With OTAs in the rear view, teams have a little downtime on the NFL calendar. Training camp is rapidly approaching, though, and that is prime time for teams to learn about themselves.
The Bengals have a lot to learn. They reside in a division with the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens and the always tough Steelers, but many pundits are touting them as the team to beat in the AFC North.
It’s easy to see why, too – with a rising young quarterback, a ferocious pass rush anchored by one of the best defensive tackles in the game, a seemingly impressive crop of rookies and white hot finish last year, there is a lot to like about the Bengals.
That said, these questions need answering before they can be taken seriously as a contender.
No. 5: Is Hard Knocks a good idea?
Cincinnati was selected to be featured on HBO’s Hard Knocks series for the second time. Back in 2009, the team made for great theater, with colorful characters all over the field, and it helped that they won the division.
This time around, speculation is rampant that the Bengals accepted the invitation to show that they are no longer that engaging group of misfits, but rather a solid, character driven franchise built more around talent than talk.
Pacman didn’t get the memo.
Adam “Pacman” Jones, the teams oft-in-the-news cornerback, was recently arrested on assault charges. The team now has another “bad character” story swirling around it as the HBO cameras prepare to reveal all of the most intimate moments of camp.
It will be interesting to see if Marvin Lewis can keep the team on a steady, even keel throughout.
No. 4: Who will start in the defensive secondary?
The Bengals posted 51 sacks last year, a figure trailing co-league leaders Denver and St. Louis by 1. Geno Atkins managed 12.5 from the DT slot, a huge figure, and the team added James Harrison in the offseason to help keep the QBs hurting.
Much (mostly digital) ink has been spilled bemoaning the state of the Bengals allegedly porous secondary as not holding up its end of the bargain.
This argument most likely comes from the team’s unsightly 61.8% completion percentage allowed, but a closer look at the numbers shows a pretty solid unit.
The Bengals had a defensive passer rating of 80.7 last year, allowed only 16 pass TDs, and were the eighth best third down defense in the league last year, getting off the field at a 36% clip.
The defense as a whole was in fact quite stout, finishing 8th in the NFL in scoring.
With all the positive, though, there still figures to be some personnel turnover. Starting CB Chris Crocker is gone, and running mate Terrence Newman figures to be demoted. Pacman is still in the fold also. Veteran Leon Hall figures to man one side, and the Bengals are hoping for second year man Dre Kirkpatrick to step up and take the other.
Kirkpatrick appeared in only four games in 2012 due to injury, so he didn’t get the seasoning the coaches would like, but a first round pick out of Alabama ought to be able to adapt.
No. 3: Will youth be served?
The Bengals have been making a concerted effort to get younger in recent years. The team feels it has drafted quality players and is allowing them to develop into contributors.
AJ Green and Andy Dalton, of course, are entering their third year together. Atkins and Jermaine Gresham are entering their fourth year.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis is likely to be supplanted by rookie Giovani Bernard, who posted an eye-popping 6.7 yards per carry in college last year.
The team was awful offensively on third downs last year, and first round pick Tyler Eifert made a career out of making big third downs at Notre Dame.
There are many more. The Bengals have done a fantastic job of getting younger, but they need to use this training camp to get these youths some seasoning.
No. 2: Is Andy Dalton ready to make “the leap?”
Joe Flacco was awful in his first two playoffs. Since then, he has posted a cumulative postseason passer rating well into the triple digits, and now is a Super Bowl MVP.
Andy Dalton was awful in his first two playoffs. Since then…
Dalton was tremendous for the Bengals the last two years, better than anyone expected. His record against good teams, though, has been pathetic, and consecutive whippings at the hands of the Texans in the playoffs tarnished some of his shine.
Part of the problem was Dalton’s over-reliance on Green. This year, he is surrounded with a bevy of talented weapons, and there are no excuses.
Matt Ryan has continued to blossom as the Falcons have added more weapons to his arsenal, and Dalton must do the same for the Bengals to contend.
No. 1: Can they keep the momentum rolling?
Halfway through the season last year, the Bengals were sitting at 3-5 and were a huge disappointment.
In the second half, they went 7-1 and defeated the defending and pending Super Bowl champs.
Another poor start could doom Cincinnati to another season of irrelevance. They need to use this training camp to figure out what they did wrong in the first half, how they made it better in the second half and how to avoid the same mistakes this year.
The spotlight is growing for this Bengals team, and they are poised to take advantage. So the biggest question is simply: Can they?