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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Season preview: 2011 Bengals

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Offense: Where have you gone, Carson Palmer? When he decided to retire, it meant the Cincinnati Bengals would be in trouble at quarterback. That's why they drafted Andy Dalton in the second round. He is the starter, but he has struggled in the preseason. Dalton seems to know where to go with the football, but he has been inaccurate. Dalton has weapons in tight end Jermaine Gresham, rookie receiver A.J. Green and speedy Jerome Simpson. Now it's a matter of getting the ball to those guys. Cedric Benson will key the running game. He is a grinder who moves the chains, but offers little in terms of the big play. The running game has to work to keep the pressure off Dalton. The line is a talented, led by left tackle Andrew Whitworth. If right tackle Andre Smith can keep the weight off and play like he did at Alabama, it will help the running game; he can be a mauler there. Nothing else matters here except how much Dalton grows. If he can't get it, this is a team that will be lucky to win two games.

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Defense: There is talent on this side of the ball, players such as corner Leon Hall, defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson and linebackers Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga, but they all have to play to the level of expectations if the Bengals are to improve. The Bengals were 25th in yards per play last season and 27th in sacks per pass play. They have to get more pressure. Dunlap came on late last season to get 8 1/2 sacks, but they need more than that and he needs help. The secondary lost corner Johnathan Joseph to the Texans in free agency, and that will be felt. Nate Clements, who takes over, isn't in the same class as Joseph anymore. Hall is the top player in the secondary. Safety Reggie Nelson appears to have revitalized his career after flopping as a first-round pick in Jacksonville.

Coaching and schemes: Coach Marvin Lewis has not won a playoff game in eight years with Cincinnati. The fact Lewis is starting a rookie quarterback could help him stay in 2012. For a coach with a defensive pedigree, his defense hasn't been good enough, either. Mike Zimmer, the coordinator, is also a good coach. But the results aren't there. New offensive coordinator Jay Gruden will use more of a West Coast-style of offense. That should play to Dalton's strengths, which is getting the ball out quick.

Outlook: With Palmer, they push for a playoff berth. Without him, they might be picking first next April. That's the value of the quarterback position. If Dalton can get it going, the Bengals might be a tough team in the second half. There is young talent on the roster. The growing pains won't be fun.

Predicted finish: 3-13, fourth in AFC North.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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