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PFT Preseason Power Rankings No. 15: Cincinnati Bengals

A.J. Green, Andy Dalton AP

A year ago, the Bengals seemed to be in disarray.  Coach Marvin Lewis became a coaching free agent, deciding to re-sign with the team only with the understanding that things would be different.  Quarterback Carson Palmer had reached the point where no such promises would matter; after nearly a decade of dysfunction, he wanted out.

With the team’s first two draft picks devoted to a position that had been decimated by Palmer’s decision to move on (he “retired” until the Raiders offered a desperation-driven trade package) and the team’s decision to move on from Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, and with no offseason program during which receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton could prepare for their baptism by blast furnace, not much was expected.

The Bengals served up much more than “not much,” snagging an unlikely playoff berth.

But Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer recently pointed out an ominous trend.  The Bengals never have put together consecutive playoff berths in non-strike seasons.  With Green and Dalton becoming instant Pro Bowlers and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden passing on the opportunity to interview for head-coaching jobs, the Bengals finally may break a decades-long trend.

STRENGTHS.

With Carson Palmer choosing no football over football for the Bengals and with the receiving corps scalped by the departure of Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, who’d ever believe that both positions would so quickly be viewed as being under control for years to come?

Quarterback Andy Dalton immediately helped stabilize the offense, providing leadership and sufficient competence to an offense that needed an anchor.  Though he’ll likely never be Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, Dalton already is on his way to becoming good enough to make the Bengals consistent contenders.  If he can learn how to win the games the Bengals are supposed to lose.

Though the rest of the receiving depth chart is muddled for now, A.J. Green provides opportunities for middle-of-the-pack wideouts to become stars.  With Green being blanketed (and still making plays when he is), others will enjoy single coverage — and whoever can best beat single coverage and catch the ball will generate the kind of numbers that will make him a fantasy favorite and, ultimately, the No. 1 option with a new team and the fat signing bonus that goes along with it.

Perhaps the player who’ll benefit most from Green’s presence isn’t a receiver at all.  Jermaine Gresham could be on the verge of a breakout year, especially as the NFL trends toward targeting tight ends more aggressively.

The Bengals’ defense doesn’t have many (any) names that stand out as superstars.  Only defensive tackle Geno Atkins made it to the Pro Bowl last season, and he got there as an injury replacement.  Statistically, however, the Bengals had the seventh-best defense, thanks in large part to the work of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who fortunately for Bengals fans once again was passed over for a head-coaching gig.  Zimmer will find a way to make the various new parts work together and thrive, even as few (or maybe none) of the individuals standout out as truly dominant.

WEAKNESSES.

After three straight 1,000-yard seasons, running back Cedric Benson is gone.  Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden plans to use a committee approach, but no one on the committee approaches first-tier recognition.

Bernard Scott saw his per-carry average plunge from 4.9 in 2010 to 3.4 in 2011, a troubling sign for a guy who was regarded as a late-round steal in 2009.  New arrival BenJarvus Green-Ellis has name recognition based in part on his unique name — and in part on the fact that he spent his first four seasons with the high-profile Patriots.  But Green-Ellis has averaged little more than 500 yards per season, with only 3.7 yards per carry in a contract year that featured a 5,000-yard quarterback sucking safeties away from the line of scrimmage.

And so, just as a team that has two quarterbacks essentially has none, the Bengals could spend 2012 waiting . . . and waiting . . . for Scott or Green-Ellis to take advantage of the extra attention being paid to the passing game.

While the defense generally represents a strength, the cornerback position provides at a minimum a question mark.  With Leon Hall recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon and the team adding Terence Newman via free agency and Dre Kirkpatrick in the first round of the draft, the depth chart has plenty of shaking out to do.  Adam Jones gets plenty of press, but he can’t seem to stay healthy.

The safety position provides even more uncertainty.  Reggie Nelson is back.  Beyond and behind him, it’s unclear whether there’s anyone who can handle the responsibilities of the job, which will include covering bigger and better and faster tight ends.

