(John Biever/SI)
(John Biever/SI)

Bengals Preview: Bursting Through the Ceiling

Cincy has the defense and the game-changing wideout—all it needs is Andy Dalton to elevate his game to win the AFC North crown and finally make some postseason noise

By
Andy Benoit
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Despite coming off the franchise’s first back-to-back playoff appearances in 30 years, the Cincinnati Bengals entered this past offseason in apparent need of an adjustment. A defense that ranked eighth in scoring, sixth in yardage and registered more sacks (51) than all but two teams in 2013, had been overshadowed by memories of this offense’s horrid performance in a second straight wild-card loss at Houston.

In that game, the Bengals ran only 17 plays in the first half, none of which involved their best player, A.J. Green. In netting negative six passing yards in the first half, it was apparent this club does not have a gunslinger quarterback it can build a foundation on. Andy Dalton is the type of QB you can only build a foundation around. Dalton is a cerebral young leader with sound fundamentals and adequate tools, but limitations in arm strength and athleticism give him a lower ceiling than you want in a franchise quarterback. It would be too harsh to compare him to the consummate placeholder, Alex Smith; Dalton is a potentially much better progression passer than Smith. But the two are similar in that you can win with them, but only if you have a very strong supporting cast.

Thus, head coach Marvin Lewis, owner Mike Brown and the infamously tiny scouting department—a department so small that assistant coaches have to shoulder major responsibilities in the team’s draft evaluation process—set out to reconstruct the foundation around Dalton. Time will tell, but it looks like their mission was a screaming success. Two fortuitous nights in late April could wind up changing this offense’s stripes.

OFFENSE

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Green caught 97 passes for 1,350 yards in his second season last year. (John Biever/SI)

The Bengals entered the offseason with what many would think of as a very typical offense. They had a serviceable quarterback, a meat-and-potatoes running back, a hefty front line and a true No. 1 wideout surrounded by an otherwise sub-par receiving group. With an offense like this, coordinator Jay Gruden had to stay very balanced in play-calling and while changing up his personnel packages based on the situation (second-and-10, play base; third-and-long, go three-wide). Gruden’s Bengals didn’t always operate strictly by the book, but more than most offenses, they were built for how the book says you should operate. Ten years ago, a team trying to redefine this sort of offense would have drafted a workhorse running back. A good ballcarrier was supposedly the best friend of a system quarterback (back then they called such QBs “game managers”). Today, things are different. In late April the Bengals found themselves picking 37th overall with every running back still on the board. Instead of taking Alabama’s Eddie Lacey, they took North Carolina’s Giovani Bernard.

Bernard is a 5-8, 200-pound scatback. He doesn’t have big-time power or top-end speed, but he moves well in confined areas and has the stop-start control that will allow him to thrive on shotgun carries and screens. He’s a reliable receiver and a serviceable cut-blocker. Basically, he’s a third down back. Except in today’s game, a back like this can play any down.

Bernard will likely come off the bench behind BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who is the Ford Taurus of running backs. But the space-oriented rookie’s addition suggests an offense-wide shift to more flex and spread concepts—and maybe even some no-huddle, given that Cincy’s draft pick the night before Bernard presents the option of formation versatility.

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The selection of tight end Tyler Eifert in the first round could revolutionize this offense. Incumbent tight end Jermaine Gresham has all the athletic gifts but lacks the mental toughness to be a regular go-to weapon. In the wild-card loss it was obvious that Gresham couldn’t consistently win one-on-one matchups against quality safeties or nickelbacks.

Gresham can, however, readily win against linebackers or backup safeties. In fact, he becomes the glaring type of mismatch that defensive coordinators fret about. And those mismatches will be relatively easy to create given that Gresham’s raw athleticism enables him to line up just about anywhere.

Eifert, who shows good hands and movement skills for a 6-6, 250-pounder, is expected to offer the same kind of versatility. With him, the all-important tight end position potentially goes from “adequate” to “loaded” (assuming Gresham embraces his new role). Gruden’s play-calling possibilities are no longer constricted by personnel. The tight ends could be two additional blockers in the run game or two additional targets in the pass game. The defense will have a hard time guessing which it is until everyone is lined up. Having a multipronged weapon like Bernard in the backfield—or maybe even split out at receiver—amplifies the advantages. The more uncertainty the defense feels, the more predictable it becomes. This allows Dalton opportunities to dictate the game with his intellect, as opposed to reacting to it with his so-so physical tools.

