Andy Benoit Previews the Bengals
by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
Temper any optimism you might have for the Cincinnati Bengals with a healthy sprinkle of caution. Yes, this is a relatively young team coming off a surprising postseason appearance, but we’ve seen this before. In 2005 the Bengals made the postseason only to lose in the Wild Card round and then finish 8-8, 7-9, and 4-11-1 the next three years. In 2009, they surprisingly broke through with another Wild Card appearance, only to lose that game and 12 more the following season. The Bengals have not had back-to-back playoff seasons in 30 years. They haven’t won a playoff game in 22 years –- the NFL’s longest current drought.
You could argue that the past is irrelevant to this current Bengals club. That’s true. The concern, however, is that this current club is not a whole lot unlike owner Mike Brown’s and head coach Marvin Lewis’s past Bengals clubs. It’s not like the 2011 Bengals set the world on fire. Their 31-10 Wild Card loss at Houston left them with a final record of 9-8. All eight of their losses came against playoff teams, while all nine of their wins came against non-playoff teams. Basically: the Bengals were just the "best average team" in the NFL last season.
That said, don’t sprinkle so much caution that your optimism turns to pessimism. This team is deeper and wiser than a year ago. It’s full of young players on the rise and veterans who are just entering their prime. It’s also a team that, schematically, is very well-coached. That’s a major difference from past years. It’s why this organization’s prospects might just be brighter with a modest-armed second-rounder at quarterback than they ever were with a cannon-armed former No. 1 overall pick.
To understand how great a job Jay Gruden did in his debut as an offensive coordinator last year, you must first understand exactly what Gruden’s quarterback, Andy Dalton, brought to the table. The concerns you heard about arm strength when Dalton was coming out of TCU are valid. The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder does not have a gun. Dalton is no softball tosser, but he struggles to push the ball to the sidelines. The fact that he was just 19-of-49 for 558 yards and five interceptions on throws outside the numbers last year verifies this. Those numbers aren't bad, but the fact that there were so few attempts outside is a telling statistic. He averaged just three outside pass attempts a game. Either Dalton doesn’t have the innate confidence to even attempt strong-armed throws outside, or his coaching staff doesn’t have the confidence to call plays that demand a strong-armed throws outside. Or both.
This doesn’t mean Dalton is not a confident passer. If he can’t zip the ball outside, he shouldn’t try to zip the ball outside. Players that don’t understand their limitations and try to play beyond their means become Rex Grossman. Dalton understands his strengths, and he does an excellent job playing to them. Gruden helps him a lot. Much of Cincinnati’s offense centers around rhythmic three- and five-step drops. This emphasizes Dalton as a very decisive precision passer who throws with great anticipation. That’s how a quarterback compensates for mediocre arm strength.
The quick-strike throws also limit the strain of progression reads placed on the 24-year-old Dalton. When Dalton wasn’t making quick either/or decisions last season, Gruden was usually rolling him out of the pocket off play-action. This sliced the field in half and often presented just a different set of either/or decisions. Smart football.
Dalton clearly has the mental aptitude to become a quality dropback progression passer in the NFL, and you’ll likely see more of this as the Bengals’ passing game advances in 2012. But no matter how much smarter Dalton becomes, rolled pockets and play-action will always be a feature of his offense. In the NFL, you have to be able to stretch the field at some point. A quarterback with just so-so arm strength needs plenty of time and space to step into downfield bombs. The way to generate time and space is with rollouts and slow-developing play-action.
Deep strikes are already a chief element of Gruden’s otherwise methodical offense. The Bengals have the perfect resources for executing them: a stable rushing attack that defenses must respect, an offensive line that knows how to carry out play-action blocking, and an acrobatic star receiver in A.J. Green who can out-jump any safety or cornerback. All the Bengals need is for Dalton to improve his deep ball accuracy by cutting loose more often and thinking less about mechanics.
[ad placeholder 3]
Green is remarkably natural in all phases of receiving. More refined route running can make him a top-five NFL wideout. The Bengals featured a lot of base and heavy formations that often compel defenses to defend the receiver one-on-one outside last year. This season, one-on-one matchups could be tougher for Green to come by, as with Jerome Simpson gone, there isn’t a proven weapon lining up on the other side. The Bengals are hoping third-round rookie Mohamed Sanu can fill the void. Sanu doesn’t have Simpson’s speed or quickness, but he’s bigger than Simpson and should be a better route-runner. That should give him good chemistry with Dalton in this timing-based system. The fact that Gruden scrapped sight adjustments from the Bengals offense upon his arrival should also help his transition. (A sight adjustment is where a route is changed on the fly based on what the defense does.) If Sanu doesn’t adjust right away, the Bengals will have to turn to Brandon Tate (a much better return artist than receiver), Armon Binns (an undrafted second-year pro who did not play last season), or fifth-round rookie Marvin Jones (a very poor man’s version of Green).
