The Cincinnati Bengals emerged as a real contender last year as Andy Dalton cut down the interceptions that had plagued him early in his career. However, when Dalton went down injured the Bengals hopes all but disappeared. Although they made the playoffs they went on to lose 18-16 to the Steelers in the Wildcard Round. As they near the start of the season, what are the big questions facing the team?
Can the Bengals avoid more significant injuries?
In Sunday’s pre-season game, the Bengals held out Cornerback Adam Jones with a calf strain. Star wide receiver AJ Green was pulled from the game with a knee injury and running back Cedric Peerman was lost, probably for the season, with a fractured forearm. This was in addition to tight ends Tyler Eifert, Tyler Croft, tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher, rookies Andrew Billings (DT) and William Jackson (CB), cornerback Darqueze Dennard and the soul of the defence, linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
Whilst the problem with star players like Burfict and Eifert missing time is obvious, the major loss here is the development time of the younger players. Pre-season and training camp is the best opportunity for young players to get repeated reps. It allows these players to familiarise themselves with both the playbook and the speed of the game. Missing that time will really hurt the team if/when those players are called on.
Who fills the holes at receiver?
It’s no secret that AJ Green is the star of the Cincinnati Bengals but in 2016 he’ll need to shine that extra bit brighter. The team let Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu leave in free agency. Both players helped take away the coverage from Green last season but I think Green will approach 1,500 yards if he and Dalton stay healthy.
This is a chance for newly signed wide receiver Brandon LaFell to show his worth. He joins from the Patriots where he had respectable but never outstanding figures.
I expect Tyler Boyd to contribute straight away in the passing game, if only as the third receiver. However, Pro Football Focus had him as the seventh-highest graded WR in the 2015 draft so expect him to push LaFell for number two receiver. One player getting good camp reviews is 2014 seventh round pick James Wright. Wright is another injured player, recovering from micro fracture knee surgery.
Can the offence continue to be as high powered as 2015?
The Cincinnati Bengals offence was ranked seventh overall in 2015. Although impressive for the majority of the season the Bengals stalled when Andy Dalton went down with a broken thumb picked up when he was making a tackle after an interception. Dalton Improved greatly last year. Significantly decreasing the number of interceptions and throwing 25 touchdowns in only 13 games. When Dalton wasn’t playing the Bengals stuttered.
Will a lead runner emerge or will the Bengals continue to use a two headed monster approach?
Last year the Bengals split rushing duties between Jeremy Hill (223 carries) and Giovani Bernard (154 carries). It’s a system that worked well as both players gained over 700 yards (794 and 730). Add in the receptions and the split becomes even more even (15 for Hill and 49 for Bernard).
If you don’t have a player called Todd Gurley or Adrian Peterson, running back by committee is a common approach. It’s a trend that shows no sign of going away with the frequency of injuries at running back and I wouldn’t expect it to change in Cincinnati. However, I do expect the Bengals to ‘ride the hot hand’ if one player does show surprise progression.
Who provides the pressure from DE?
Geno Atkins is a star at defensive tackle, but who provides the pressure from defensive end? Carlos Dunlap is a good player who made a splash last year (13.5 sacks) but he can’t be counted on to play at the same level this year. In the five years prior to 2015 he never managed double digit sacks. What Dunlap does do is provide consistent rush.
Beyond Dunlap no-one really stands out. Michael Johnson managed only 5 sacks in 2015 and Will Clarke, Margus Hunt, Ryan Brown and Dezmond Johnson are the players currently expected to step up. It’s not a list to strike fear into opposing offensive coordinators nor to give quarterbacks nightmares.
It might also be worth noting that cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was not highly rated by Pro Football Focus (39.6, 104th among corners) and Darqueze Dennard has been nursing an injury. If the corners can’t cover receivers effectively the quarterback can get rid of the ball quickly no matter who’s rushing him.
If the Bengals can get healthy then I fully expect them to win the division. The loss of last year’s supporting receivers in free agency will hurt but I think that Tyler Boyd will contribute from day one and will allow Dalton and co to surge into the playoffs.