CHANGES.

Tailback Cedric Benson complained his way out of town, and there’s no obvious perennial 1,000-yard rusher to take his place.  Someone needs to step up; newcomer BenJarvus Green-Ellis presumably gets the first crack.

Receiver Jerome Simpson took his talents (and his stash) to the Twin Cities.  Which means that someone else must take advantage of the single coverage that goes with starting across from A.J. Green.

On the offensive line, Nate Livings left for Dallas, and his position was backfilled one day alter with Travelle Wharton.

Defensively, ends Jonathan Fanene and Frostee Rucker fled the coop.  The Bengals replaced them with a pair of former top-10 draft picks in Derrick Harvey and Jamaal Anderson.  If they can both play up to the potential that got them drafted so high, it would provide a major upgrade.

Perhaps the best changes were the ones that the team didn’t endure.  With offensive coordinator Jay Gruden making an instant impact after making the jump from the Arena League, the Jaguars wanted to interview him for the head-coaching job.  But Gruden opted to stay put, which will help the offense get even better.  And with defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer still not a head coach, the Bengals benefit from the kind of consistency that could get the team back to the postseason.

CAMP BATTLES.

The biggest fight will come at the receiver position, as multiple players jockey to play second fiddle to A.J. Green.  Brandon Tate, dumped last by the Patriots after his biggest skill (kickoff returns) was devalued by rule changes, could end up pulling a reverse-Ocho, contributing in Cincy after not cutting the proverbial mustard for the Pats.  Ryan Whalen, Armon Binns, and rookie Mohamed Sanu also could compete for the starting job, and they otherwise will contend for depth-chart positioning.

At cornerback, the situation is similarly muddled, but in a different way.  Cornerback Leon Hall’s comeback from a torn Achilles could entail setbacks, opening doors for other players.  Terence Newman, a disappointment in Dallas, could thrive under Mike Zimmer.  (That sound you here is every Cowboys fan laughing their asses off at that possibility.)  Rookie Dre Kirkpatrick could be a factor, but he must adjust from playing press coverage exclusively at Alabama to backpedaling.  Adam Jones no longer acts like Pacman, but he needs to once again play like his video-game namesake.  Brandon Ghee has high hopes to make the jump from second team.  And Nate Clements faces the chopping block, if he can’t climb the ladder.

Several players will be trying to start at safety next to Reggie Nelson.  Taylor Mays possibly has the inside track, but Robert Sands and Jeromy Miles may have something to say about that.

Rookie linebacker Vontaze Burfict will be battling in many ways himself during training camp, as the Bengals try to assess whether his talents can be harnessed and his temper can be tempered in a way that could help him make the teams that passed on him in the draft, repeatedly, regret.  Every team, that is, except the Bengals.

PROSPECTS.

It’s highly unlikely that the AFC North once again will produce a trio of playoff teams.  Since the Bengals were the last ones in last season, they could be the first ones out.  But in comparison to the other wild-card qualifier from their division, the Bengals actually could be better equipped than the Steelers to follow last year’s postseason berth with another one.

While the Bengals enjoy consistency at key player and coaching positions, they also have some areas of transition that could become liabilities.  If the running game slumps, it will be easier for defenses to take away the best part of the passing game.  And if no one steps up to take pressure off A.J. Green, those double teams could become triple teams.  And if the defensive secondary can’t slow down the pass-happy offenses they’ll face, it may not matter how many points the offense can score.

For now, they fairly land in the middle of the pack.  If they rise, it’ll happen because they’ve developed an ability to topple the elite teams in their division and conference.  If they fall, it’ll trace to an overall inability to adjust to the expectations that flow from a nucleus of young, big-name players who overachieved as rookies.

Either way, it’s unlikely they’ll finish in the middle of the pack when the dust settles on the 2012 season.

