starting job. Allen played very well in a variety of different roles for the Texans last year, including outside cornerback, slot cornerback, and some safety. He allowed 39 completions on 77 attempts (50.6%) for 457 yards (5.9 YPA), 5 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, with 5 deflections and 2 penalties. He’ll play a significant role this season somewhere, probably on the slot, where he’s best.
At safety, the Bengals have gotten rid of Chris Crocker. He wasn’t very good, but they didn’t replace him. The Bengals are counting on Taylor Mays to start in his absence. Mays was a 2nd round pick in 2010 by the San Francisco 49ers, but when Jim Harbaugh came in, he traded him for an insignificant pick in a future year and he played just 68 snaps for the Bengals last year. He’s an ideal fit for the Bengals’ system under Mike Zimmer as he has some similarities to Roy Williams, who Zimmer had a ton of success with both in Dallas and some in Cincinnati. If he can work out anywhere, it’s in Cincinnati, but he’s certainly no sure thing. 5th round rookie George Iloka and 2011 5th round pick Robert Sands would be next in line should he fail.
Next to whoever starts at strong safety, the Bengals have Reggie Nelson. Nelson was a bust in Jacksonville, but got things together in Cincinnati and was rewarded with a 4 year, 18 million dollar deal. He’s an average safety, who had a -3.1 rating last year and he’s better in coverage than against the run. Overall though, things are average at best in the secondary. Unless Leon Hall can somehow find his old form and do so for more than 8 games or so, they don’t have a single player in the secondary you can describe as anything other than average. Kirkpatrick is a rookie, Mays is inexperienced and had an underwhelming career thus far, while Nate Clements is on his last legs. A secondary headlined by Jason Allen and Reggie Nelson is nothing to be proud of.
Their leaky secondary is only one of the reasons I don’t think the Bengals will matched their 9th ranked scoring defense from 2011. Their pass rush is overrated if you look purely at sacks and the 23.8 points per game they allowed in their final 9 games would have ranked 22nd last season. I know they played a tougher schedule in their final 9 games, but, while Baltimore and Pittsburgh are great teams, they’re hardly offensive power houses, while Houston was starting a rookie quarterback. They really missed Leon Hall.
Believe it or not, Marvin Lewis is actually the 3rd longest tenured Head Coach in the NFL after Andy Reid and Bill Belichick. Despite his 69-74 record and 0-3 record in playoff games, he’s seemingly had 9 lives as a Head Coach, surviving every time his name comes up as someone who could be fired. The Bengals have been very loyal to him. I don’t know if that necessarily makes him a bad coach. He hasn’t exactly had great talent, but he hasn’t been a great one either. If the Bengals regress this year, expect Lewis’ name to be mentioned as someone who could be fired again and this time he might not survive.
I’ve gone over the reasons why I think this team will regress this season. I’m not an Andy Dalton believer. They didn’t beat a playoff team all last year. They struggled down the stretch. They’ll miss Leon Hall being at 100%. Also, teams that go from 5 wins to the playoffs win, on average, 2.8 fewer games the following season. This makes sense as teams that do that often do it because so many things go right for them, including the schedule, in the year they make the playoffs. Except for the Hall injury, which will continue to hurt them this year, they had very minimal injuries last season.
Also, the fact that they didn’t beat a single playoff team last year is very troubling. It shows that they really aren’t that caliber of a team. It remains me of the Buccaneers, who did the same thing in 2010, going 9-1 in games against worse than .500 teams and 1-5 in their other 6, with that one win coming against New Orleans week 17 when they weren’t really trying. The Buccaneers almost went from 5 wins or fewer to the playoffs in 2010 (they won 10 games and barely missed) and then this year they did the complete opposite, going 4-12 and pushing their record against .500 or better teams to 3-14 over a two year span. The Bengals are a young team just like the Buccaneers.
Schedule wise, they once again have 4 tough divisional games against Baltimore and Pittsburgh and two easier ones against Cleveland. 2-4 seems reasonable again. They may win one of those 4 against Baltimore and Pittsburgh, but they’re equally as likely to drop one to Cleveland. Outside of the division, they host Miami, Denver, the Giants, the Raiders, and the Cowboys. Miami and Oakland should be easier, but Denver, the Giants, and the Cowboys will all be tough games, even at home.
They also have trips to Washington and Philadelphia, both of whom will be improved, San Diego late in the season (almost never loses at home late in the season), Kansas City, and Jacksonville. They should win one or more of those games, but there’s definitely the potential schedule wise, for this team win 5 or 6 games, especially if they struggle to pass, in addition to struggling to run, and struggling some defensively.
Just like one team goes from 5 wins or fewer to the playoffs every year, one team does the opposite every year and the Bengals are my pick to do so this year. The Bengals did the exact same thing the last time they made the playoffs. They went from 5 wins or less in 2008, to the playoffs in 2009, then back to 5 wins or less in 2010, before making the playoffs in 2011. Bengals fans should prepare themselves to go back down on this roller coaster.
Projection: 4-12 3rd in NFC North