Marvin Lewis’s army lost its top two lieutenants in January. Rising three-year offensive coordinator Jay Gruden left to be the head man in Washington. A week later, Mike Zimmer, after six years in Cincinnati as one of the league’s preeminent defensive coordinators, finally got a head job, taking over the Vikings.
While in Gruden the Bengals lost one of the game’s most versatile offensive designers and shrewdest play-callers, it’s Zimmer’s departure that stings the most. The 58-year-old helped pioneer many of the 4-3 zone blitz concepts prevalent in today’s game, and has stayed at the cutting edge of nickel pressure innovations. Staple Zimmer tactics include: aligning two linebackers in the A gaps before the snap (wreaks havoc on protection concepts), dropping defensive linemen into coverage from unpredictable angles, blitzing a safety off the edge and disguising off-man coverages. The latter is a technique Zimmer taught with considerable aplomb—just ask Terence Newman, who played for Zimmer in Dallas and saw his career revitalized after re-joining him in Cincy; or Adam Jones, who at 30 just had the best season of his topsy-turvy career.
A benefit of being a Bengals assistant coach is that there’s an excellent chance of moving up ladders, thanks in large part to owner Mike Brown’s parsimoniousness. Brown doesn’t employ a large front office, leaving assistant coaches responsible for scouting prospects at their positions—a taxing but excellent experience-building process. Along this same vein, instead of making expensive outside coaching hires, Brown seems to prefer promoting from within. All of this propagates continuity which, for a team that’s had the same head coach for a dozen years, is clearly valued.
Replacing Zimmer will be Paul Guenther, a nine-year Bengals assistant who has worked on special teams, in the secondary and, over the past two years, as linebackers coach. Guenther shares a lot of Zimmer’s core principles; in fact, his former boss was upset that he didn’t follow him to Minnesota.
A key to a zone-blitzing 4-3 is having athletic defensive linemen, something the Bengals have drafted in the middle rounds seven of the past nine years.
This year’s middle-round D-lineman is Will Clarke. Unlike last year’s guy, Margus Hunt (albeit a second-rounder), Clarke will have a chance at serious snaps right away as the Bengals are looking to replace departed free agent Michael Johnson. Clarke and Hunt will compete with veteran Robert Geathers for top backup duties behind Wallace Gilberry, an impressive nickel inside pass-rusher and fill-in outside starter over the past two years.
The hope is that Johnson’s departure can be offset by the continued rise of Carlos Dunlap, who was extended for five more years and $40 million ($11.7 million guaranteed). The 25-year-old is lanky and plays tall, yet somehow has good speed and quickness turning the corner. The other lineman to get extended for a major payday was Geno Atkins ($15 million signing bonus). The fifth-year pro was far and away the best 4-3 defensive tackle in football prior to tearing his ACL last Halloween. Regardless of how Atkins bounces back in 2014, the Bengals will need his backup, 2012 second-round pick Devon Still, to start fulfilling his potential.
If Still continues to struggle anchoring against double-teams, backup nose-shade Brandon Thompson could also serve as the three-technique behind Atkins. Thompson is tremendous at digging leverage to occupy multiple blockers in the running game. If ninth-year veteran Domata Peko weren’t so nimble and savvy, Thompson would be Cincy’s starting nose-shade. Peko can create enough destruction to allow Atkins, a ferocious bull-rusher, to work opponents one-on-one.
Something else that allows for one-on-one pass-rushing is the aforementioned double A gap looks from Cincy’s linebackers. Guenther understands that when you place two linebackers between the center and guard directly on the line of scrimmage, you compel the center (and often at least one of the guards) to stay tight inside, meaning they can’t slide over to help against a defensive tackle.
The backers who have typically been the ones “sugaring the A gaps” are rising star Vontaze Burfict and sixth-year pro Rey Maualuga. These two form the NFL’s only 245-plus pound nickel linebacking tandem, and sometimes it shows negatively as Maualuga can’t always cover enough ground in space. In fact, don’t be surprised if he is supplanted in the nickel package—and maybe even the base 4-3—by Vincent Rey, a four-year backup who signed a two-year extension this offseason. Rey has superb movement skills and a natural sense for finding the ball. Another good coverage linebacker is Emmanuel Lamur, who will compete with last year’s fourth-round pick Sean Porter for a top backup job. Jayson DiManche is also in the mix, including in the base 4-3 where the Bengals need a strongside replacement for the departed James Harrison.
In the secondary, tricenarians Terence Newman and Adam Jones will again contend for starting outside positions. Their eventual replacement is already on the roster with the selection of Darqueze Dennard in Round 1. Many felt Dennard was the best corner in this year’s draft. The fact that he’s here speaks very poorly for Dre Kirkpatrick, the team’s 2012 first-round pick who has barely gotten on the field. Kirkpatrick figures to stay at the bottom of the depth chart, as Leon Hall is back from the Achilles injury (his second) that truncated his 2013 season. Prior to the injury Hall was a borderline elite defender, with an ability to play man or zone on the outside or from the nickel slot.
