Let me preface this article by sharing a quick part of my day today. I was watching ESPN's Sportscenter and was annoyed yet again. They were listing their picks for the top teams in the AFC. I don't usually put on Sportscenter but I was at a friend's house and had no choice. The Denver Broncos were the top pick, with New England and Baltimore coming up as close runner ups. It was even argued that Baltimore is a better team now than they were when they won the Super Bowl last year. Ridiculous. Chris Carter shared my sentiment. Perhaps you agree with that statement, but as always...this is one man's humble opinion.
The following reasons are my Top-5 as to why I think the Bengals should be favored to reach the Super Bowl.
1. The D-line. Last year the defense on the Bengals was better then then offense. There's really no way to argue their rankings, or the eye test. Geno Atkins anchors a talented young line, with plenty of depth behind them. It's good to see Carlos Dunlap finally get the nod (despite a recent concussion) to start for the Bengals. Hard to sign a guy to a huge extension and not start him. We have Michael Johnson for at least another, and young players behind the starters that are chomping at the bit. (Still, Thompson, etc...) The D-line makes the entire football team better. The constant pressure, and second highest sack total in the NFL last season, means the rest of the defense doesn't have to cover their man for very long. It makes our linebackers and our secondary better. Not just against the pass, but in the run game as well. A good defense gives our offense more chances to score. Basically, if the D-line wins, the Bengals win.
2. Quality Depth. The NFL is a tough place to play. Players get hurt. Players get traded. It is a young man's game. Every successful team in football has a "next man up" mentality. If someone gets traded, if the team can't afford to sign someone to an extension because of their amazing depth at every position (cough the Bengals cough) you have to have a capable player ready to step in. In the many years I have been following the Bengals, I have never seen this much depth on our team. We are in uncharted waters, drafting players for depth instead of immediate need. Every year that goes by, we are adding more and more quality depth to the team. Last year it was Still and Thompson. We knew that they weren't going to start right away. This year, we added players like Margus Hunt and a whole slew of lineman that we don't immediately need. The examples go on and on, but the point is...this team is stacked.
3. Leadership. To be completely honest I had a heck of a time deciding what order to put the rest of these in, so try not to read too much into it. I recently wrote an article about "Why the Bengals should embrace the spotlight". Our players need to believe in themselves. Being good isn't enough. It's the reason (I believe) that the Ravens won the Super Bowl last year, and the reason I don't believe they will be as good this year. Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and others had that team believing in themselves, no matter what.
Players like Andrew Whitworth, and Domata Peko are undeniable leaders for the Bengals. They are great locker room guys and we have heard countless stories that speak to their leadership and generosity. You have players like Geno Atkins, and A.J. Green that lead by example. They keep their nose to the grindstone and give the rest of the team a standard to live up to. Geno Atkins had a very nice moment on Hard Knocks where he says his goal is to be a great player, and he tries to lead by example. He wanted other players to know that if they follow his lead, they can be great too. (I'm paraphrasing but you get the point) I'd also like to address that Andy Dalton has stepped up this season and assumed more of a leadership role. Doing small things like hosting receivers and back up quarterback John Skelton to his home in Texas over the off season is a step in the right direction. He has come out and said several times (recently) that this is his team, and everyone knows it. Last but not least, you have leadership in the form of man-eating, bone-crushing linebacker James Harrison. You could see the instant respect he received from the Bengals as soon as he walked in the locker room. Leadership means everything to this team, because the talent is undeniable.
4. Versatility. The Bengals offense became rather stagnant last season, especially when Sanu went down. The Bengals have taken steps to ensure that it doesn't happen again. There was a recent article about multiple Tight End formations and all that it brings to the table. We can pound the ball with BJGE or Gio, or split out Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert and enjoy watching them create mismatches. Teams will have to keep extra players in the block with a pass catching running back, or H-Back in the backfield in the form of Giovani Bernard and Orson Charles. (Assuming Charles wins out a spot on the team) Teams shouldn't be able to triple team A.J. anymore. We have too many weapons now. We showed quite a few different looks against the Titans, including a screen to Eifert. When the pass protection broke down, we went with multiple tight ends and pounded the rock. Being able to adjust to whatever the defense throws at us could turn this offense around. I am honestly expecting us to come in ranking around 10-11 on offense this year. Exciting stuff.
5. Adriel Jeremiah Green. I tried to keep this list away from single players, and simply couldn't do it. A.J. Green is that good. The man draws a double or triple team every play, making every other receiving option on the team that much better. It has been argued by some that A.J. Green has padded Andy Dalton's numbers in the first two years, and there is some merit to that argument. It's impossible for a receiver that's that good to not pad your numbers. He's fast, he's tall, he's strong. He leaps in the air and bends like a contortionist (according to Marvin Lewis) and somehow comes down with the ball even when he's covered. When you have a player this good, it's almost impossible to be out of any game because he can score from anywhere on the field.
Honorable mention - Linebackers that will knock you into next week. No matter what you think of Rey Maualuga, the guy can deliver a hit. Lining up next to him this year, are possibly the two meanest linebackers in the NFL. Vontaze Burfict is just plain nasty when he plays. He players hard, he hits hard, and he lets you know it...every play. Hard Knocks had some cool footage of him taking down Chris Johnson twice, jawing at him all the while. There is no denying this kid has a mean streak, and the play to back it up. That brings us to the meanest man in football. James Harrison. He has not become more even-tempered later in his career. That chip on his shoulder from going undrafted in 2003 hasn't gotten any smaller. It may have gotten bigger. After Geno Atkins he is probably the strongest player on the team. There has been a lot of speculation whether they can cover tight ends and routes across the middle. Although I think we will be improved in that area this season, the real fear comes from the hits they deliver in the run game. If we can shut down the run game of a team, they are forced to pass. Anytime our opponent becomes one dimensional, it's good for the Bengals.
Feel free to comment and analyze with me. Put up your own top-5. I realize that there are plenty of other areas that could have been listed or featured more. Our drafting, our coaching staff and the addition of more scouts, our run game, etc. I've said it many times and I'll say it again....it's a DAMN good year to be a Bengals fan.