On a cool, rainy spring day, the May showers welcomed the 2013 Bengals' draft class to Cincinnati where their professional careers began, running around in shorts under the gloomy late-morning skies. This marked the true beginning of the new season, one of rather great expectations.
Now that the puzzle is mostly complete in regards to answering the who, it's time to turn to the how.
On defense, there doesn't seem to be much secrecy in the way Mike Zimmer plans to attack. The heavy rotation of defensive linemen is expected to generate extra hits on the quarterback which will in turn tire him out and lead to mistakes. Stopping the run has been an afterthought in part because of the tremendous pass rush but also because Zimmer has generated such consistent results that it is perhaps taken for granted at this point.
I heard NFL Network analyst Jamie Dukes say on television that the Bengals defense was soft and couldn't have disagreed more. When pressed, he even pointed to Michael Johnson as an example which also seems unfair for a guy coming off of a double-digit sack effort. The conversation was prompted by the arrival of James Harrison and the "nastiness" he brings to the Bengals, and while I agree that his intensity will rub off on his teammates, I don't think Mike Zimmer tolerates soft players. Domata Peko may smile a lot but I'm not calling that guy soft. Rey Maualuga has awareness issues and is too often out of place, but he too is not soft. I'm excited to see what Harrison can do among the many pass rushers the Bengals have collected, but I'm not sure if he brings an immediate sense of intimidation that wasn't there before. My guess is that his snaps are more limited than some may expect and that he brings a nice energy off of the bench.
Regardless of Harrison, the Bengals were ready to carry on smacking opposing quarterbacks when they brought back three of their existing defensive ends and drafted another. The whole defensive season hinges on it; the corners could have terrific years if it's successful. It would free up the linebackers to stop the run more freely which is undoubtedly their strength.
The offensive emphasis this season is a bit more murky to predict. It is the third year of the three most important men on offense. Jay Gruden, A.J. Green and Andy Dalton have each grown in their past two previous seasons. None of these men have fulfilled their potential yet and there are heaps of expectation on the shoulders of all three.
Dalton has become on those quarterbacks who take the most scrutiny during the offseason. Drew Brees used to be another guy who media and fans enjoyed pointing out his deficiencies. There has been a recent crescendo of criticism and then defense of Andy Dalton and while I think that he lacks the luster of more physically impressive quarterbacks, the fact his biggest criticism is that he can't win playoff games is a pretty good problem for a third-year player to have.
Like all of you, I have no idea what happens inside the belly of Paul Brown Stadium, behind the concrete, inside the coaches rooms. There, plans are made and we often see the perceived attempts but we never truly know. That being said, I suspect that last season a lot, if not too much, was dumped upon Andy Dalton's plate. What may have looked basic and doable in his first year, probably looked vast and complex in year two and the ginger needed more time than was given to fully understand it. His numbers went up which points to an expanded role, but outside of his stats, his pocket presence, field awareness and general comfort running the offense subsided and an overall improvement was not easy to discern. So then what should we expect to see in year three?
His main man, A.J. Green, is ready to blast off. He is a dynamo, talent is left in pools wherever he steps, only God and himself can keep him from his greatness. Yet Dalton too is at least partially responsible for how great Green will be and that is another unspoken burden upon the young QB. Getting the ball to A.J. remains numero uno on Gruden's to-do list, but unlike previous seasons, all three of these men have more viable weapons around them.
Now, before I dive headfirst into the new depth the Bengals have added to their offensive arsenal it feels responsible to point out that these men are rookies and unproven and that every year we Bengals fans anoint up-and-coming skill players as immediate impact players when sometimes the opposite is true.
That being said, the Bengals haven't had a running back prospect this bright since Kenny Irons orvChris Perry, both of whom were cruelly forced from the game as very young men due to injury. Marvin Lewis has made little-guy comparisons of Giovani Bernard to success stories like Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew. He compliments a hard-working but rather singular back in BenJarvus Green-Ellis and will be running behind an offensive line that is growing up together. The running game had stretches of dominance midseason last year and Bernard will help switch up the sauce every now again and attack more on the outside, giving Benny a break.
Of course, Tyler Eifert is the new designer tight end, capable of being used in a variety of spots and pressures different positions in different ways. Also added to the mix is Arkansas wide receiver, Cobi Hamilton, who appears to be another possession guy and reminds me of Antonio Bryant. Lastly, Nebraska's tough running Rex Burkhead gets a chance to be mainly a special-teams grunt but could be used on some weird third down shovel passes (I can already see him being used in fake punts too).
The thing all of these guys have in common is that they are all players expected to run simpler routes and gain those crucial yards-after-catch. If hitting the passer is the one key to success for the defense, picking up YAC might be the same for the offense. If passing yards are being picked up without Dalton throwing the ball very long, everybody is then playing to their skill set. Eifert and Jermaine Gresham are big strong receiving tight ends, and while Gresham does drop passes, he also makes some grown-ass-man catches too. Mohamed Sanu and now Hamilton are also on the big and strong spectrum of wide receiver, and while not big (but in my mind pretty strong), Andrew Hawkins excels with the ball in his hands with blockers in front of him. Bernard comes with a reputation of catching the ball well and Green-Ellis can bring them in when thrown his way too.
If these guys convert on shorter stuff, it will force the double-team off of Green and then there's really no stopping him. Effective complimentary players are absolutely necessary for stars to be at their best. In the end, the players, the coaches, the fans and their writers want wins more than stats. If A.J. Green's stats go down but the offense is better and they win more games, life will be even sweeter.
One cannot sum up the inter-workings of a football season into simply this or that being the only variable of success, but we speculators of the sport are allowed to indulge in oversimplification and that is what you have read here. If Dalton can handle the scope of the offense Gruden presents to him, he should be able to utilize the many short-route, possession targets at his disposal which will allow Green freedom to run his crispy pass patterns and dazzle with his play. On defense, if the rotation racks up the hits on the quarterbacks, everyone's job becomes easier and they finish at a top-10 ranked unit again, maybe top-3.
Quarterback hits and YAC. Bengals 11-5.