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16 Responses to “PFT Preseason Power Rankings No. 15: Cincinnati Bengals”
  1. flapjackdaddy says: Jul 17, 2012 3:00 PM

    Not in that division — at least not this year. I like their defense but I don’t see Dalton’s ceiling as being very high.

  2. jay0o1 says: Jul 17, 2012 3:01 PM

    “Rookie linebacker Vontaze Burfict will be battling in many ways himself during training camp, as the Bengals try to assess whether his talents can be harnessed and his temper can be tempered in a way that could help him make the teams that passed on him in the draft, repeatedly, regret. Every team, that is, except the Bengals”.

    Actually, the Bengals repeatedly did pass on Vontaze Burfict. They picked him up as a free agent, not in the draft. But of course, this is a Bengals post so there had to be some mention of them taking on players with a troubled past. I’m actually surprised no comment was made on the organization being cheap. That’s improvement Florio!

  3. cleminem757 says: Jul 17, 2012 3:12 PM

    The person doing the preseason rankings is on crack. Just like every person that pretends they mean anything.

  4. brutus9448 says: Jul 17, 2012 3:25 PM

    bengals will miss the playoffs this year. bank on it.

  5. hooahitsnotatomthing says: Jul 17, 2012 3:42 PM

    It’s not absolutely crazy to think the Bengals could be in the running for a wild card spot.

    Both the Ravens and Steelers have aging defenses. The Ravens are without Suggs for a decent time and Ed Reed doing whatever. The Steelers have a new offense. Both franchises are very stable so I don’t see much of a dip, but the Bengals can be competitve.

    I think the AFC North is the best confrence in the AFC.

  6. jwil007 says: Jul 17, 2012 3:47 PM

    and thats “Everyone says you will suck and wont WIN a game” LOL

  7. ravenseattheirownpoop says: Jul 17, 2012 4:02 PM

    I love Dalton. He’s a winner. Big upgrade over crybaby Palmer. Green is a stud. I like what they are doing as a whole. However, the can’t win the division until they can figure out a way to beat the Steelers. Period point blank.

  8. ahostiletakeover says: Jul 17, 2012 4:08 PM

    I’m a Ravens fan, but one can’t help but like what the Bengals are doing. The offense should be a little better with more continuity after Dalton and Green’s rookie seasons. The defense is perennially underrated. Zimmer is a solid coordinator who knows how to use his guys the right way and despite the losses their d-line is pretty fierce, especially if Dunlap stays healthy this year. Leon Hall has always been a very good corner when he’s 100% and Reggie Nelson looked reborn last year. The team has a very solid nucleus to build around on both sides of the ball and they will should be in the hunt for a wild card again this year. That said, until they prove they can beat the Ravens and Steelers (Before the Bengals fans jump all over me, that was a bogus call to overturn the Gresham TD last year, but the Ravens suffered from the completely ridiculous inability of the refs to even review the Evans’ potential catch in the AFC Championship so I guess it all balances out in the end) they can’t even consider anything more than a wild card for now.

  9. pnut87 says: Jul 17, 2012 4:16 PM

    Not a Bengals fan, but they had a terrific draft to say the least, and they have the potential to do some damage. Hoping they’ll be fun to watch.

  10. timbuttrum says: Jul 17, 2012 4:21 PM

    Too high on the list. Dalton will regress this year.

  11. pskotte says: Jul 17, 2012 4:32 PM

    Pre-training camp predictions aren’t worth the paper they used to be written on. For what it’s worth the Steelers and Ravens have much bigger offseason questions to answer than the Bengals. Don’t be surprised if one or both perennial favorites don’t make the playoffs.

