The Bengals have been that little brother who has been getting noogied by the Ravens and Steelers for a long time. The AFC North’s modus operandi has always been about that black and blue mindset, tough and physical defenses and games won in the trenches and right around the tackle boxes. This past season, the Bengals finally showed the necessary toughness and fight that is needed to dwell the noogies back to the big brothers.
Not only have they appeared in back to back playoff appearances for the first time since the 80’s, but with the mass exodus in Baltimore and the Steelers fiddling away into mediocrity with aging veterans and no cap-space, the Bengals are in a prime spot to make a legitimate move in the always competitive AFC North
If we are talking about winning games at the line of scrimmage and between the boxes, the Bengals can finally pound with the big boys. Geno Atkins has established himself as the best 3-technique in the league. He can rush the passer and he is a load against the run game. Think of him as this era’s version of Warren Sapp. When you pair him with Domata Peko, you will be hard-pressed to find a better duo of 3-techniques in the game. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer does a tremendous job with this entire defensive line. With recently franchised defensive end Michael Johnson, as a 6’7 beast of a pass rusher who finally came into his own this season, 3rd year player Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry, they have one of the biggest and most fearsome front-four’s in the game. This is key because they have not adequately replaced Jonathan Joseph who defected to Houston a few seasons ago and Adam Jones and Nate Clements should only be nickel and dime corners at this point. Conversely, they lack the talent and range at safety, which will be a position of need in the draft along with a corner opposite Leon Hall. With the NFL moving towards a passing league, you simply cannot rely solely on 2 pass rushers. It is integral that teams be able to rotate at a minimum 3 players at the defensive end position. When your All-Pro defensive tackle can get 12.5 sacks that is only an added bonus.
When you have a great front four, it allows your linebackers to roam free and provides a better mechanism to avoid blockers. Rey Malaluga and surprisingly Vontaze Burfict, who the Bengals took a gamble on, both had tremendous seasons. They fit perfectly Zimmer’s 4-3 defense combined with the interior defensive linemen that they have, as they are great against the run and play a physical style, although they are not blessed with great speed. Burfict will be moving to Mike linebacker and Malaluga to Will linebacker. They will be looking to fill a void at strong side linebacker possibly in the first round and get more athleticism as their current set of linebackers are vulnerable in pass coverage.
While the defense has made great strides with smart drafting and finding 3 or 4 diamonds in the rough in the later rounds, the offensive side deserves admirable attention. Their offensive line is a big mauling unit led by Andre Smith (who needs to be resigned) and Andrew Whitworth. This is a unit that needs to improve its pass blocking, but they fit the mold of a big conglomerate that can move bodies and push piles. We all know they have great weapons on the outside with Jermaine Gresham who continues to improve every year. Mohammed Sanu and Andre Hawkins show flashes of potential to be capable number-two receivers. But the offense is all about AJ Green. The former Georgia Bulldog, in his first two NFL seasons, is showing that he can be a complete receiver. Every highlight package he is featured in, displays his ability to make ridiculous circus catches. He can beat you deep or in the intermediate portion of the field. He can blow by press coverage, take a short hitch and turn it into a 50 yard gain and also has a knack for the end zone. The key will be the way he develops with Andy Dalton. Dalton has been a solid performer so far, but he needs to elevate his game to that next level, as he is simply a 3rd tier quarterback at this point. Two average playoff games will not cut it and now that the Steelers and Ravens have taken some personnel hits, he needs to ascend his game and get the Bengals their first home playoff game in 8 seasons. The problems I see with Dalton are arm strength and he lacks deep ball accuracy. He has also been too inconsistent. He had a 4 game stretch in December where he did not post a QB rating above 80. Ultimately, you need to play your best games versus your rivals. In 8 games against the Steelers and Ravens in his two years as QB of the Bengals, he has an average QB rating of 68.47 and is 2-6. He simply has to play better against them. The advent of a better running game will be key for the Bengals in order to keep the defenses from putting safety coverage on a consistent basis on Green, like the way defenses did with Calvin Johnson, when the Lions could not run the ball.
With regards to that running game, while Benjarvis Green Ellis is a capable player, they need a back with more explosiveness. The Lawfirm will get you 1000 yards rushing, but he needs too many carries to get his yardage. He is best suited as a change of pace back to spell a guy with more elusiveness. I look for the Bengals to draft a runner in the 2nd or 3rd round of the draft.
On paper, the Bengals are in the best shape they have been as a franchise since the days of Boomer Esiason and Sam Wyche. The time is ripe with the Ravens in semi-retooling mode and the Steelers not really sure what direction they are going in with regards to their personnel. I like the stance that head coach Marvin Lewis has made with regards to going after aging free-agent veterans. Marvin Lewis, Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer are committed towards continuing to develop their young players and are opting against going after the veteran stopgap players. The formula is there for them to finally break through and win this division. Smart drafting and continued development of their young players will be crucial for the Bengals to achieve their goal which should not only be making the playoffs, but winning the division in order for them to get that all important home playoff game.