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2011 Cincinnati Bengals preseason preview

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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Andy Dalton soaks up instruction from Jay Gruden during training camp. (US Presswire)  
Andy Dalton soaks up instruction from Jay Gruden during training camp. (US Presswire)  

2010 RECORD: 4-12 (4th, AFC North)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2009, lost to New York Jets, 24-14, in AFC wild card

COACH (RECORD): Marvin Lewis (60-67-1 in eight seasons with Bengals)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jay Gruden

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Zimmer

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OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS, 2010 (NFL): 27th rushing, 13th passing, 22nd scoring

DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS, 2010 (NFL): 19th rushing, 14th passing, 24th scoring

KEY ADDITIONS: QB Bruce Gradkowski (free agent), WR A.J. Green (first round, Georgia), OL Max Jean-Gilles (free agent), LB Thomas Howard (free agent), LB Manny Lawson (free agent), DB Nate Clements (free agent), QB Andy Dalton (second round, TCU), TE Bo Scaife (free agent).

KEY DEPARTURES: CB Johnathan Joseph (to Texans), QB Carson Palmer (retired), WR Chad Ochocinco (to Patriots), WR Terrell Owens (not tendered), S Roy Williams (not tendered), DE Antwan Odom (released)

WHAT TO DO WITHOUT PALMER: The worst news of a terrible offseason for the Bengals was Carson Palmer's decision to try and get out of Cincinnati by requesting a trade or threatening to retire. With Mike Brown drawing a line in the sand that he won't trade Palmer, retirement appears his fate. It leaves the Bengals with a problem at quarterback. They drafted TCU QB Andy Dalton in the second round and signed free agent QB Bruce Gradkowski. Neither own Palmer's polish, but must find a way to run new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's West Coast attack. Dalton proved to be a quick study and knows the playbook as well as anybody in the locker room. Executing it will be a larger challenge. It would be shocking if Dalton didn't see the field this year, but there are no guarantees he'll be starting the opener at Cleveland. The veteran Gradkowski may open the year at QB to help Dalton ease into his rookie season.

GRUDEN AT THE HELM: New offensive coordinator Jay Gruden may have the famous name, but he doesn't boast a famous resume. He came from off the radar to land the coordinator position when 10-year OC Bob Bratkowski was let go in January. He's never been a position coach in the NFL and this will be his first coordinator job. He made his name as an Arena League coach of the Orlando Predators and then head coach in the UFL. His attitude and energy have been contagious inside the Bengals facilities. Yet, even the greatest attitude in the world needs to be backed up by points. With a giant question mark at quarterback, the onus falls on Gruden to find a creative way to produce scores. A return to the run-heavy success of 2009 will be the method utilized and that will mean a heavy dose of RB Cedric Benson (1,111 yards and 7 TDS in 2010). Also, RB Bernard Scott (4.9 yards per carry last year) is expected to see increased touches. But Gruden's success not only this year, but in his career in Cincinnati almost certainly rests on his ability to develop Dalton into a top-tier QB. Whether he can is anyone's guess. There's no NFL track record to reference in predicting his success.

LINEBACKERS IN MOTION: Make no mistake, the Bengals have been gutted. Nowhere is that more apparent than at linebacker. Third-year pro Rey Maualuga moved from outside to his more natural middle linebacker position. The challenge of now making all the calls in a complicated defensive scheme would be hard enough in itself, except he has two new players flanking him. Free agent pickups Manny Lawson (59 tackles, 2.5 sacks in San Francisco last year) and Thomas Howard (averaged 95 tackles per season from 2006-09) enter on the outside. LB Brandon Johnson (38 tackles last year) returns as the top backup, but intense pressure will be placed on Maualuga to guide a unit the Bengals desperately need to return to being the Top 5 defense they were in 2009. By all accounts, Maualuga is handling the increased responsibilities well, but as the playbook thickens and the season progresses it will only become more difficult. If he can't sustain mentally and make the physical contributions of previous years, the entire defense will crumble around him.

CAN CLEMENTS STILL DO IT?: Losing CB Johnathan Joseph to free agency was a brutal blow. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer based his defense off the ability of his top two corners to consistently win one-on-one battles. Joseph and running mate CB Leon Hall (18 interceptions in four seasons) did just that. Marvin Lewis acquired 31-year-old Nate Clements to fill Joseph's spot. Clements was released by the 49ers and battles high expectations along with Father Time. Clements is a step down from Joseph, but how much of a step down is yet to be determined. He's managed only six interceptions in the last three seasons and only 26 passes defensed. By comparison, Hall owns 59 passes defensed and 13 interceptions over the same time frame. If Clements can't cut it, the drop-off behind him is even steeper. Adam Jones won't see any contact until the regular season begins after offseason neck surgery and Morgan Trent owns the one NFL start among all the backup DBs.

FINAL WORD: This preseason will be spent indoctrinating Andy Dalton to the NFL. It will be a trial by fire for the redheaded QB. He needs to get ready to play and do so fast. He should expect to see many more snaps than most quarterbacks would so he can get used to the speed of the NFL game. Also, the Bengals need to know if he has picked up the offense fast enough to keep Bruce Gradkowski in a backup role. How the QB position develops will end up determining if this team ends up 4-12 again.

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