The Cincinnati Bengals didn't make many changes to their roster this offseason, don't take that as a bad thing. The front office has built up a roster full of young talent over the last four drafts and it has already started to make a difference. They have made it to the postseason the last two years and if they make it this season it will be the first three straight appearances in franchise history. It's no secret that the success of this team will lie on the shoulders of one of those young talented man in particularly, Andy Dalton.
"I expect to be better in year 3 than I was in year two," said Dalton. "I've got to keep improving and getting better the more I play."
Marvin Lewis is entering his 11th season as the teams head coach and has seen a lot of changes throughout the years. He must have thought he finally had it nailed when Carson Palmer and the offense were really rolling, before the fateful knee injury. After he came back Palmer was never quite the same. Add to the all the drama with super talented Chris Henry and Chad Johnson and you figure it had to be pretty tough being Marvin Lewis during those years. Yet, this year is looking like it could be the one to show this success they are seeing is no fluke, he has the team on a real path.
To begin to see consistent wins the Bengals are going to have to ramp up their offense. The problem last season started with the fact that their four top receivers were never on the field at the same time. Consequently, the passing game suffered and overall production led the unit to rank 22nd overall in the NFL. Now that those players are back from injuries we should see a big change.
Last year Dalton continued to develop as a quarterback and also stepped up as a leader. He realizes that this team will only go as far as he takes it. In the second half of last season he really stepped up and corrected some of the mistakes he had in the first half. He needs to continue to focus on getting into a rhythm with his receivers and showing more downfield accuracy. If he continues to show improvement in those areas, he will threaten defenses even more.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis is their number one option at running back. He did great for them last season, especially during the second half. He picked up all 15 of his third and one attempts and finished the season with over 1,000 yards. However, for them to see some real production out of their running back they are going to need to pick up someone who can break big plays. Green-Ellis lacks the necessary speed.
Dalton does have talented guys to throw the ball too. A.J.Green has proved he can produce at a very high level. He scored a TD in nine consecutive games last season, weeks 2-10, but only scored one over the last six weeks. It shows that once teams saw how big of a threat he is, they had to focus on shutting him down. One player who can really benefit from the extra attention going to Green is tight end Jermaine Gresham. He has produced very well, as evidenced by him making the Pro Bowl the last two seasons, but he may be able to produce even more. If Mohamed Sanu can develop his game a little they could really spread the ball out and take advantage of matchups.
What has carried the team through some tough times has been its defense. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has had his unit in the top 10 for total defense the past three seasons. He has his guys play hard, fast and aggressive and he loves it when his defensive line gets after the quarterback.
The team recorded a record high 51 sacks last season, a big reason they saw so much production. The defensive line was responsible for 42 of them. Interior lineman Geno Atkins and Domata Peko are showing just how dominant they can be on the inside. The real question mark remains the linebackers. They hope signing James Harrison will shore up the unit, not only with his production but also the veteran experience and leadership he can provide for Burfict and Maualuga.
And if the strength of the defensive unit is thought to be the line, we may be forgetting just how good the secondary is. During the second half of the season the pass defense was one of the best in the NFL, they allowed only four passing touchdowns in eight games. Is this a sign of things to come, or just a good run. Terence Newman and Leon Hall are two very solid starting cornerbacks. Each one does exactly what's asked of them from their coach and then some. Reggie Nelson is a better than average producer at safety, but they need to add depth behind him in case something happens.
Ultimately, this team has built itself in a way that depends on the continued improvement of its young players. By learning from their mistakes and drafting with an emphasis on players who won't run afoul of team standards, the plan is on track so far. They should all continue to develop not only as individual players, but together as a unit as well. Even though the division boasts the defending Super Bowl champs, another 106 finish and even a playoff win are very doable.