Regardless of who lines up wide, Dalton’s No. 2 target will be tight end Jermaine Gresham. The first-round pick from 2010 is a smooth threat underneath and in the flats. Gresham can split outside to exploit mismatches against linebackers, yet still be a serviceable run-blocker when lined up along the front line. When a hamstring injury sidelined Gresham for two weeks last season, the Bengals plugged veteran Donald Lee into his spot. Lee held his own, but Cincy’s front office felt compelled to spend a fourth-round pick on a player they hope will be his replacement, Orson Charles. The Georgia tight end is undersized, but has the versatility to be a matchup nightmare if used correctly. The fact that he’s a willing blocker could get him on the field right away. If Charles can’t get on the field, the Bengals could stick with Lee or, for purer blocking, go with undrafted second-year pro Colin Cochart.
Dynamic receiving tight ends can be wondrous in a system built around a quarterback’s intermediate accuracy. Receiving backs can be as well, so it’s a little surprising the Bengals have not tried to acquire a dynamic third-down back. They have a decent one in Bernard Scott, but the quick, darting fourth-year pro is not an imposing pass-catcher. Converted fullback Brian Leonard, in fact, is usually Cincy’s weapon of choice in the screen game. Leonard has shown a knack for converting big third downs, but he’s still an ancillary player, having caught just 22 balls all last year.
The running backs responsible for carrying the ball will be Scott and newcomer BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Former Patriot Green-Ellis is as bland as a bowl of Cheerios -- he's a decent inside runner, but not someone defensive coordinators lose sleep over. Cedric Benson, with his decent short-area burst but generally methodical style, gave the Bengals a steady rushing attack that needed quality blocking and a relatively high volume of carries in order to be productive. Green-Ellis will give them the exact same thing, only with less whining.
In the past, the Bengals liked to amplify their ground game by bringing in a sixth offensive lineman. Under Gruden, however, they feature more traditional two-tight end or two-back sets. This is good news for fullback Chris Pressley, who shows a good ability to track linebackers at the second level. Pressley and Green-Ellis will have the luxury of working behind an offensive line that, even with a traditional five players, can still clear paths.
Andrew Whitworth has evolved into one of the best left tackles in the NFL. He doesn’t have the quickest natural feet, but he understands angles and techniques and does a good job at exerting power. On the right side, right tackle Andre Smith is a monster ... well, some of the time, anyway. The 2009 No. 6 overall pick has battled injuries, inconsistency, and immaturity throughout his career. He’s also gotten better over time and shown a thundering ability to deliver athletic blows. Equally as impressive is the 335-pounder’s light feet in pass protection. Again, though, these scintillating traits only show up on tape intermittently. If Smith doesn’t become a consistent force in this, the final year of his contract, he never will.
[ad placeholder 4]
The idea of moving Smith to guard was seemingly shelved in April after Cincy’s selection of Kevin Zeitler in the first round. The Wisconsin product, like predecessor Bobbie Williams, figures to be a good power-blocker in the run game and have just enough quickness to win in pass protection. Zeitler isn’t exceptionally mobile, though. Veteran free agent pickup Travelle Wharton was slated to start at the more significant left guard slot, but a preseason knee injury will wipe out his season. Wharton’s likely replacement is little-known third-year pro Otis Hudson. At center, Kyle Cook is adequate. His position is the only one with questionable depth, as Anthony Collins and mudder Dennis Roland are experienced at tackle, and last year’s fourth-round pick, Clint Boling, is expected to provide long-term stability at guard.
Much like Gruden with the offense, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer does a good job maximizing his resources. Zimmer has never been afraid to roll the dice with an all-out blitz. Even in traditional sets, he’ll often have at least one safety play close to the line of scrimmage.
This approach can put a heavy burden on defensive backs, particularly outside corners. It’s no surprise that, even a year after surviving the departure of Johnathan Joseph, the Bengals made a substantial investment at cornerback by drafting Dre Kirkpatrick in the first round. The Alabama underclassman has a strong 6-foot-2, 192-pound frame and the athleticism to get in and out of a backpedal. In other words: he can offer the type of press-coverage that this scheme demands. He must recover from a midsummer leg injury, though, which won’t help his initial adjustment to the pro game.
It’s possible Kirkpatrick was drafted not to replace Joseph but to replace Leon Hall. The former first-round pick has developed into an excellent cover corner over his six-year career, but if he can’t fully rebound from the torn Achilles suffered last November, the Bengals will have to think long and hard about whether he’s worth the $6.5 million due to him in 2013.
That’s a bridge to cross or not cross later, though. For now, the Bengals have Hall medially cleared and insurance for him in the form of ex-Cowboy Terence Newman. Newman has lost a few steps but is at least experienced in Zimmer’s system. That’ll be refreshing for the coaching staff given the inconsistency of super talented but fundamentally flawed Pacman Jones. Newman’s arrival, as well as the selection of corner Shaun Prater in the fifth-round, suggests the Bengals may have already given up on 2010 third-rounder Brandon Ghee.
