Senior NFL Columnist

Bengals camp report: With a full offseason, don't expect sophomore slump for Dalton


The Bengals need BenJarvus Green-Ellis to grind out tough yards and not turn over the football. (US Presswire)  
The Bengals need BenJarvus Green-Ellis to grind out tough yards and not turn over the football. (US Presswire)  

CINCINNATI -- There is a sentiment making its way through the NFL that Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton had a nice rookie season in 2011, but don't count on much more going forward.

That's absurd.

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No, he isn't a big, strong-armed passer who makes your jaw drop when you watch him work, but he is accurate and, more importantly, he knows where to go with the football.

Dalton will be even better in 2012.

"Things are a lot better this year," Dalton said. "I am definitely a lot more comfortable. At this time last year, I was learning new plays and then going out and running them. Now we've run them a bunch. We know what we're doing when we hit the field. There's not much worrying going into the practices like there was last year."

With the lockout in 2011, Dalton had two weeks to learn the team's offense under coordinator Jay Gruden and then run it in some form in his first preseason game.

"It was all on the fly," Dalton said.

Somehow, they made it work. Dalton was an impressive rookie starter, leading the Bengals to the playoffs. With a full offseason, and much more of Gruden's offense implemented, the Bengals will expect better results.

"He's in command of this offense," Bengals receiver A.J. Green said. "You can tell every day that his confidence is growing."

Dalton threw for 3,398 yards, 20 touchdown passes and 13 picks. It was far from a great season, but it was impressive considering the circumstances.

As he readies for year two, there is talk that he is off to a slow start in camp and some wonder if he can do it again. They talk about his arm strength a lot.

"You don't have to have the strongest arm," said Green, who was also a rookie in 2011. "Peyton Manning doesn't have the strongest arm, but he's one of the best to ever play. It's accuracy. Once you get that receiver you have chemistry with, the sky's the limit."

With those two playing pitch and catch, and actually knowing now what they are doing, the Bengals passing game should be even better.

Team Objectives

 Establish a better running game. The Bengals signed BenJarvus Green-Ellis to be their reliable back, a guy who can grind out the tough yards and hold onto the football. The Bengals were 27th in rushing yards per attempt last season. They have to be better.

 Find a receiving weapon to go with A.J. Green. The team let Jerome Simpson and his troubled and inconsistent ways leave via free agency. That will put pressure on young players like Armon Binns, Brandon Tate and rookies Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones to step up. The early favorite is Binns, who was undrafted and already cut by receiver-needy Jacksonville. He doesn't run that well, but he's a T.J. Houshmandzadeh-type receiver, a capable player who knows where to go in terms of assignments.

Camp Battles

 Cornerback: Leon Hall is coming off an injury, but he is a capable corner when he's healthy. The coaching staff thinks he's back close to where he was, which means he should be one starter. The other job will go to Nate Clements, Terence Newman or Brandon Ghee, who impressed this offseason before breaking a wrist that will keep him out a month. There is a chance that Clements or Hall could be used at safety. The team is excited about Newman, who they think still has some good football left. Adam "Pacman" Jones is also in the mix.

Projected winner: Hall and Newman.

 Second receiver: Like I said above, they like Binns. Tate got off to a fast start in the offseason but has been bothered by injuries in camp. Jones did some good things the day I was there. This won't be decided until the end of the preseason.

Projected winner: Binns. He might not have the speed Simpson had, by he at least knows where to go.

 Strong safety: Taylor Mays was running with the first team the days I was there, but he really struggles in coverage. He is too stiff. I would look for the Bengals to move a corner -- maybe Clements -- inside to team with Reggie Nelson. They also like Miles.

Projected winner: Too tough to call.

Somebody to Watch

Tight end Jermaine Gresham was the first tight end drafted in 2010, ahead of both Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham, arguably the two best in the game right now. Gresham went to the Pro Bowl last season, but he has the tools to be an elite tight end like the other two. "I have to step my game up to get where those guys are at, to even be considered with them," Gresham said. "Right now I'm not even close." Gresham caught 56 passes last season, but he could easily be an 80-catch guy. He has the ability to split out wide and create matchup problems for a defense. I see that happening more in 2012.

Injury Roundup

 Ghee. He broke his wrist trying to break up a pass intended for Gresham the day I was there. He should be back around the opener.

 CB Shaun Prater. This rookie fifth-round pick is out for the year with a knee injury. He wasn't expected to push for a spot in the corner rotation.

 CB Dre Kirkpatrick. The rookie first-round pick is out with a foot injury for another couple of weeks. He was expected to battle for a spot in the dime package.

 DE Robert Geathers. He had arthroscopic knee surgery that will keep him out a few weeks. Geathers is expected to be a big part of the Bengals defensive line rotation.

The Last Word

I liked the team before I spent two days with them, and that solidified the way I feel about them.

This is a big, talented, physical team that won't back down to the two nasty-boy teams in the division in Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

With Dalton and Green getting a full offseason to dissect Gruden's offense, look for a more explosive unit. The defense could be downright nasty.

In a league where pass rush is imperative, the Bengals have a chance to be dominant up front.

They will win the AFC North -- and push for more.

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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