As training camp fast approaches, I’ve decided to break down the current state of the rest of the AFC North heading into the 2015 NFL preseason. A comprehensive Pittsburgh Steelers breakdown will follow my analysis of their three divisional opponents early next week.
We’ll being by taking an in-depth look at the Cincinnati Bengals, who finished last season with a 10-5-1 mark that was good enough to slide into the playoffs as the fifth seed in the AFC. The Bengals have one of the NFL’s most talented rosters, but questionable coaching and quarterbacking have resulted in first round playoff exits for four consecutive years now.
Divisional Standing: 3-3 in 2014
Getting swept by Pittsburgh was the one major flaw in their regular season campaign, as the Bengals managed to overcome the Baltimore Ravens in both matchups and split with the Cleveland Browns.
A.J. Green is a bonafide star at wide receiver, while Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Denarius Moore, and Tyler Eifert are a stellar supporting cast as targets for Andy Dalton. Injuries befell Eifert, Jones, and even Green for awhile last season, so keeping everyone healthy will be vital to the offense’s success.
The Bengals offensive line might be the finest and deepest in football, with tackles Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith anchoring a group that also features top-notch guards Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler. Center Russell Bodine’s below-average rookie campaign is the only blemish for an exceptionally talented group that will pave the way for second-year running back Jeremy Hill out of the backfield. Hill and third-year back Giovani Bernard will anchor a strong running game in Cincinnati, one that should take pressure off the enigmatic Dalton.
Dalton is clearly the offense’s biggest concern, as he consistently seems to play his worst football in the biggest moments. His inaccuracy and skittish nature in the pocket have doomed Cincinnati in many key games, but his long-term contract has married he and the franchise for the foreseeable future.
Outside of Bodine, the only other offensive question exists at the tight end position, where Eifert hasn’t shown much in two seasons, albeit mostly due to injury. I’m a big believer in Eifert, and now he’ll have the chance to go to work as the team’s undisputed starter with Jermaine Gresham moving on.
Getting Michael Johnson back should help a dreadful pass rush as Geno Atkins continues to work to return to his dominant ways. Vontaze Burfict was hampered by injuries all last season, so having their defensive leader back will be big for the Bengals in 2015.
The Bengals safety pairing of Reggie Nelson and George Iloka has been underrated for awhile, especially Iloka, who continues to blossom into one of the game’s best free safeties. Adam Jones and Leon Hall are a solid pair of corners, but will be pushed by the young depth the Bengals have at the position.
A league-low 20 sacks last season left Cincinnati with plenty of question marks when creating a consistent pass rush, but the team failed to adequately address the problem this offseason. Johnson is a nice addition, but neither he nor Carlos Dunlap are very dynamic edge rushers, so look for concerns to continue in that department.
The cornerback group features four former first-round picks, but considering their billing, it is a solid but unspectacular group. Dre Kirkpatrick’s future could be decided this season based on his play, which has been far too up-and-down during his first three seasons.Darqueze Dennard received very little opportunity to shine as a rookie last year, but with Hall and Adam Jones both in their 30s, the chance could come quickly for the second-year corner in 2015.
Outside of those question marks, DT Domato Peko and LB A.J. Hawk have been among the worst starters at their respective positions in the NFL, yet both are slated with the first team currently.
No one will dispute the Bengals’ level of talent, but putting it all together at the right time has been a consistent struggle with this team. There is no reason to expect anything different this season in Cincinnati, as the front office has again shackled themselves to an average quarterback and an average coach for the foreseeable future. As long as owner Mike Brown continues to sow mediocrity or “being good enough” as a franchise, that is all Cincinnati will ever reap in the end.