The Cincinnati Bengals just can seem to get it right. The Bengals have made the postseason three years straight, but each was a bitter disappointment, a first-round loss.
The Bengals will have their work cut out for themselves to win back-to-back division titles, and are given the same odds as the Pittsburgh Steelers to win the division. It is every bit as close as the odds dictate.
Odds to win Superbowl: 40/1
Odds to win AFC: 16/1
Odds to win AFC North: +200
Odds courtesy of Bovada
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis can look at the start of his coaching career two ways: First, he can count himself extremely lucky to have made the postseason three straight years. Conversely, he has suffered the most first-round losses with one team to begin a career, and that has to be a disconcerting black cloud hanging over both his head.
The offense is very reliant on Andy Dalton, for better or worse. Having a strong run attack will allow Dalton a lot more time to throw, though, and it will vary the Bengals attack. It should help Dalton, and the Bengals will most definitely improve on last season’s performance given that Hue Jackson was able to guide the Oakland Raiders to the second-best rushing offense in 2010. Jackson will be tough on the Bengals players, and that will improve the focus of all involved.
Dalton is only the third QB in the Super Bowl era to lead his team to the postseason in his first three NFL seasons. But he’s kind of a Jekkyl/Hyde quarterback, and those extremes are tough for Bengals fans to live with. At his best, he is having three straight 300-plus yard games. At his worst, he is 2-4 in prime time and 0-3 in the postseason. He’s improved his deep passing abilities and clearly benefitted from his work with former MLB pitcher Tom House. His mechanics are improved, but his consistency remains a huge question mark.
Jason Campbell is a very good backup if Dalton shows his ugly side. He played for Jackson in Oakland and he’s a proven commodity. That’s never a bad thing to have backing up a young QB, even a successful one. The Bengals have only kept two QBs on the roster the last three seasons, so it’s likely it will be Dalton and Campbell that carry the load. There will be no plan C.
Giovanni Bernard carried the ball for 1,209 yards last season, which was the second highest by any rookie in Bengals’ history. He also got in the end zone eight times. BenJarvus Green-Ellis will continue to be featured more in the offense after getting a lot more carries last season. He’s in a contract year and has plenty to prove after averaging just 3.4 yards per carry last year.
Bengals’ second round pick Jeremy Hill of LSU has drawn comparisons to Le’Veon Bell, but that’s a lot of potential to cash in on. The Bengals lack of a fullback is problematic, so perhaps Bell can help fill that void. He’s certainly a back that should be on the field every down. The backfield is talented, but the unknown of Hill and disappointment from Green-Ellis will be themes for the Bengals’ offense.
Dalton’s receiving core is above average. A.J. Green made the Pro Bowl for the third straight season and ranked 5th in the league in receptions and receiving yards. In three playoff games, he has 13 receptions and no touchdowns, so he is going to have to improve his postseason play if Dalton and the Bengals are to succeed. Marvin Jones had 51 receptions and 10 TDs last year and will be the No. 2 receiver. The Bengals are known for two TE sets, but the results last season from those sets were very underwhelming.
The offensive line features one of the best tackle duos in the league, Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith. Smith is a solid run blocker and his pass protection is getting better. Left guard Clint Bowling is returning from ACL surgery and will be an important player this season. Mike Pollak will be moving to center, his original position in college.
The defense will look to blitz a lot more this year. Defensive end Michael Johnson went to the Bucs in free agency, but the remainder of the starting unit is intact from last year. Vontaze Burfict led the league in tackles last season and made the Pro Bowl.
The past three seasons, the Bengals had one of the deepest DLs in the league. Losing Johnson changes that a little. Wallace Gilberry or Robert Geathers could replace Johnson in the starting lineup. Carlos Dunlap played all 16 games last year and had his best season since his rookie year. All Pro tackle Geno Atkins will be ready for the beginning of the season after tearing his ACL last year. Atkins had 26.5 sacks over the last three seasons, which ranks No. 1 in the league. Domato Peko is a great run stopper, and Margus Hunt will see more time this year, too. The DL is one of the tops in the league, and will be instrumental in keeping this defense very good.
Vontaze Burfict is the leader of this defense at linebacker. He may play more in the middle this season given that Rey Maualuga is in the final year of his deal and he played awfully in 2012. He was better last year, but missed time with a knee injury. With James Harrison having been released, the outside LB position is up for the grabs, between Jayson DiManche, Emmanuel Lamur, Dontay Moch and Sean Porter. Vincent Rey has an outside chance too.
The secondary is pretty mediocre, despite having plenty of talent. Age and injuries are the primary reasons why. Leon Hall is coming back from an Achilles injury and his health is important. Terence Newman will be 36 in Sept. and is in a contract year. Adam Jones is injury prone. Reggie Nelson is a very good safety, and George Iloka has been better than expected at safety. Darqueeze Dennard was selected in the 1st round out of Michigan State and he’s a great press corner who should be an immediate impact player.
The Bengals have had one of the best defensive coverage units in the league, but are not good at returning the ball themselves. Brandon Tate has been the main return man, but his results have been very average due to his inability to find holes and get through them. Mike Nugent hit 18-of-22 field goals last year with two game-winning FGs, but out of his 72 kickoffs just 30 reached the end zone. Kevin Huber finished 8th in the NFL in net punting average (40.5 yards), but was lost for the season in Week 15 covering a return.
The Bengals have to make the postseason, but the team has to do more than that. It has to succeed in the postseason. Dalton has had a great start to his career, but not great enough. The Bengals have a lot of depth, but not a lot of top-end talent, and the team is a consistent loser of big games. The Bengals haven’t made the Super Bowl since 1988, and no one is really expecting this year to bring that rapid reversal of fortune.