Kirkpatrick got a few reps in the slot late last season, though when Hall went down the Bengals at first filled the hole with veteran safety Chris Crocker, signed off the street. Crocker is not around (for now), though judging from the signing of Danieal Manning, the Bengals seem to like the idea of having a backup safety who can play the slot. Manning is at his best in deep centerfield, though he entered the league as a cornerback with Chicago and hasn’t lost those skills.
George Iloka also has some cornerbacking experience from his days at Boise State, though the 6-foot-4, 225-pounder has always been primarily a safety. Built like an in-the-box player, Iloka is actually more effective from deep space, where he has unusual range for his size and a growing football IQ. This leaves playmaker Reggie Nelson to operate more near the line of scrimmage. Nelson does not have great speed when reacting up the field, but he consistently finds a second gear when attacking downhill, including on edge blitzes, where he’s among the league’s best. Just as important, Nelson is experienced in the system. Having players like that is the biggest reason this platoon can march on just fine post-Zimmer.
The replacement for the other departed lieutenant, Gruden, also came in-house. Hue Jackson, a former Raiders head coach and most recently the Bengals’ running backs coach, was tabbed as offensive coordinator, where he’ll handle the game-plan implementation and play-calling.
Many of those plays will center around Jackson’s pupil, Giovani Bernard, the team’s second-round pick from a year ago and perhaps football’s fastest-rising new age running back. Bernard, at 5-8, 202, is not equipped for 20-25 touches a week, but with his unparalleled speed and quickness (especially on the perimeter), he is equipped to deliver a death blow to the defense any time he touches the ball—especially in the screen game.
The Bengals drafted another running back in Round 2 this year, LSU’s Jeremy Hill, who will eventually supplant the overwhelmingly average BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Hill, paired with Bernard, will lend the Bengals a foundational rushing attack—something they have the O-line to support. That line’s headliner, Andrew Whitworth, emerged as an otherworldly guard last season. But after the departure of Anthony Collins—who the Bengals essentially wound up developing for the Bucs—Whitworth will move back to his old left tackle spot. That’s not the end of the world; original left guard Clint Boling has been quietly spectacular at times.
Boling will have to adjust to playing alongside a new center, as either veteran utility man Mike Pollak or fourth-round rookie Russell Bodine gets the nod over incumbent fringe player Trevor Robinson. On the right side, guard Kevin Zeitler is coming off a fairly inconsistent second season but there’s legitimate optimism for him fulfilling his first-round potential. This same sentiment has been echoed about right tackle Andre Smith every year since he entered the league in 2009.
Important as the running game is, it won’t become Cincy’s true foundation, and it won’t be what gets the team over the playoff hump. That comes down to Andy Dalton, who recently signed a six-year, $116 million contract (just $17 million guaranteed). If you’re going to blame the fourth-year pro for Cincy’s three postseason losses, you must also acknowledge that he’s the only quarterback in franchise history to reach the postseason three straight times, and just the sixth in NFL history to do so in his first three seasons.
Of course, reaching the playoffs and getting over the playoff hump are gigantically different things. One could argue that Dalton, much like a Matt Schaub or an Alex Smith, has an inherent ceiling that requires his club to overachieve around him. Dalton’s arm strength is limited, and it shows on some of his seam and sideline throws—and especially on his deep balls, which tend to hang and venture off track.
Dalton’s saving grace is that he has the ultimate difference-maker, A.J. Green, to camouflage some of his errant throws. However, 11 of Dalton’s 20 interceptions last year were targeted to Green, the most for any quarterback-receiver combination in the league. Watching film week in and week out, it’s apparent the two have not yet developed great chemistry.
Green isn’t the only weapon. Marvin Jones has the body control and stop/start speed to become a 60-catch, 1,000-yard type guy. (He’s out until October with a foot injury, though.) Mohamed Sanu has shown marked improvement and won’t disappear again this year, as the Bengals will need him to help Dane Sanzenbacher assume Andrew Hawkins’ old slot duties. At tight end, 2013 first-round pick Tyler Eifert has the flexibility to split outside or come out of the backfield. Jermaine Gresham, while still not totally reliable, is more than capable of winning mismatches as the No. 2 tight end, which is what he’ll likely be demoted to at some point this season. Gresham will still see starter’s reps, though, as Hue Jackson is expected to continue building on the dual tight end foundation that Gruden laid.
Mike Nugent, who was 18 for 22 on field goals last year, has the range to be trusted from 50-plus yards. Punter Kevin Huber is fully recovered from the season-ending face-smash that Pittsburgh’s Terence Garvin delivered last December. In the return game, Brandon Tate has big-play ability but hasn’t shown it as much as the Bengals would like. Another option here would be Adam Jones.
Same team, just different play-callers. More important than how the coaching transitions go is how the young core players—Dalton, Green, Bernard, Eifert, Zeitler, Burfict, Hunt, Iloka, Dennard—progress. The ceiling on the first guy listed here is something this team will have to overcome.