  12. jwreck says: Jul 17, 2012 10:41 PM

    While everyone who mentioned how worthless these rankings are has a good point, everyone who mentioned the Bengals missing the playoffs this year is just wrong. The AFC has plunged into near obsolescence over the last couple years and its six playoff spots are there for the taking. Houston will get one; aging defense aside, the Ravens will still almost certainly nab another; the Pats have been very beatable recently, but they’ll probably still take the East. The AFC West is without a doubt the most wide open division in football and should be a wild ride this year. Essentially that leaves Cincy competing with whoever comes out second in the West, the Steeler, the Bills, and the Jets for two wild card spots. Considering that the Steelers are aging quick, in an offensive transition, and have no ground game; and that the Bills, Jets, and AFC West have a tendency to beat themselves, those aren’t bad odds at all. The Bengals made it last year, and it’s difficult to imagine they won’t do it again in 2013.

  13. blue67ccm says: Jul 18, 2012 2:32 AM

    I am most interested in seeing how high Pittsburgh ends up being ranked, as, personally, I see them in a transition year.

    Ward’s leadership is gone, age has come to the defense and Mendenhall has not mended in time for September 9th.

    If anyone is going to fall hard this year, I think it will surprisingly happen in Pittsburgh. Of course, for the Steelers since 1970, a hard fall is like 7-9, not 4-12. :)

  14. mwindle1973 says: Jul 18, 2012 11:43 AM

    I don’t think CB is going to be a point of weakness. I actually believe exactly the opposite. But I can see why someone would see it that way. But there is a history of Mike Zimmer bringing in players that others consider broken down, too old, written off, etc. and turns them into productive players. Also different Ds ask different things of the players. And requires different kinds of players. Understand that physicality and intelligence are the 2 most important attributes for a DB in the Zimmer/Lewis system. Also the D-line has 2 youngsters going into their 3rd year that continue to grow. One of them Geno Atkins, was rated as the top DT last year by Pro Football Focus. The other, Carlos Dunlap was rated in their top 10, I believe it was 6th. We are also returning 10 starters. Last year 3 of them were new to the team and then you had the two youngsters. Plus we have added key depth, after injury hurt us last year. When Hall was injured we had been ranked 1 for most of the season. I completely expect the D to be even better than we were at that point last year. The question is offense. We have not added enough to fill the voids. What we have done instead is by evaluation is determined that their are young players on the roster ready to fill those voids. So that’s what the season comes down to. How accurate were the coaches in deciding to promote withing at positions like #2WR & SS. And as well the decisions to fill the RB and LG void with BJGE & Travelle Wharton. If those positions are good I think the playoff wins are attainable. If they were wrong, then the doubters will be right again.

  15. electionconfidential says: Jul 18, 2012 6:53 PM

    I think the ranking is a little high, but not way off the mark. They’ve got a good coaching staff in place. I tend to agree with someone who said that Dalton may “regress” this year. I don’t think it’s really going to be regression so much as the fact that everyone’s had a year to learn how to prepare for him.

    The Bengals really really need to learn how to hang onto their receivers. They get some good ones, but always let them get away. I realize that Jerome Simpson had trouble off the field, but he was coming along as a receiver…

    I think they have a shot at the wild card, but not the division.

  16. vex24 says: Jul 20, 2012 8:05 AM

    Regardless, the Cincinnati Bengals will be one of the fun teams to watch. The fact that their loaded with talented youth means that there will be amazingly great plays…and amazingly dumb ones, too. The Lewis /Zimmer defense (People seem to overlook Marvin Lewis’ defensive mind) is somewhat reminiscent of the Georgetown college basketball years in the 80s (when Ewing was center). Constant rotation of special skill players. The opposing offenses will be forced to go into ‘hurry-up’ mode in order to halt the ‘Mad’ Zimmer rotation…and ‘Hurry-up’ technique is extremely risky due to communication issues (line-up position & snap count)…especially when your at PBS (Paul Brown Stadium). Another thing that may develop is a new breed of the ‘Jungle’ home crowd, since there’s no real continuity between the 1980s ‘Jungle’ and 2012-13.
    If Zimmer becomes the new Defensive Mad scientist of the powerful AFC North (think LeBeau), then ‘Chucky’s Lil’ Brother, Jay Gruden, may be the 2nd coming of Sam Wyche/Bill Walsh….All in All it should be Fun to watch.

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