Following a disappointing 2010 season, expectations in Cincinnati were tempered heading into 2011.
Rookies Andy Dalton and A.J. Green had other ideas however, and led the Bengals on a surprising run which culminated in the franchise's third playoff berth since 1990.
Although they lost all four games against AFC North heavyweights Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Marvin Lewis' squad dominated weaker competition, going 8-0 versus teams with losing records.
Important Additions: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, WR Mohamed Sanu, G Kevin Zeitler, CB Jason Allen, G Jacob Bell, G Travelle Wharton, DE Derrick Harvey, DE Jamaal Anderson, C Jeff Faine .
Important Losses: RB Cedric Benson, G Bobbie Williams, S Chris Crocker, DE Frostee Rucker, DE Jonathan Fanene, G Nate Livings, WR Jerome Simpson, WR Andre Caldwell.
Reasons To Believe
1. Dalton and Green - The Bengals appear to have hit the jackpot with their first two picks in the 2011 draft. Dalton enjoyed a productive rookie season, which culminated with a Pro Bowl selection. Green arrived from Georgia as advertised, displaying freakish athleticism and ball skills and led the Bengals in receiving yards and TD's. Given another year to build chemistry and dissect defences, the pair have the potential to be one of the premier wide receiver/quarterback combinations in the league.
|QB Andy Dalton led the Bengals to the playoffs in his rookie season in 2011. The Bengals are hoping he can avoid a sophomore slump and repeat the feat in 2012.
2. Defensive Talent - The Bengals defence may not get the publicity of Cincinnati's divisional rivals in Pittsburgh and Baltimore, but they ranked seventh overall last season and should be improved in 2012. MLB Rey Maualuga had his most productive season and DE Carlos Dunlap is drawing rave reviews in camp and may be primed for a double digit sack season. A full year out of Leon Hall, as well as the addition of rookie Dre Kirkpatrick gives the Bengals two potential lock-down corners.
3. Off-Season Additions - The Bengals front office has taken plenty of heat in the past for their failures in drafting and free agency, but the players brought in this off-season seem to address many of the teams' needs. Besides Wharton and Zeiler on the offensive line, Benjarvus Green-Ellis provides solid pass protection for Dalton and also has a knack for finding the end zone. Rookie WR Mohamed Sanu should address a need at receiver behind Green.
Reasons To Doubt
1. Beating The Big Boys - Since moving to the AFC North in 2002, the Bengals have always been looked at as the little brother to the Ravens and Steelers. They have lost their last seven games to their division rivals, scoring just over 14 points per game in that span. The burden of turning things around will primarily fall upon the shoulders of Dalton and the offence, but with Pittsburgh and Baltimore again expected to be Super Bowl contenders in 2012, it will be a tough task.
2. Secondary Questions - While they may have talent, questions regarding injuries, inexperience and age can all be asked about the Bengals back four. Leon Hall is coming off a serious Achilles injury, Kirkpatrick and Taylor Mays are inexperienced, while Nate Clements, Terrence Newman and Adam Jones' best days may be behind them. Cincinnati's DB's will face Phillip Rivers, Tony Romo, Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco to close the season, so their performance may dictate whether or not they make a return-trip to the playoffs.
3. Receiver Depth - With the loss of Jerome Simpson, the pass-catching options behind A.J. Green are relatively thin. The Bengals will likely need someone from the group of Brandon Tate, Armon Binns, Andrew Hawkins or the rookie Sanu to step up since defensive coordinators will look to roll over coverages to take away Green after he proved what a game-changing talent he could be.
What To Expect
The Bengals look to be going in the right direction, but are in tough to replicate their 2011 season based on the strength of their division and schedule. While they may be hard-pressed to end their 22-year playoff winless streak, if they can duplicate their success against losing teams and squeak a couple of wins out of games with their divisional foes, a wild card berth is not out of the question.