The off-season may have been quiet, but the Bengals are poised to have their best year yet. After a third straight disappointing exit in the playoffs several fans sought changes to the organization that would enable them to take the next step. Marvin Lewis and Co. had no such inclination instead choosing to stay the course with what they’ve built. This decision will prove to be the right one as the upcoming season will continue the Bengals’ upward trend since the 2011 season.
Clearly the lesser of its three units, the Bengals made sound decisions which should benefit their offense in the coming year. Quietly the team has been adding depth to its offensive line for a few years now, so when Anthony Collins left this off-season for lucrative deal with the Buccaneers, the Bengals was well prepared. At the time of Collins’ departure the Bengals already possessed two top starting tackles in Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith while having invested in versatile lineman Tanner Hawkinson the previous year. Hawkinson has NFL foot speed, but needed to add strength. After a year with the team it seems he has done so and, according to the team, now needs the reps. As Collins’ prepared to sign in Tampa Bay It seems the Bengals were probably already in discussions with veteran swing tackle Marshall Newhouse as he was signed only a week after Collins’ departure. Newhouse has started 31 games since 2011 and played with Andy Dalton while at TCU. The team has even added veteran tackle Will Svitek as added insurance for the position. This depth at tackle is nice, but the largest hole along the line was at center. When Dalton has faced pressure in the past it often looked as if former center Kyle Cook was the weak point in the protection. The Bengals traded up in this year’s draft, a rarity for the team, to draft Russell Bodine. Bodine’s strength impressed the Bengals and they saw in him the kind of powerful center they need in order to run the ball effectively and deal with powerful opposing defensive tackles such as Baltimore’s Haloti Ngata. Bodine has been playing well this off-season and looks to be a real contender for the starting job. If Bodine isn’t able to secure the job the Bengals possess veteran Mike Pollak. Pollak was brought in as a free agent last year and performed well when filling in at guard when injuries occurred. Although he hasn’t played the center position in the NFL, Pollak was a highly-impressive center in college and thinks of himself as a natural at the position. With the depth the Bengals been able to accumulate, the offensive line should be in for another excellent year and possibly an even better one if its core can remain healthy.
Over the past couple of seasons many fans have been concerned with Andy Dalton’s ability and if he can lead this team to the Super Bowl. Well this concern may have been addressed this off-season also. The departure of Jay Gruden to Washington has opened the door for Hue Jackson and his run-game emphasis to enter into the Bengals’ plans. This is the best thing that could have happened to Dalton. Dalton’s strengths lie in his game-management and ability to function within a running offense. To get proof of this one only has to look at Dalton’s history. While at TCU he enjoyed great success in their run-heavy offense and helped the team go 12-1 in his junior year only losing to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl and then led the team to a 13-0 record and a Sugar Bowl victory over Wisconsin during his senior year. Since transitioning to a new offense in the NFL, Dalton has improved but has struggled to get to that next level. This is probably attributed to the Bengals decision to play him within an offense that doesn’t emphasize his strengths. This isn’t an indictment of Dalton, but rather a recognition that it’s hardly unheard of that a quarterback can thrive in a run-emphasizing offense, especially in the AFC North. Having Hue Jackson employ his running prowess onto this offense, while adding bruiser Jeremy Hill to the mix, will help Dalton raise himself to the next level. It will release some of the pressure on him and help him play more freely and hence make better decisions during key moments, something he’s struggled with in recent years; the results may already be presenting themselves to the approval of Jackson. These types of changes will benefit the offense and this team should enjoy greater success because of it.
Maybe the most obvious improvement within the offense may also be its easiest, aging. The Bengals possess an extremely young offense when you consider that, of all its weapons, only Jermaine Gresham isn’t playing within his rookie deal; even the offensive line may have three starters within their rookie deals. A year in the NFL can make a huge difference so making big changes during this off-season wouldn’t have necessarily benefitted such a young group. Last year turnovers really hurt this team as did several avoidable penalties. An emphasis on the details and ball security should work out much of these issues and make this offense more effective while benefitting the team overall.
Improvements within ball security and offensive efficiency will also greatly impact the defense. It’s because of these issues that the Bengals’ defense was often put into difficult situations last year and was overworked at times. Ball security by the offense gives this elite unit timely breaks and allows them to be more effective when on the field; just look to the Super Bowl champion Seahawks for proof of this. An increase in time of possession and clock management will make this unit more effective and I’d expect they could finish as the top defense in the AFC again this year.
Like the offense some of the Bengals defense will also benefit from a year’s experience. The Bengals were well prepared for Michael Johnson’s departure, but the unit will rely on Margus Hunt as a result. This past year gave Hunt time to learn the NFL game and will help him be more comfortable and productive in 2014 as it will for young safety George Iloka similarly. The defense may even get some contributions from second-year players Shawn Williams, Jayson DiManche, and Sean Porter. These smaller benefits may pay large dividends for this unit, but they are hardly the only reasons to expect this unit to be even better despite the team’s quiet off-season.
