2012 Record: 10-6
Defense Gave Up Too Many Big Plays
It's to the Bengals' credit that, in their 19-13 loss to the Texans in the Wild Card round, Houston's five scores included four field goals. Cincinnati's stout defense (8th in third down percentage) at least kept a high-powered Houston offense largely out of the end zone.
But in building their lead, Houston managed a number of big plays that contorted the Bengals' Top Ten defense out of its comfort zone. Houston ran 77 plays from scrimmage (to Cincinnati's 48), and eight of those plays were good for 15+ yards.
The Texans were also 8 of 17 on third down, a 47.1 percent success rate. The Bengals' season average was 36.1 percent. So while Cincinnati was able to stand pat down the field, they gave in to Houston's aggressive attack, setting up the field goals.
Dalton Couldn't Get Going
Andy Dalton had enjoyed a pretty good sophomore season, making a strong case for why he may be the best quarterback of the 2011 class (possibly better than "Super-Cam" in the end). But he looked anything but good against Houston in the knockout game.
Dalton completed less than half of his passes, going 14 for 30 (127 yards) with no touchdowns and an interception. QB rating on the day: 44.7, a far cry from his 87.4 for the year. Dalton's offense couldn't even convert a third down, going 0 for 9.
To add insult to injury, the Bengals' only touchdown of the game wasn't even offensive. Leon Hall scored on a 21-yard interception return to make it 7-6 in the second quarter. So at no point in the game could Dalton guide his team into taking the lead.
2013 Projected Wins: 9
Top 3 Rookies
-Tyler Eifert, TE (1/21): A perfect compliment to the equally sizable Jermiane Gresham; his tremendous hands make him a formidable red zone target.
-Giovani Bernard, RB (2/37): A good counter-punch to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, can use his quick feet to gain yards outside, but is an injury risk with ACL and knee concerns.
-Margus Hunt, DE (2/53): Ideal third-and-long pass rusher is still a raw talent with technique issues, but will serve well situationally on a great Bengals D-Line.
The biggest outside move made by the Bengals was the signing of a 35-year-old whose ferocity hasn't diminished with age. James Harrison crossed inter-division lines, and will likely start at strongside linebacker. Harrison managed six sacks in 13 games in 2012.
Other than Harrison, the vast majority of moves were taken care of in-house. Mike Nugent was re-signed as team kicker, while Andre Smith signed a three year deal, worth $18M, to remain right tackle. It wasn't until six weeks after free agency that Smith got his deal.
Other matters of business included re-signing ends Michael Johnson and Wallace Gilberry (who combined for 18 sacks), linebacker Rey Maualuga, corner/returner Pacman Jones, and corner Terrence Newman. Veterans Nate Clements, Chris Crocker, and Thomas Howard were not retained.
Potential Starting Lineup
QB - Andy Dalton
RB - BenJarvus Green-Ellis
FB - Chris Pressley
WR - AJ Green
WR - Mohamed Sanu
TE - Jermaine Gresham
LT - Andrew Whitworth
LG - Travelle Wharton
C - Trevor Robinson
RG - Kevin Zeitler
RT - Andre Smith
LE - Carlos Dunlap
NT - Domata Peko
DT - Geno Atkins
DE - Michael Johnson
OLB - James Harrison
MLB - Rey Maualuga
OLB - Vontaze Burfict
CB - Leon Hall
CB - Dre Kirkpatrick
FS - Reggie Nelson
SS - Taylor Mays
K - Mike Nugent
P - Kevin Huber
LS - Clark Harris
2013 at a Glance
“He gives you that swagger and that seal. When you mail out the letter you have to make sure you put a stamp on it. Well, he’s the stamp.”
Pacman Jones had that to say about Harrison, whose arrival didn't make the headlines one would expect. He has missed eight games over the past couple of seasons, and recently turned 35, so perhaps expectations are low.
However, in that time frame, Harrison's notched 15 sacks, four forced fumbles, and 132 total tackles.
Add Harrison, at any level of health, to a defense with 50 sacks, 14 picks, and three defensive scores a year ago, and it certainly doesn't make it worse.
Mike Zimmer's defensive wizardry welcomes Harrison with open arms (just as the Bengals offensive staff welcomes having him as a non-enemy). Zimmer compared Harrison to Greg Ellis, in terms of adjusting a great player to a new scheme to see what he does best.
In Zimmer's system, linebackers tend not to rush so much. The linebackers have had 21 total sacks in five seasons under Zimmer, peaking with Dhani Jones' 3.5 in 2009.
Through OTAs, the secondary has dealt with a few injuries. Leon Hall's ligament tear in his thumb isn't thought to be serious, while Jones' calf tweak will sideline him into the summer.
On offense, Dalton continues to develop into a quarterback worth of high hype. His completion percentage increased from 58.1 to 62.3 in his second year, while throwing seven more touchdowns and upping his rating to an 87.4.
And the offense only looks more lethal around him.
Green is obviously the gold standard of his receiving corps, pushing league standards set by the likes of Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald. Last season showed that the receivers portion of the depth chart is loaded with playmakers like Sanu (fluid in an injury-shortened season), Andrew Hawkins (533 yds, 4 TD), and Marvin Jones.
Seeing the success of multi-layered offenses like New Orleans, New England, and Denver, the Bengals have supplemented their running game and tight ends with high picks. While Green-Ellis and Gresham both have looked good, adding Eifert (the talk of OTAs next to Harrison) and Bernard adds layers and options to an already scintillating group.
The lone downer of the offseason so far has been Smith's failure to report to OTAs, even after signing a new contract. Coach Marvin Lewis has defended his absence as being valid, but given Smith's history of offseason issues, it's getting a little tiresome.
The AFC is lighter than the NFC in terms of teams that seem capable of contending. The same names (Denver, New England, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Houston) keep coming up. Why not Cincinnati? They have an indurate defense, and their offense is growing in vigor.
If Dalton's development continues, this team has enough offense to overtake a number of the AFC's worldly powers. Their defense can stop Roethlisberger or Brady or Manning, or at least slow down their fluidity. This is a Bengals team built to contend now.