Now that - mercifully - the preseason is over, we can focus on the upcoming regular season.
As it stands, the Bengals finished the preseason 1-3. That isn't as disconcerting as it may sound. Our first teamers dominated the Vikes in game #1. One of the heroes of the preseason, WR/KR Alex Erickson, took a punt back for a TD to tie it up, only to have Marvin Lewis go for two and the win. Not a great idea with third and fourth stringers in, but it's only the preseason. The Bengals lost by a point.
After that they crushed Detroit. Then their first teamers dominated the Jaguars in their third preseason game for much of the first three quarters before the Bengals' third and fourth stringers let the Jabs come back. It was a scary game as in two series the Bengals lost three Pro Bowlers to injuries (CB Adam Jones tweaked a calf in warm ups and sat, WR AJ Green had a minor leg injury in the first quarter, and then RB and special teams ace Cedric Peerman broke his forearm in the second quarter!). Then last week, with about 22 starters resting, the Bengals rallied late to take the lead against Indy, only to have the back ups' back ups give up a late TD drive to cost them the game.
Now that the regular season is only a week away, I thought I'd take a glimpse at the Bengals and their prospects at having their sixth consecutive winning season (something that is unheard of in Bengaldom). That streak of success puts them right behind New England, Seattle, and Denver. Of course, the Bengals haven't won a playoff game yet . . . but hope spring eternal in the fall!
The Bengals - thanks to Marvin Lewis and Duke Tobin - have been constructed for the long haul. That means they have a philosophy of draft well, developed, and retain. Since 2009, this has worked very, very well for them.
One of their secrets has been to double down on positions - that means they have two or three players at nearly every position. For example, despite having an All-Pro tight end on the team (Jermaine Gresham, the Bengals still nabbed Tyler Eifter in the first round of the 2013 draft and he made his first Pro Bowl this year while they let the underperforming Gresham walk in free agency). Despite having a super productive second year running back in Gio Bernard (taken in the same draft as Eifert), the very next year the Bengals tabbed another RB (Jeremy Hill) who works in conjunction with Bernard to form a great RB combo. When the Bengals needed wide receivers to go with all world WR AJ Green, they drafted Mo Sanu in the third round and Marvin Jones in the fifth round of the 2012 draft, respectively. Now they made a 40 million dollar offer to retain Jones, but he chose to leave to be the #1 receiver in Detroit. So the Bengals are looking to replace their second and third WRs. That means they had to hit this year's draft, hoping to hit the jackpot again This year they drafted Tyler Boyd in the second round and Cody Core in the sixth. Both of them made the team, and Boyd looks like a budding super star. You can go down the Bengals roster and see this same type of thing occur at almost every position.
The one thing that has hurt them so far, though, has been injuries. They lost Eifert this spring when he didn't heal well from a serious ankle injury he suffered in the Pro Bowl. Then they lost his back up to a knee injury. They lost Andre Smith to free agency and were set to replace him with the 2015 first round pick, Cedric Ogbuehi. However, he was lost in their first preseason game with a toe injury. So they plugged in their second round pick, Jake Fisher, only to lose him in their second preseason game to a toe injury! In fact, as it stands right now, the Bengals have their last FOUR first round picks out because of injuries -
2013 - Tyler Eifter (TE out with an ankle injury)
2014 - Darqueze Dennard (CB out with an ankle injury)
2015 - Cedric Ogbuehi (OT out with a toe injury)
2016 - William Joseph II (CB out with a torn pectoral)
Now, how many teams can lose that type of talent and still hope to contend? Well, the Bengals can. Hopefully.
Their strengths for the 2016 season -
Their overall talent. Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, and Michael Johnson are all studs on the defensive line. Atkins is playing better than ever, which is terrifying as he has routinely led defensive tackles in sacks over the years. Dunlap had 13.5 sacks last year and he hasn't played his best football yet. Johnson racked up 10.5 sacks in 2012, but has been pestered by injuries.
At nearly every level the Bengals have Pro Bowl talent - offensive line (Andrew Whitworth), the skill positions on offense (Andy Dalton, AJ Green, Tyler Eifter, and Gio Bernard), the defensive line (see my previous paragraph), the linebacking corp (Vontaze Burfict) and the secondary (Adam Jones and George Iloka).
Another reason for hope - they have a couple players with huge grudges or chips on their shoulders. Dalton has to be motivated to recapture his MVP form of the first 12 weeks of the season (he had the Bengals at 10-2) before he broke his wrist. Jeremy Hill has to motivated to run harder than ever and return to his rookie form after losing a fumble that, ultimately, cos them their first playoff win since 1990. Vintage Burfict, who will sit out the first three games, has to be motivated to play with a cooler head after nearly single handedly winning the Pittsburgh playoff game (a sack, a fumble recovery, and an interception late in the fourth quarter) before helping to lose it by getting a personal foul for roughing Antonio Brown on an incompletion over the middle.
A third reason for hope - the coordinators. The Bengals lost their last two offensive coordinators to head coaching positions. Now never Ken Zambese, their long-time quarterbacks coach, who now is running the offense. I think he will lean more on Jeremy Hill, which should make the Bengals offense more decisive. Hue did an amazing job last year, but they never had a smash mouth identity, and that cost them in the red zone (see the play Dalton was hurt on or the horrific two point conversion he called in the playoff game). Paul Guenther, our defensive coordinator, had his defense second in the NFL in points allowed. They were iffy agains the run early on, until Burfict returned as a full-time starter. Hopefully, they will be tough in the red zone and hard to run against while putting pressure on the passer to help make up for a thin secondary.
Reasons to fear 2016 -
They play a first place schedule. The have road games vs the Pats (as it happens, they play in Foxborough when Brady returns from his suspension, pencil that one in as an automatic loss) vs. the Cowboys (Romo will probably return by then) vs. the Texans (who they always seem to struggle against). They have home games against the Broncos. Throw in a trip to London and they always tough Steelers and Ravens, and they could lose their share of games.
Injuries - Eifert is out. That means so are his 13 touchdowns from last year. His back up is out too. That means our third string tight end is in. Not good. Our secondary is thin due to injury. Our offensive line is thin too. There isn't much depth at receiver either.
Luck. The Bengals have won 52 games since drafting Dalton and Green. Can their luck continue?
Peering into my crystal ball, I see them going 10-6. At best 12-4 again. At worst 6-10. Let's aim for 10-6. Who dey!!! Let's hope Jeremy Hill runs like a madman. Dalton finds that Boyd extends the Bengals trend of second round receiver studs (Chris Collinsworth, Carl Pickens, Darnay Scott, and Chad Johnson) while Eifert returns from injury sooner than expected and picks up where he left off while avoiding injuries the rest of the year. The defense is tough against the run and Atkins, Dunlap, and Johnson all rack up double digit sacks while Burfict is one bad man and Adam Jones is a ballhawk in the secondary.
Keep your fingers crossed!