Like Anthony Collins on the offensive side of the ball, many fans are concerned with the loss of Michael Johnson. The team prepared itself well by drafting Margus Hunt in 2013 and giving him time to develop. The defensive line also possesses an Anthony Collins-caliber backup in Wallace Gilberry. Gilberry has performed well in recent years and has earned an increase in playing time. This year will provide that to both Hunt and Gilberry. And because Margus Hunt will be playing a more substantial role, the depth he brought to the line last year will now be provided by rookie Will Clark, who is much more acquainted with the game of football than was Hunt upon his arrival in Cincinnati. All this and we have yet to even mention the impact a returning Geno Atkins will have on this defense. ESPN correspondent Cole Harvey provided Bengaldom with a factoid last month that is unsurprising yet counter to what Atkins is best associated with. Harvey points out how much of an impact Atkins has on the team’s rush defense. We all know and love his pass-rushing prowess, which will add a substantial missing piece to this defense from the second half of last year, but because his impact is so great against the rush also, this defense should be substantially improved even considering its third place finish last year; it will also be especially important considering how the entire AFC North seems to returning to its run-emphasis roots. Atkins should allow the defensive ends to enjoy more 1:1 match-ups, something that will be especially important for the young Hunt, he will allow the linebackers more freedom to roam and make plays, to Vontaze Burfict’s liking, and decrease the amount of time the secondary needs to lock their men down, a benefit for the older veterans in the secondary. He really is a game-changer.
The largest improvement for the defense should be seen within its linebacking corps. This unit was poised to really surprise the league until it was devastated by injuries last year. Both Emmanuel Lamur and Sean Porter went down with year-ending shoulder injuries in the preseason and then newfound nickel-backer Taylor Mays went down with a similar injury midway through the year. These injuries meant the whole defense needed to shuffle and compensate as these three players would’ve been responsible to coverage duties. Coming into 2014 Emmanuel Lamur is poised to make a huge impact on this defense according to Paul Guenther. He’s even been labeled as a breakout star for the second straight year by Football Outsiders. He will allow fellow linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga to return to their more natural roles while he takes on the responsibility of covering the opposition’s tight ends and running backs coming out of the backfield; this will be especially important considering they will face tight ends such as Jordan Cameron, Heath Miller, Dennis Pitta, and Owen Daniels while also facing several pass-catching running backs within the division. Both Sean Porter and Jayson DiManche could make the final roster and both bring a unique ability that this defense has been missing in recent years: a pass-rush from the linebackers. New coordinator Paul Guenther has already expressed wanting to blitz more often this year. DiManche was a sack master coming out of college and Porter was similarly effective in the SEC during his junior year; his effectiveness took a hit in his senior year when his role was changed within the defense. Once looking over their numbers, it’s easy to see where these two could provide this missing piece to this defense. Finally the injuries to these players allowed the Bengals to finally find a role for the ultra-athletic Taylor Mays. After struggling for years to effectively play the safety position, Mays had to fill in last year as a nickel linebacker. He proved to be very effective within this role. His only problem may lie in trying to make the roster amongst this crowded linebacking unit.
All this potential improvement and the Bengals still found a first round pick to utilize towards improving its secondary. The Bengals drafted Darqueze Dennard after a puzzling draft day slide. But no worries here, Dennard fits the Bengals defensive plan and needs perfectly. He comes NFL-ready at the most difficult defensive position in the NFL and will provide relief for some of the aging veterans within the Bengals secondary. His presence will have a rippling effect also. He will allow All-Pro Leon Hall any necessary time to ease his way back onto the field after missing much of last year due to yet another achilles tear, though this seems unnecessary at this point as he amazingly practiced on day one of training camp. Dennard could allow Hall to move into his most effective position full-time: the slot. Dennard has been training in the slot role so far, but watching his highlights leaves little doubt that he will be able to handle the outside duties in short order. Dennard’s presence, along with Leon Hall’s return, will allow Adam Jones to provide his punt returning duties to the special teams unit once more. Jones was seventh in the league in punt return average in 2012, but was forced from the role when injury struck the secondary last year. He is much more effective in the role than is Brandon Tate, so he should provide a boost to this unit while enjoying several opportunities to do so because of the defense’s penchant for forcing punts. Finally, after a year of experience, George Iloka should be ready to display improvement in his game. The safety position was in flux for several years prior to Iloka grabbing hold of the position in 2013. After a solid performance last year finishing third on the team in total tackles and sixth in pass deflections, Iloka should have a strangle hold on this position. Coming into his second year starting at the position, Iloka should understand his responsibilities without having to think as much, which should allow him to make more plays on the ball while securing the run defense on the back end: a strength of his. It’s because of these returning players, additions through the draft, and due to time itself, I expect this defense to once again finish amongst the league leaders and maybe even as the top defense overall.
2014 should prove to be an exciting year to be a Bengal fan. As a long time Bengal fan, I understand the struggle and labile feelings of the fan base, but being positive and moving on from the past should be easier to do based on the strides the organization has taken in recent years; even Mike Brown acknowledged his role has changed in recent years: a necessary alteration. But winning is the ultimate barometer success and due to sound decision-making, this team is poised to be much more successful in 2014.
Tags: Cincinnati Bengals