The Bengals ushered in drastic change on offense a year ago, with tremendous results. Jay Gruden came in to run the offense. Gone were Carson Palmer (through his own retirement threats) and Chad Ochocinco and T.O. That's a lot of big names to see off (though all had waning production). In came Andy Dalton and A.J. Green in the draft, in came new ideas on offense and the Bengals ended up as one of the great surprise stories of 2011, pushing for a division title and ended up in the postseason with a rookie quarterback.
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There might be some talk of a sophomore slump, but Dalton stared down that Ravens defense a couple of times last season and had Baltimore on the ropes (once with Green injured). Green's presence made everyone else better. Young tight end Jermaine Gresham is poised to be more ever present. Cedric Benson is out, but that wasn't a surprise and this unit is perfectly suited to this age of pass-friendly rules and wide-open football. The first act was pretty special and the best is yet to come.
Mock Bengals owner Mike Brown and his front office no longer. They have completely changed their fortunes in a short period of time and, while still a sucker for guys with character issues, at least now they are largely younger and more malleable.
Cincinnati's no-name defense is emblematic of the yeoman's work there. There is good depth in hand, and Rey Maualuga should be ready to become the fulcrum of the linebacking group. Lest we forget, the Bengals made their surge last season largely without Leon Hall, who will return from injury, and the selection of Dre Kirkpatrick in the first round bolsters the group of corners as well. (The pace of Hall's recovery, and how much he can do early on in camp, will be telling).
The defensive line, led by Geno Atkins and Domata Peko, sets the tone for everything else and is the unit's great strength (though it did suffer a hit or two in free agency). Overall, the Bengals finished in the top 10 in points allowed, but the test will come in the division. The Bengals went 0-4 against Baltimore and Pittsburgh, allowing 114 points in those contests (28.5 per game, not good enough). Heck, even the Browns, who couldn't score on anyone, put up 37 in two games against Cincy, well above their season average.
As usual, the Bengals were largely spectators in free agency and they're never going to be confused with the heavy spenders in the NFL, but given the haul they got for Palmer and they recent draft success, they don't have to be. They'll avoid those bidding wars and follow a wise path cut by division rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh of drafting well and utilizing the latter stages of free agency to fill holes and make judicious signings.
Staff: Defensive backs coach Kevin Coyle departed (became Miami's DC), replaced by Mark Carrier. Hue Jackson (former Raiders head coach) named assistant special teams/secondary coach.
For years, the Bengals blocked Coyle from leaving for coordinator jobs and he was very much coordinator Mike Zimmer's right-hand man. He had a great impact in helping Jonathan Joseph and Leon Hall round into the form, and, in losing Coyle, the Bengals also lost their defensive coordinator-in-waiting should Zimmer end up a head coach at some point (though after all of his interviews have yet to result in that move, it simply might not be in the cards). There is a fair amount of juggling on the defensive staff, and Zimmer has been candid at times talking about the transitions going on there.
It might take a little sorting out, though the good news for the Bengals defense, and secondary in particular, is that up until their Week 8 bye, -- outside of getting Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger -- they will face neophyte QBs like Blaine Gabbert, Ryan Tannehill (possibly), RG3 and Brandon Weeden (twice).
Benson is the biggest name to leave, but at this stage, I would take my chances with Green-Ellis as well. He runs hard and is used to being a part of a passing offense and getting his carries where they come. He should fit in nicely. (Interesting to note Baltimore is the only team in the division with its starting tailback returning, and even he skipped all of the offseason sitting on the unsigned franchise tag).
The Bengals didn't want to shake things up too much; if anything this offseason, without the lockout, it's all about just getting their youngsters reps together in OTAs and camp more than anything else. It's a matter of keeping things going in the right direction and avoiding distractions. In fact, the overall lack of huge moves within this division speaks to the three quality teams in the AFC North and how close they believe they are to winning it all. And, unlike the Ravens and Steelers, the Bengals have oodles of cap space to continue to add in the short term, if need be.
This seems to be a very different Bengals squad than we've come to know ... but they're still the Bengals, and this is an organization that rarely maintains success. People will be waiting for them to stumble, some surely expecting it, and if this moribund franchise is going to join the elite teams in football, it will have to prove that 2011 was no fluke.
The roster alone would say it surely wasn't, but for whatever reasons (some would say of their own making) this franchise hasn't been able to string together quality seasons, and the weight of expectations will be very different this season. They won't be sneaking up on anyone and they won't be taken lightly. Top defenses like Baltimore and Pittsburgh have had a full offseason to study that offense and its tendencies as well.
The feeling at the start of this camp will be very unlike many in years past, and the fans, reluctant to buy in last year at times, will be waiting to see if this is all too good to be true.
Jay Gruden earned himself a well-deserved contract extension last year, and had the chance to interview for some head coaching jobs. Another season like last year, and he's very likely to end up elsewhere, and guys like Dalton and Green would be looking for a new sensei. This season will be a referendum for the young coordinator, who has much of his older brother's passion and creativity but without some of the edginess.
At times last season, it appeared other teams were making adroit adjustments to the Bengals and perhaps the staff outsmarted itself. This is an ever-evolving chess match and Gruden will be matched up against some masters. His success in 2012 could oddly lead to problems come 2013.
Complementary pass rushers
Carlos Dunlap is yet another one of the Bengals' sage draft picks from the past few years, and he is a beast. When he's on, he's damn difficult to block and he opens things up for others. But finding another edge player to cause offensive coordinators fits will be crucial if the Bengals are going to go from a team that makes the playoffs to one that wins in the postseason. Fanene and Rucker combined for 10.5 sacks -- that's a significant loss -- and they need to get more pressure out of the linebackers. You can't have too many guys who can get after the quarterback, and the question is: Do the Bengals have enough?
