2017 NFL season preview – Cincinnati Bengals

2016 Record: 6-9-1; 3rd AFC North
Head coach: Marvin Lewis (Bengals W/L: 118-110-3, Career W/L: 118-110-3)
Principal owner/President/General manager: Mike Brown

Key ins: LB Kevin Minter Cardinals; T Andre Smith Vikings
Key outs: RB Rex Burkhead; LB Karlos Dansby; DE Margus Hunt; LB Rey Maualuga; DT Domata Peko; T Andrew Whitworth; G Kevin Zeitler

Draftees: R1 (9) WR John Ross, Washington; R2 (48) RB Joe Mixon, Oklahoma; R3 (73) LB Jordan Willis, Kansas State; R4 (116) OLB Carl Lawson, Auburn; R4 (128) WR Josh Malone, Tennessee; R4 (138) DT Ryan Glasgow, Michigan; R5 (153) K Jake Elliot, Memphis; R5 (176) C JJ Dielman, Utah; R6 (193) LB Jordan Evans, Oklahoma; R6 (207) RB Brandon Wilson, Houston; R7 (251) TE Mason Schreck, Buffalo

Maybe it’s a UK thing, but whenever I think of Cincinnati I think of the Sam Wyche era. Maybe it’s all the hours watching Road To The Super Bowl videos in the late ’80s, early ’90s. Maybe it’s remembering Wyche gently berate officials with lines like, “Our, er, quarterback got clubbed in the face and neck right there. He’s, er, gonna live, but that is a penalty.”

Maybe it’s the thrill of the no-huddle offense with Boomer Esiason at the helm. Maybe it’s the Ickey Shuffle. Maybe it’s the memory of David Fulcher intercepting Jim Kelly in the end zone then laying down to kill off the 1988 AFC Championship Game. Maybe it’s Anthony Munoz’s resplendent ’tache. Maybe it’s the terrifying scowl of linebacker Reggie Williams during the national anthem. Maybe it’s the revulsion at seeing Tim Krumrie’s horrific leg-break early in Super Bowl XXIII.

Or maybe it’s just that it was under Wyche that the Bengals last won a playoff game – 26 years ago. That was the AFC Wild Card Game against (and this dates it instantly) the run-and-shoot Houston Oilers, who finished second in the AFC Central to Wyche’s side. Ickey Woods opened the scoring for Cincinnati, while Boomer Esiason threw two scores and ran for another as the Bengals savaged Jack Pardee’s team 41-10.

A week later, Cincy fell to the Raiders, who in turn were trounced 51-3 by Buffalo, who would go on to lose their first of four Super Bowls on Scott Norwood’s missed field goal.

On Christmas Eve 1991, two days after the Bengals went 3-13, President Mike Brown fired Wyche and 11 years of futility began until the hiring of Marvin Lewis as head coach, which would start a new era of success for the team in the tiger stripes.

Last season marked the first since 2010 that Lewis’s side didn’t make the postseason. A crueller man might suggest that was a blessing for a franchise on a seven-game AFC Wild Card losing streak (including five years in a row). Not I. But at least Andy Dalton couldn’t be criticised for his playoff performance.

Lewis, however, entered the summer without a contract extension for the first time since the same year, saddling him with the added pressure of operating with the tag of ‘lame duck’. 2017 was already looking like a test of coaching chops for Lewis as great locker-room citizens Andrew Whitworth, Kevin Zeitler, Rey Maualuga and Domata Peko moved on to pastures new after the 6-9-1 2016 season. Whitworth and Zeitler were two of three big free agents the Bengals had to make a decision on – the other was Dre Fitzpatrick – and it was the cornerback that re-upped with a $52.5million five-year deal.

The Bengals’ belief in their infrastructure to handle questionable decision-making on and off the field is well documented – no names Adam Jones, Vontaze Burfict – but the mini-rebuild/quest to get younger could make that aspect of Lewis’s job tougher. That said, no part of his role is an escape from his 0-7 playoff record – which hangs over him like an investigation into collusion with Russia to fix a Presidential election.

On the field in 2016, under first-year coordinator Ken Zampese, the Bengals offense never got untracked. The unit ranked 24th in points scored and 26th in passing touchdowns. None of that was helped by a disappointing running game and protection that saw Dalton dumped 41 times.

Despite those issues, the Red Rifle threw for 4,206 yards and eight interceptions in 563 attempts (only the second time he’s topped 550 passes in his career) and went to his third Pro Bowl.

The offense took a massive hit in Week 11 as AJ Green tore his hamstring and missed the rest of the year and Gio Bernard tore his ACL. Green was just 36 yards shy of a 1,000-yard season and running second to Julio Jones in the NFL lead. Those 36 yards would have meant Green became only the second player to have 1,000 yards their first six seasons – only Randy Moss can claim that honour.

