Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Bengals 2015 outlook

Well, here we are.  Summer.  The worst time to be a football fan.  The start of the season is soooo close, yet sooooo far away.

It's still over a month before the first preseason games, which are god-awful, but for the starved football fan, they're the best thing ever . . . until the regular season starts, anyway.

So here is my evaluation of the Bengals 2015 season.

First, they are coming off the most successful span in their history.  Since 2011, when they drafted AJ Green (four Pro Bowls) and (unfortunately, depending upon whom you talk to (and when during the season you talk to them) Andy Dalton (two Pro Bowls), they have had a winning record every season.

That means too that they have made the playoffs every year since then.  They just haven't won any playoff games in that span.  In fact, they have the longest playoff victory drought in the NFL (they last won a playoff game (41-14 over the Houston Oilers . . . yes it was that long ago) during the 1990 season . . . when I was a junior in high school!

So, despite enjoying their best four year stretch in team history when they have won a combined 40 games - compare that the decade of the 1990s when they won a whopping total of 52 games! - that's amazing!

But . . . it would be nice to win a damn playoff game.  Especially given the fact that as a team, the is the best collection of talent the team has ever had (and that includes the 1981 and 1988 seasons when they went to the Super Bowl).

Here is a look at their best players -

AJ Green (WR) - easily their best player.  He's been in the league four years and he has surpassed a thousand yards each year and made the Pro Bowl each year.  He is one of the best receivers in the league.

Andrew Whitworth (LT) - easily their best offensive lineman, and the best LT they have had since the best player in franchise history (Anthony Munoz) played left tackle.  He has made one Pro Bowl, and it's a crime he hasn't been to several more.

Jeremy Hill (RB) - going into his second year after a great rookie year where he copied Corey Dillon and came on strong the last half of the season, when he led all NFL running backs in yards rushing.

Giovanni Bernard (RB) - going into his third year.  He had an amazing rookie year as a change-of-pace back and great receiving threat out of the backfield.  However, this year as the feature back, he got worn down.

He is the biggest threat out of the backfield the Bengals have had since good old #21, James Brooks, wore the orange and black.  If the Bengals can limit his carries between the tackles (that's the what 230 pound Hill is for) and get the ball to Gio on sweeps, pitches, screens, and dump passes, he will be a lethal weapon.

Carlos Dunlap (DE) - a phenomenally talend DE.  Our best pass rusher on the edge.

Geno Atkins (DT) - for two and a half years he was the best DT in the NFL.  On Halloween 2013 he blew out his knee though, and he hasn't been the same.  He did get a Pro Bowl nod last year, but that was totally on his past work, not his current work.  If his knee is fully healed, he will catapult up this list - right behind Green.  If he is back to his normal dominant self, Dunlap will get double digit sacks and their defensive ranking will go from 22 to top ten.

Vontaze Burfict (OLB) - for two years, he was one of the best OLBs in the NFL.  Then last year he was plague by injury, and now is receiving from micro-fracture knee surgery.  If he can come back full strength - along with Geno - the Bengals will be a top ten defense again.

I'm not being biased here either, but if all these guys are healthy Green, Hill, Atkins, and Burfict are easily in the conversation for being the best in the entire NFL at their positions.  That's quite a collection of talent.

In fact, the Bengals have many guys coming back from injury who could pay huge dividends this season.  Our starting tight end, Tyler Eifert (first round pick in 2013) was lost for the year after the first quarter of the first game with a dislocated elbow.  Our second receiver, Marvin Jones (who had over 700 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2013) was lost for the entire year with ankle and foot injuries.

If those two can come back healthy and be combined with Green, Mohammanu Sanu (over 700 yards receiving this year), Gio Bernard (the perfect compliment to Hill in the backfield), and Ryan Hewitt (our starting fullback from Stanford) - and with our third round pick out of Rutgers, tight end, Tyler Kroft, this is an offense that could be explosive.

They just need Andy Dalton to be good Andy (the guy who torched the Saints last year with a near perfect passer rating), not bad Andy (the guy who had a single digit passer rating during their home game against the Browns).

But that's one reason they promoted Hue Jackson to offensive coordinator.  He will run the ball and take as much pressure off of Dalton as he can.  No one imagined that the Bengals would lose so many weapons, though.  When they lost to Indy in the playoffs, the Bengals were down to one legit WR (Sanu) and they had to move their fourth string running back (Rex Burkehead) to slot receiver.

If Dalton can cut down on his turn overs and his penchant for playing poorly in prime time games (see losses to the Pats, Browns, Dolphins, and Steelers), they could be a special team.

The frustrating thing about Dalton is that he was such a winner at TCU (and to be fair, he has gotten to the Bengals to the playoffs four times.  No other Bengals QB can say that) and he performed at his best often in the biggest games, earning MVP honors in every bowl victory he had at TCU.

Their best possible scenario for offense in 2015 is to run heavily (improve upon the 6th overall run game in the NFL) with Hill and Bernard and supplement that with deep balls to Green and Jones and then letting Sanu and Eifert eat up the underneath stuff.

On defense, health is the key too.

Losing Mike Zimmer to the Vikings hurt, but so did all of the injuries.  The Bengals plummeted from the #3 defense to the #22 defense, coming in dead last in terms of pass rush, managing just 22 sacks.  In 2012 they had 51.

To help with the pass-rush, the Bengals resigned one of their own, Michael Johnson, after he was cut after one year in Tampa Bay.  Hopefully, he will help free up Dunlap and Atkins to rack up more sacks.  The addition of Johnson is huge.

The Bengals did draft a promising young OLB, Paul Dawson, out of TCU, who can either supplant Emanual Lemur at OLB or fill the void left by Burfict if he isn't all the way back from his knee injury.

The secondary should again be fine as they have five #1 picks playing for three positions.  The corners are all first rounders: Adam Jones (2005), Leon Hall (2008), Dre Kirkpatrick (2012), and Darquiz Dennard (2014).  In addition to those four guys battling for two starting spots, there is another #1 pick in the secondary: Reggie Nelson (2008) at safety.

Our other safety, George Iloka (who might be the best player in our entire secondary) is in the last year of his deal.  The Bengals also added a promising rookie, Jash Shaw out of USC, to help out at CB and SS.

In a perfect world the defense stays healthy and can once again get to the passer.  If that happens - with Atkins and Dunlap hopefully racking up double digit sacks - turnovers should occur and the defense should be back in the top ten overall.

If that happens, and Dalton can manage to actually win in prime time (the Bengals have four prime time games, which doesn't bode well for them) - or at least go 2-2 - the Bengals should find themselves in the hunt for the division title (they lost out to Pittsburgh in the season finale last year) but still have a shot at a wild card.

And even if they don't make the playoffs, they still should be competitive in every single game next year.  I just have to remind myself that that was rarely the case in the years known as the "lost decade" in Bengaldom.

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