Also still on the roster is Nate Clements, a savvy veteran who can slide inside and cover the slot in nickel. That’s important considering the Bengals occasionally used departed safety Chris Crocker in this role last season. Crocker worked in the slot because he also provided a solid body in run defense. The smaller Clements is actually a very good run-supporter himself, but if the Bengals want to stick with last year’s plan and just find a new version of Crocker, they’ll turn to fifth-round rookie George Iloka, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound safety who proved adept in man coverage when asked to moonlight as a cornerback at Boise State. Free agent pickup Jason Allen is also a safety/corner combo player, but his meek physicality makes him better equipped for the outside.
At starting safety, Reggie Nelson is fine in this scheme, despite a habit of missing on the occasional big-play opportunity. He’s best suited for centerfield, though he’s capable of making noise in the box. That’s helpful because if third-year pro Taylor Mays continues to show the lack of football discipline that got him booted out of San Francisco and kept him mostly on Cincinnati’s bench last year, the Bengals will need Nelson to slide to strong safety (Iloka or Robert Sands would then play free safety). If Mays can play under control, he has the linebacker-hitting mentality and athletic skill set to be a star in this scheme.
Speaking of linebacker, it might be prudent to consider playing Mays at that position in sub packages. The Bengals have an excellent pass-defender in starting weakside ‘backer Thomas Howard, but they need a replacement for fluid veteran Brandon Johnson. Last year’s third-round pick, Dontay Moch, is explosive but utterly inexperienced at this point. They’ll probably want to try middle linebacker Rey Maualuga in a nickel role, given that he’s the guy they drafted to build around. Maualuga has the speed to play in space, but he might be too much of a downhill attacker to ever develop the type of patience and diagnostic prowess needed for coverage.
Maualuga showed a sharper football IQ as last season went along. He’ll never be a steady read-and-react player like strongside linebacker Manny Lawson, but unlike Lawson, he can be a momentum-changer. This high-risk style can usually fly as long as Maualuga plays behind a gap-eating nose tackle like Domata Peko. Peko and the deep rotation of defensive linemen around him were what made the Bengals a top-10 defense in 2011. The Bengals always played with unmatched energy in the trenches, which is why they ranked eighth in yards per rush attempt despite having a linebacking unit that wasn't impressive on paper. The line’s collective energy, along with Zimmer’s third-level blitzing, was also why the Bengals managed to rank fifth in total sacks despite not having a single player bring down the quarterback more than 7.5 times.
The man with those team-leading 7.5 sacks was Geno Atkins, who earned Second Team All-Pro honors for his sensational breakout campaign as a one-gap shooter. Entering his third season, Atkins should only get better. That might not mean more playing time, though. Zimmer, Marvin Lewis and defensive line coach Jay Hayes are committed to having fresh bodies at all times up front, which is why Cincy spent a second-round pick on defensive tackle Devon Still and a third-rounder on another defensive tackle, Brandon Thompson. Still was once considered the best defensive tackle prospect of 2012, but he fell in the draft due to on-field work ethic concerns. Thompson was coveted for his initial burst. The Bengals must have been surprised he dropped to them given that they had already nabbed Still and, a month earlier, re-signed solid backup Pat Sims to a one-year deal.
On the edges, defensive end Carlos Dunlap seems destined for a 10-sack season. Even though he battled injuries at times, it’s surprising he only had 4.5 sacks in 2011 considering how regularly he turned the corner on passing downs. Even with an upright style, Dunlap has superb speed-to-power ability.
Though Dunlap is Cincinnati’s most gifted defensive end, for run-stopping purposes, he sits on early downs behind Robert Geathers and the limber Michael Johnson. The Bengals seem content to keep Dunlap in a third-down role rather than grooming his run defense. After all, if they were truly confident that the youngster could supplant the declining Geathers, they wouldn’t have gone out and signed an outstanding run-stopping end like Jamaal Anderson.
Mike Nugent was given the franchise tag this past offseason, which is a one-year, $2.65 million reward and punishment. If Nugent makes 86 percent of his field goals again this season, he’ll likely receive a long-term deal. Kevin Huber netted 39.2 yards per punt last year, which ranked a solid/average/middling/acceptable 16th in the league. In the return game, Brandon Tate does not look explosive, but he has a feel for recognizing angles in open space. If the Bengals prefer someone who does look explosive, there’s always Pacman Jones.
There’s no reason the Bengals shouldn’t be better in 2012, but without at least one more dynamic skill position player, it’s hard to see the offense taking the type of quantum leap that’s needed to overtake the Ravens or Steelers in the AFC North.