The Cincinnati Bengals are one of the NFL’s youngest and best teams. The franchise boasts a roster loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, and this offseason the team have added more difference makers to a talent pool including the likes of A.J. Green and Geno Atkins. After two seasons in which the team reached the Wild Card round of the playoffs – and lost to the Houston Texans in both games – I expect Cincinnati to take the next step in 2013 and usurp the Super Bowl winning Baltimore Ravens and win the AFC North.
Central to the Bengals’ quest for continued success is the play of quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton has proven to be one of the league’s better young quarterbacks in his two seasons in the NFL, posting an 83.9 passer rating with a 60.2% completion rating. In 2013, Dalton must continue to improve and pursue “elite” status in order to help this team achieve its potential. The Bengals’ front office have done their best to help Dalton in order to reach this goal. In this year’s draft, the Bengals selected Tyler Eifert (TE, Notre Dame) with their first-round pick. Eifert is a playmaker and has great hands; he will provide Dalton with a great security blanket in the passing game. The Bengals also attempted to upgrade their rushing attack by drafting Giovani Bernard (RB, North Carolina), who has looked explosive so far in preseason. Bernard will help provide the Bengals’ offense with balance, which should help keep defences on their toes, and thus allow Dalton to play his hand more effectively. These rookie playmakers join the likes of A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu and give the Bengals one of the most explosive offenses in the league.
Dalton’s blindside will be protected once again this season by former first-rounder Andre Smith, who signed a bumper contract this offseason. Smith and his offensive line colleagues did a good job last year giving Dalton the time to make plays, allowing 65 quarterback hits all season, which was the seventh lowest total in the league. If Dalton is protected well again this season and this group can open up running lanes for Bernard, the Bengals’ offense will be difficult for any defense to stop, and they will have definite big-play potential.
Expect the Bengals’ defense to remain the team’s strong point in 2013. The unit ranked 6th in the league in lowest average yards conceded per game last season, and I believe it will continue to dominate offenses this year. The team has not lost any difference makers on defense and has managed too add playmakers via free agency and the draft. The signing of James Harrison from the rival Pittsburgh Steelers was the team’s marquee signing, and he will line up opposite second year pro Vontaze Burfict, who led the team in tackles in 2012 with 127. Whether Harrison can return to dominance is another question. At 35 years old, Harrison is no spring chicken, and he has had a history of injuries. In 2012 Harrison posted his lowest sack total since 2005 with only 6 in 13 games, although he did have 70 tackles. One thing is certain though: when Harrison steps onto the field, he will bring with him his usual tenacity, particularly when Cincinnati plays Pittsburgh.
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The Bengals’ defense also got stronger via the NFL Draft. Margus Hunt (DE, SMU) was one of the most intriguing prospects in this year’s draft. The Bengals selected the athletic defensive end in the second-round, and he will provide depth on the defensive line. I don’t expect Hunt to start as he is more of a developmental player, but he has great potential. The drafting of Shawn Williams (S, Georgia) and Sean Porter (LB, Texas A&M) in the third and fourth-rounds respectively add depth and potential to an already solid group.
Williams may well see playing time this season if he can step up in practice, as the Bengals’ secondary is the most vulnerable part of their defense – even though it’s not a bad group. As Tony Romo demonstrated last weekend, when Cincinnati’s front seven can be slowed, their secondary can be picked apart. The signing of Terence Newman gives the Bengals another good cornerback, however he won’t massively improve this unit, and at age 34 he doesn’t provide a long-term solution. Consequently, the Bengals must apply effective pressure in order to help the back end of their defense. Geno Atkins, Burfict, Harrison and Michael Johnson will all play important roles in pass rushing situations.
So, this offseason Cincinnati went from a good team to an even better team. They are loaded on both sides of the ball, and despite the fact that they compete in a traditionally tough division, I think Cincinnati can improve and take the AFC North title from Baltimore. The team will face stiff opposition from the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts in weeks 1, 3, 5 and 14 respectively, along with their tough division games versus Baltimore and Pittsburgh. However, I see them coming out on top against the Bears, Patriots and Colts and I feel they will hold their own against their division rivals. I believe the Bengals’ record will improve once again this year, and I expect the team to finish with at least an 11-5 record. How far this team can progress into the playoffs depends greatly upon Dalton. If he can make the leap to “elite” status this year, the Bengals could be the team to beat in the AFC.
This article was written by Rhys Norman. Follow him on Twitter @RhysNorman1 and follow us @cippinonsports.