Bengals To Take Next Step?
The Cincinnati Bengals have made the playoffs as a wild card team each of the last 2 seasons. The first of those was quarterback Andy Dalton's rookie year. It was a season in which the Bengals were supposed to be rebuilding with a rookie offensive coordinator in Jay Gruden, a rookie receiver in AJ Green and a rookie quarterback in Dalton. However the Bengals exceeded all expectations and made the playoffs, losing in the 1st round to the Houston Texans. Then last year the Bengals improved their record by a game, made the playoffs and again lost to the Houston Texans in the 1st round.
This year, the Bengals are the hot pick to win the AFC North and make a deep run into the playoffs. Are the Bengals ready to take that next step though? The defense has been one of the best in the NFL the past 2 season and that doesn't look to change this year. Geno Atkins starts everything with this defense. Atkins is the best defensive tackle in the NFL and he opens everything up for everyone else. Double teamed on nearly every play, he opens rush lanes up for Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry on the outside.
However the defensive ends aren't the only ones that are helped by Atkins. The secondaries job is also made much easier because the pressure the defensive line gets on the quarterback. The less time the quarterback has to allow the receivers to get open, the less time they have to be in coverage. Leon Hall is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL that few have heard of. The addition of James Harrison at strong side linebacker should also boost this defense and pass rush.
Despite how good the defense is, the success of the Bengals rides on how much the offense can improve. Most notably, how much Andy Dalton can improve. Just looking at the stats, Dalton has been pretty good in his 1st two seasons. However, a deeper look shows that there are some key places he needs to improve. One of the biggest things is his deep accuracy. Dalton doesn't have elite arm strength, but he needs to become more accurate on his deep throws. Dalton has some great deep ball weapons in AJ Green and newly added Tyler Eifert.
The other big place Dalton needs to improve is converting 3rd downs. The Bengals converted just 34% of their 3rd down attempts, which was good for 27th in the league. This is a not entirely Daltons fault, as the play calling and the players around him also factor into this. However, as the quarterback he has to take more accountability. The Bengals coaches also knew they needed to address this problem, so in the draft they added the top tight end prospect in Tyler Eifert and an explosive running back in Giovanni Bernard who excels in catching the ball out of the backfield. The Bengals will also get Mohamed Sanu back who was really coming on before he broke his foot and had to miss the end of the year.
Another thing the Bengals lacked last year was a home run threat out of the backfield. Giovanni Bernard gives them just that. He adds the ability to score a touchdown from anywhere on the field every time the ball touches his hands. The Bengals were just 18th in the NFL in rushing yards per game, yards per carry and rushing touchdowns. Bernard looks to bring all of those numbers into the top half of the NFL.
The Bengals are definitely a team on the rise and one of the "hot" picks to take that next step this season. No one knows what is going to happen as far as injuries go. Every team will have them, some worse than others. However, if the Bengals can stay healthy and if the offense, especially Andy Dalton, can improve like they did between years one and two of Daltons career, then the Bengals have a real chance to take that next step and take over as champs of the AFC North.