17 AJ Green (2016 RANKING 16)
68 Geno Atkins (2016 RANKING 29)

Injury also prevented tight end Tyler Eifert from following up his 13-TD breakout 2015 season as he only played a part in eight games. Brandon LaFell and 2016 second-rounder Tyler Boyd stepped up in the pair’s absence but that didn’t stop Cincy bolstering the position in the Draft.

John Ross, all 5ft 11in and 188lbs of him, was flying at the Combine. He broke the all-time 40-yard dash record with a time of 4.22secs and that lightning speed is now in black and orange. If Eifert and Green can stay healthy, Dalton’s targets might be the envy of the league (Eli Manning, Tom Brady and Jameis Winston may disagree).

Bernard’s absence for the last six games was telling but the team also suffered through Jeremy Hill’s struggles at running back. The 24 year old was a pleasant surprise in his rookie 2014 season, topping 1,000 in eight starts. A year later, his average fell from 5.1 to 3.6 yards and in 2016 was 3.8. He only broke the 100-yard barrier twice last season (both against Cleveland). Hill expects to be the starter in 2017 but he’ll face competition from a controversial new face.

Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon’s career has been dogged by off-field issues including surveillance footage of him punching a female student in 2014 and a subsequent year’s suspension. Cincinnati will be banking on his claim that he’s grown up since the incident and counting on his footballing ability. A bonafide every-down back, Mixon is explosive, can wiggle the hips or lower the shoulder when required and can make an impact in the passing game or block.

A healthy Gio Bernard makes the three-headed backfield potentially difficult for opposing defensive coordinators to match up against. If the rushing attack is to thrive, the revamped offensive line will need to come together quickly. Keeping Dalton clean is vital – his rating when pressured is among the worst in the league. The youth movement may have come a year too soon though as guard Kevin Zeitler (71 starts in five years) switched Ohio teams to join the Browns and tackle Whitworth (164 starts in 11 years) left for the West Coast, leaving a void up front.

Tackle Andre Smith (yes, that one) was brought back after a season in Minnesota and the former Alabama star will move to guard. But with eight years, Smith is the most experienced starter on the line. Russell Bodine (R4, 2014) at centre and tackles Cedric Ogbuehi (R1, 2015) and Jake Fisher (R2, 2015) have fewer seasons under their belt in total than Smith and Fisher will have to beat out Eric Winston. Seventh-year guard Clint Boling, bothered by a shoulder injury in 2016, completes the starting unit with everything riding on it. Fifth-round centre JJ Dielman was the only offensive line help that came through the Draft.

26 Andrew Whitworth (2015 RANKING 41)
65 Geno Atkins (2015 RANKING 17)
82 Kevin Zeitler (2015 RANKING NR)

The trio of Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson is as good as any in the NFL on the defensive line. Domata Peko and everyone’s favourite Estonian (sorry, Kersti Kaljulaid), Margus Hunt left for Denver and Indianapolis respectively. That gives Andrew Billings, who missed his entire rookie campaign, a chance to compete with Pat Sims and rookie Ryan Glasgow at defensive tackle.

Former Arizona middle linebacker Kevin Minter inherits Maualuga’s spot in the middle of the defense, where the ex-USC star had called the signals for eight years (Maualuga was still unsigned at time of writing). The productive Minter (Pro Football Focus’s 25th-rated linebacker in 2016) had 83 tackles and 3.5 sacks with the Cardinals  last season, his second full year as a starter.

Burfict’s maniacal intensity – with its pluses and minuses – returns to patrol the weak side, with Marquis Flowers (eight special teams tackles in 2016) stepping up to man the strong side. Fitzpatrick’s experience and big-play potential make him their most reliable defensive back and he was paid as such in the offseason. Jones starts opposite (suspension for a January arrest permitting) and Josh Shaw works the slot.

2014 24th overall pick Darqueze Dennard hasn’t proven the answer he was expected to, with one interception in four starts over three years. As a result, William Jackson III was the fourth cornerback off the board in last year’s Draft but he missed the whole of the season after a training camp chest injury. His return may spell the end of Jones as a starter (and as a Bengal).

Strong safety Shawn Williams’s fourth year in Cincy was his best, tied for the team lead in interceptions (3) and third on the tackling chart. Teamed with Williams is the rangy George Iloka, who also picked three passes in 2016.

Randy Bullock is undoubtedly the best name in the NFL, unless you’re Mike Nugent, who Bullock replaced in Week 14. Rookie wide receiver Alex Erickson averaged 27.9 yards on kick returns, second only in the NFL to Cordarrelle Patterson, while Kevin Huber was a top 10 punter with a 46.3 yards per punt average.
















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