We’ve seen in New England the past few years the wonders a dual tight end offense can do. True, the Bengals don’t have a quarterback like Tom Brady, but the Patriots never had a wide receiver like A.J. Green; the third-year pro has become the best at his position in the AFC. Long-striding speed, sensational body control, awesome leaping ability and preternatural on-ball adjustment skills make him nearly impossible to cover one-on-one. Gruden has done a good job using Green on downfield and outside-the-numbers routes that make him difficult to double-team. Now he has the tight end flexibility aiding his designs.

Of course, a weapon as potent as Green will often draw double-teams from obstinate defenses anyway. In which case the bigger beneficiaries of the dual tight ends will be the ancillary wideouts. Last year’s third-round pick, Mohamed Sanu, will get the largest share of the new opportunities. Sanu is the only receiver other than Green who can line up both outside and in the slot. When his encouraging rookie season was truncated by a late November stress fracture, the Bengals didn’t just lose the No. 2 wideout they’d been so desperately searching for, they lost a lot of their formation versatility, which hurt both their pass and run game.

With Sanu now healthy, Brandon Tate, Marvin Jones, Ryan Whalen and sixth-round rookie Cobi Hamilton will compete not for starter reps, but rather, a more fitting No. 4 position. The No. 3 receiver will be the diminutive Andrew Hawkins, who should find a wealth of space on the underneath and flat routes that he’s constricted to.

With more options at his disposal, it’s imperative that Dalton become a gutsier decision maker. After 11 interceptions in Cincy’s 3-5 start last season, he got very conservative and threw only five picks in November and December. The Bengals wound up finishing 7-1, but that was largely on the strength of their defense and special teams. Dalton in that stretch took too many bad sacks and left a lot of open receivers on the field. This team won’t have sustained success if he doesn’t change.

Dalton and his running backs should continue to benefit from playing behind a solid front five. Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith form a powerful-yet-nimble set of bookend tackles. There’s always some concern about Smith’s focus and consistency, but the Bengals re-upped the former No. 6 overall pick for three years this past offseason. Of course, they did hedge by guaranteeing less than a third of that deal’s $18 million and drafting fifth-rounder Tanner Hawkinson, adding to depth that already included experienced fill-in starters Dennis Roland and Anthony Collins. And shortly after signing Smith the Bengals did have to fine him for missing all of the May minicamp (personal reasons, not injury or weight issues). But Smith has played well after much bigger distractions before.

Inside, right guard Kevin Zeitler is a good playside run-blocker coming off a fine rookie season. At center, undrafted second-year pro Trevor Robinson seemed destined to supplant undrafted sixth-year pro Kyle Cook, though Cook stole the starting job back from Robinson at the end of last season. At left guard, 2011 fourth-round pick Clint Boling has fully captured the job after Travelle Wharton’s recent release.

DEFENSE

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Atkins led the Bengals with 12.5 sacks in 2012. (John Biever/SI)

There are two things behind the quiet success of this stingy 4-3 defense: 1) coordinator Mike Zimmer’s bold blitz designs, and 2) Geno Atkins.

Let’s start with Atkins, because he’s simpler. Last season, J.J. Watt was the best defensive lineman in football, and it wasn’t even close. Atkins was the second best defensive lineman in football, and that wasn’t even close. The fourth-year pro has a devastating combination of initial quickness and brute power. His bull rush can make grown men look like Screech Powers. Atkins draws a fair share of single-blocking thanks to playing alongside a nose tackle with good initial burst and multidirectional leverage in Domata Peko. And Atkins himself creates a lot of single-blocking for guys around him.

The main beneficiary is pliant defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who has uncanny quickness for someone who plays so tall. Opposite Dunlap is an almost equally impressive athlete, Michael Johnson, whose 11.5 sacks last season were nearly double Dunlap’s (but still one behind Atkins’).

The gluttony of raw athleticism along this defensive line is no accident. In fact, the athleticism runs two-deep. In just about every draft the Bengals take an early round chance on a defensive lineman with upside. This year, they selected end Margus Hunt in the second round. Hunt is a track-and-field athlete from Estonia whose only football experience comes from the four years he spent at Southern Methodist. He’ll have 2013 to develop and then could be asked to start given how financially difficult it will be to sign the franchise-tagged Johnson to a long-term deal (especially after the recent long-term signing of Dunlap).

Last season, the Bengals used second-and third-round picks on defensive tackles Devon Still and Brandon Thompson. Still looked sluggish at times in his 10 or so weekly snaps inside and outside, but it’s still too early to discount the man whom some pre-draft analysts thought had the talent and potential to warrant a mid-first-round pick. Thompson remains a bit more of a project having played just 23 total snaps in 2012.

