Originally written on Three-Way Chili  |  Last updated 11/13/14

The Cincinnati Bengals will kick off their 2012 season one week from tonight in Baltimore against the Ravens on Monday Night Football.

While the Bengals made the playoffs last season as a wildcard with a 9-7 record and return a young, talented team, I expect a small step backward this season. The team lost 40 percent of its starting offensive line during the preseason when left guard Travelle Wharton was lost for the season and center Kyle Cook was saddled with an injury that will keep him out until the latter part of the season at best.

That said, the offense should be even more efficient than it was last season with this being coordinator Jay Gruden’s second year at the helm. It’s also the sophomore campaigns for a pair of Pro Bowlers in quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver AJ Green. Green is simply one of the rising stars in the NFL. He has everything you’d want in a WR with his size (6-foot-4, 207 pounds), speed, hands and body control. He’s also the rare star wideout that isn’t interested in being a diva in his spare time.

Speaking of non-prima-donna WRs, Mohamed Sanu was a good pick in the third round and I think he’ll be a solid starter from day one in the NFL. The Bengals also have a good trio of tight ends with Jermaine Gresham, Donald Lee and rookie fourth-rounder Orson Charles.

And while the O-line has been decimated with injuries, they still have a good tackle combo with LT Andrew Whitworth and RT Andre Smith. I also liked the pick of right guard Kevin Zeitler with the Bengals’ second of two first-round picks (27th overall).

I’m a bit concerned at running back, although I don’t think it will be a huge weakness. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was banged up during the preseason, but is expected to be fine for the opener in Baltimore. Bernard Scott’s status is still questionable, but the Bengals have Brian Leonard and Cedric Peerman they can turn to if Scott isn’t ready to go as the backup. (In fact, Leonard will play no matter what as the third-down back.) Peerman had a very-impressive preseason as a running back and on special teams, and beat out sixth-round pick Boom Herron for a spot on the roster. Herron was signed to the practice squad.

So, while the offense won’t be a juggernaut by any means, it will still be good. And my has Gruden been a breath of fresh air after watching Bob Bratkowski attempt to calls plays for a decade.

Defensively, the Bengals should be very good under coordinator Mike Zimmer. They were seventh in the NFL in total defense last year (316.3 yards-allowed per game) and it’s reasonable to expect them to be as good or better this year. I love their defensive line and the best player might be third-year pro and former fourth-round draft pick Geno Atkins. He’s one of the quickest defensive tackles in the league, yet is sturdy enough to stand up to the run at 6-foot-1, 300 pounds. The Bengals’ D-line is dripping with depth and talent, and I liked the second-round pick of DT Devon Still. He looked good in the preseason.

This is a make-or-break year for fourth-year middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and I’m optimistic the former second-rounder will play well. If not, they’ll be in for a world of hurt as the backup is undrafted free agent Vontaze Burfict. He has talent, but he’s not ready to be a starting middle ‘backer in the NFL. Therefore, Maualuga will need to rise up and lead the linebacking corps.

The secondary is a bit suspect considering cornerback Nate Clements is near retirement and fellow start corner Leon Hall is coming off a torn Achilles from last season (although was moving well in the preseason. Free safety Reggie Nelson is solid and new starting SS Taylor Mays had moments of brilliance in the preseason. He’s never going to be great in coverage, but he’s a wrecking ball when he comes flying in from the secondary at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds. He has a linebacker’s frame and a corner’s speed. Now it’s about harnessing that athletic ability.

This will be a Bengals team that find themselves in a lot of close games. They’ll be a “tough out” so to speak. The problem for the Bengals is they face an absurdly-tough schedule – especially in the second-half of the season – and it’s going to be difficult for them to make a repeat trip to the playoffs.

I have them pegged at 8-8 this season … and to be honest I would be more apt to go 7-9 than I would 9-7. I just don’t see the Bengals being able to rack up enough wins against this daunting schedule. However, the good news is they are a young team with what appears to be an extremely bright future. They definitely have a chance to match or best what they accomplished last year, I would just bet against it.