Assuming the Bengals' upswing continues, eyes will be focused on Brown to see how deep he will dip in his pockets. The new rookie wage system maintains cost certainty, but he's going to have some total superstars heading into their second contracts soon enough, and the Bengals' days of being near the bottom in committed cash -- and of sitting on mounds of cap space -- might have to come to an end. By 2013, teams will have to spend to roughly 90 percent of the cap, and it makes the most sense by far to reinvest that on your own players. But this young core will make the Bengals a much more attractive destination for free agents, and Bengals fans will be waiting and watching to see where the money goes as this season plays out for a franchise that seems on the cusp of some great things. If nothing else, they now bear the burden of great expectations.
"That's a scary football team. The quarterback will be even better and the WR is a total stud. There's some uncertainty in the running game and they may be a little suspect there, but that team is going to score some points. Defensively, they're OK, but they were only OK a year ago, and look what they did. They need a pass rusher, but the secondary is getting better."
Xs and Os
By Pat Kirwan | NFL Insider
The Bengals made the playoffs last year but they also went 0-8 vs. playoff teams. There is still a lot of work to do but enthusiasm runs high behind second-year players QB Andy Dalton and WR AJ Green and their west coast offense. The Bengals want to run the ball on first down as much as possible. Last year they finished 6th in the league in first-down rushing with Cedric Benson carrying the ball 164 times in that situation. He averaged 10 first-down runs a game at 4.1 per run last year and really helped Dalton to manageable 2nd and 3rd downs.
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2012 Preview Schedule
Ravens @ Bengals: 12/30 (1 p.m. ET)
Bengals @ Ravens: 9/10 (7 p.m. ET)
2012 Preview Schedule
Browns @ Bengals: 9/16 (1 p.m. ET)
Bengals @ Browns: 10/14 (1 p.m. ET)
2012 Preview Schedule
Steelers @ Bengals: 10/21 (8:20 p.m. ET)
Bengals @ Steelers: 12/23 (1 p.m. ET)
This year, Benson is gone and Ben Jarvis Green-Ellis has the job. Last year with Tom Brady under center Green-Ellis only averaged 3.7 per first down rush so keep an eye on this area of the offense. There are great expectations that rookie WR Mohammed Sanu can replace the production of Jerome Simpson (50 rec. 724 yards, 4TD) but that remains to be seen as well. I expect more two tight end sets with the addition of Orson Charles to go along with Jermaine Gresham. The Bengals' offensive line is a strength of the team giving up a sack every 22 attempts. The offensive line led a rushing attack against division foes Pittsburgh and Baltimore that averaged 109 yards a game.
The Bengal defense is a 4-3 scheme built on running to the ball and being aggressive. Against non-playoff teams they gave up 17 points a game and won all nine games. Against playoff bound teams they gave up 25 points a game and lost all eight games. The club went into the draft for answers and came out with CB Dre Kirkpatrick so they don’t get caught again with injuries at the position. Selecting two defensive tackles (Devon Still, Brandon Thompson) so they can have a deep rotation in the front four is also a critical component to Mike Zimmer’s defense.
When it comes to pressure calls, Zimmer will dial up lots of different things. Ten sacks last year came from non-front four pass rushers and I expect more of the same this year. The more I look at the 2012 nickel package the Bengals will put on the field the more I like the direction they are headed in. Kirkpatrick, Clements and Hall give them three solid corners to go along with the 5th ranked pass rush in sacks. The Bengal defense got to Ben Roethlisberger eight times and Flacco twice last year and still lost partially because they only forced 2 turnovers in those four games.
By Rob Rang | NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst
With ten picks to play with thanks to the Carson Palmer trade and a deal with the Patriots, the Bengals systematically addressed their biggest needs one by one, adding pro-ready talents at cornerback (Dre' Kirkpatrick), offensive guard (Kevin Zeitler), defensive tackle (Devon Still, Brandon Thompson) and wide receiver (Mohamed Sanu) with their first five selections. Each was considered a potential first-round pick at some point during the pre-draft process.
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The team's sixth pick, fourth-round tight end Orson Charles from Georgia, is also an intriguing selection. He has the potential to team with Jermaine Gresham to help thwart the 3-4 defensive edge rush from division rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
Fifth-round pick Marvin Jones could pay surprising dividends. At least partially due to poor play at the quarterback position, the wideout didn't generate a great deal of buzz coming out of California. Given an opportunity at the Senior Bowl, however, Jones was spectacular, demonstrating straight-line speed, balance and quick feet as a route-runner, body control to contort to poorly thrown passes and soft hands to develop into a legitimate NFL starter.
The rest of the Bengals' picks:
1st Round - No. 17 overall - 'Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama
1st Round - No. 27 overall - Kevin Zeitler, OG, Wisconsin
2nd Round - No. 53 overall - Devon Still, DT, Penn State
3rd Round - No. 83 overall - Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers
3rd Round - No. 93 overall - Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson
4th Round - No. 116 overall - Orson Charles, TE, Georgia
5th Round - No. 156 overall - Shaun Prater, CB, Iowa
5th Round - No. 166 overall - Marvin Jones, WR, California
5th Round - No. 167 overall - George Iloka, FS, Boise State
6th Round - No. 191 overall - Dan Herron, RB, Ohio State