Cincinnati’s lust for athletic defensive linemen brings us to Zimmer. There are two things the 14-year coordinator (seven in Dallas, one in Atlanta, six here) teaches and employs really well: zone blitzes and edge blitzes by defensive backs. (Occasionally, the two will be one in the same.) Often, a zone blitz really isn’t a blitz, it’s an exchange. It still brings the typical number of pass-rushers (four), but instead of using the conventional four rushers, one or two defensive linemen drop into coverage while one or two second-level defenders attack. Zone blitzes/exchanges are common with 3-4 teams because the spacing is more agreeable. For a 4-3 team to zone blitz, it must have defensive linemen who are athletic enough to drop into coverage or eat up a lot of ground in getting to the quarterback. This, among other reasons, is why Zimmer and Marvin Lewis always want a deep reserve of athletic defensive linemen.

In the second half of last season, a lot of Zimmer’s blitzes involved safety Reggie Nelson, who is excellent coming off the edge or picking up tight ends man-to-man after showing a false blitz look. False blitz looks have created as much pass-rushing pressure as blitzes themselves in Cincinnati. The reason for that is Zimmer’s commitment to having his inside linebackers crowd the A-gaps before the snap.

This approach demands speed and quickness at linebacker, which is one thing this defense doesn’t have in abundance. Undrafted second-year pro Vontaze Burfict looks like a gem on the weak side, but Rey Maualuga can be stiff in coverage. The 2009 second-round pick’s so-so speed only seems to work when he’s in downhill pursuit.

The Bengals were unable to find an adequate replacement for Maualuga this offseason, and Maualuga was unable to find a lucrative opportunity elsewhere. Thus, the two sides re-upped for two years and $6.5 million. However, many assume that Maualuga’s starting Mike job will soon go to Burfict, which would mean fourth-round rookie Sean Porter moving into the starting Will position. Porter, who is currently dealing with a freshly torn shoulder labrum, may eventually wind up starting here even without a Maualuga benching, given that free-agent pickup James Harrison is running out of gas and not a great scheme fit at strongside linebacker. Also in the mix for nickel snaps is intriguing undrafted second-year man Emmanuel Lamur.

Harrison could often find himself in the unfamiliar position of leaving the field on third down, as he’s the guy nickelback Adam Jones will likely replace. Jones’s unpolished technique occasionally gets exploited, but overall he’s been surprisingly serviceable on the outside. Starter Leon Hall, who has the physicality to win with press-man and is very comfortable in the variety of off-coverage drops and zone concepts that Zimmer sprinkles throughout his scheme, is the one who covers the slot in nickel.

Opposite Hall, the hope is Dre Kirkpatrick can soon start after injuries last year limited the first-rounder to five games and afterthought status. Hedging against the possibility of Kirkpatrick not delivering, the Bengals brought back soon-to-be 35-year-old Terence Newman, who has rediscovered his mechanics playing for his old coordinator from Dallas.

The only other concerning spot on this defense is at safety next to Nelson. Taylor Mays does not have the awareness or discipline to fill the spot. Last year’s fifth-round pick, George Iloka, was thought to have the man-coverage prowess this scheme demands at strong safety, but coaches haven’t been comfortable even putting him on the field. With Jeromy Miles not athletic enough for the job, the only remaining solution is third-round rookie Shawn Williams.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Mike Nugent is back at kicker after having his season cut short by a calf injury last December. Punter Kevin Huber’s 42.0 net average was the NFL’s fourth best in 2012. In the return game, Adam Jones and Brandon Tate are both dangerous. Tate however, did not have any kick returns longer than 45 yards last year. Jones returned all 26 of the punts he fielded, taking one of them back 81 yards for a score.

BOTTOM LINE

All the pieces are in place for this team to compete for an AFC North crown, but it depends on how smoothly the key players on offense can acclimate to the new system.

Andy Benoit is diving deep into each team’s prospects for 2013. Read what he’s done so far.

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4 comments
Deleon O
Deleon O

I didnt make it pass the offense before I had to skip to comment. The writer does not watch the Bengals.

Ciscos
Ciscos

The Bengals are set offensively for the most part.  The biggest question marks are on defensive side of the ball.  The play of their LB core, even with Mr. Personality James Harrison needs to be consistent first before I'd be willing to voice support for anything more than the first round of the playoffs.  Their DBs are the second question mark.  Terrance Newman may have rediscovered his technique, but in football years at age of 35, put's him on the downside of his upside.  After watching Hard Knocks, I would surmise if Taylor May's could stop posing all of his "what superhero power would you want?" questions and eliminate his "I love my girlfriend" announcements, he could focus more. 

BTW, I've already cleared my calendar for both Bengals vs Steelers games.  I would expect Harrison to be in warrior mode for those.

nola70118
nola70118

Dalton has played exceptionally in my opinion.  He's a young QB and is on a faster track to stardom than Matt Ryan, for example.

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