Here is the Bengals 53-man roster:

2012 CINCINNATI BENGALS

OFFENSE

QB: 14 Andy Dalton (6-2, 220)

RB: 42 BenJarvus Green-Ellis (5-11, 220)

FB: 36 Chris Pressley (5-11, 260)

WR: 18 AJ Green (6-4, 207)

WR: 12 Mohamed Sanu (6-2, 210)

TE: 84 Jermaine Gresham (6-5, 260)

LT: 77 Andrew Whitworth (6-7, 330)

LG: 65 Clint Boling (6-5, 311)

C: 62 Jeff Faine (6-3, 291)

RG: 68 Kevin Zeitler (6-4, 315)

RT: 71 Andre Smith (6-4, 335)

DEFENSE

DE: 96 Carlos Dunlap (6-6, 280)

DT: 97 Geno Atkins (6-1, 300)

DT: 94 Domata Peko (6-3, 322)

DE: 93 Michael Johnson (6-7, 270)

OLB: 53 Thomas Howard (6-3, 245)

MLB: 58 Rey Maualuga (6-2, 265)

OLB: 99 Manny Lawson (6-5, 240)

CB: 29 Leon Hall (5-11, 195)

CB: 22 Nate Clements (6-0, 205)

FS: 20 Reggie Nelson (5-11, 210)

SS: 26 Taylor Mays (6-3, 230)

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: 2 Mike Nugent (5-10, 190)

P: 10 Kevin Huber (6-1, 212)

KOR: 19 Brandon Tate (6-1, 200)

PR: 19 Brandon Tate (6-1, 200) or WR: 16 Andrew Hawkins (5-7, 180)

LS: 46 Clark Harris (6-5, 255)

TOP RESERVES

OFFENSE

QB: 7 Bruce Gradkowski (6-1, 220)

RB: 28 Bernard Scott (5-10, 198)

RB: 40 Brian Leonard (6-1, 225)

RB: 30 Cedric Peerman (5-10, 211)

WR: 19 Brandon Tate (6-1, 200)

WR: 16 Andrew Hawkins (5-7, 180)

WR: 82 Marvin Jones (6-2, 195)

WR: 85 Armon Binns (6-3, 210)

WR: 88 Ryan Whalen (6-1, 200)

TE: 80 Orson Charles (6-3, 250)

TE: 86 Donald Lee (6-4, 248)

C: 64 Kyle Cook (6-3, 315) – Out for at least half the year with ankle injury

OT: 73 Anthony Collins (6-5, 315)

OT: 74 Dennis Roland (6-9, 322)

C/G: 66 Trevor Robinson (6-5, 305)

DEFENSE

DE: 91 Robert Geathers (6-3, 280)

DE: 92 Jamaal Anderson (6-6, 280)

DT: 75 Devon Still (6-5, 305)

DT: 79 Brandon Thompson (6-2, 320)

DE/OLB: 52 Dontay Moch (6-2, 245) – Suspended first four games

LB: 51 Dan Skuta (6-2, 250)

LB: 57 Vincent Rey (6-2, 250)

MLB: 55 Vontaze Burfict (6-1, 245)

CB: 27 Dre Kirkpatrick (6-2, 190)

CB: 23 Terence Newman (5-10, 192)

CB: 25 Jason Allen (6-1, 200)

CB: 24 Pacman Jones (5-10, 185)

S: 45 Jeromy Miles (6-2, 210)

S: 43 George Iloka (6-4, 225)

INJURED PLAYERS

LG: 70 Travelle Wharton (6-4, 320) – Out for season with knee injury suffered in first preseason game (third offensive play of game)

S: 31 Robert Sands (6-4, 215) – On season-ending IR

CB: 38 Shaun Prater (5-10, 192) – On season-ending IR

DT: 90 Pat Sims (6-2, 335) – PUP list; out for first six weeks

RECORD PREDICTION: 8-8

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