Here in the dregs of the NFL off-season there is very little to write about that isn't either overdone or premature. This time of year, we writers of football wander listlessly from topic to topic hoping to find just of sliver of something interesting worth expounding upon, but like the Okies in the Dust Bowl, most of us come up empty.
Yet at the same time, we're a competitive bunch, so when one writer moves ahead with something like Power Rankings in May, the others begrudgingly push themselves away from their cocktails and other interests, and chime in early as to not be lost in the upcoming surge of opinions. Therefore, like it or not, here comes the first of countless explanations of why the Bengals will once more win the AFC North.
The whole we-get-no-respect mantra seems a bit worn out for the Bengals these days. Anyone discrediting Cincinnati as something other than a Playoff contender is being unreasonably stubborn. That kind of thing isn't analysis, it's belief.
The facts are that the Bengals won the division last year thanks in large part to owning a dominant defense which returns every single player plus several noteworthy additions. The weak passing game has been completely revamped, the offensive line remains intact, and there are no major injury concerns at this time; based on plenty of hard evidence, there's a lot to get excited about in Cincinnati.
Still, there are those who refuse to believe that the Bengals will ever really do any postseason damage, and we'll all just have to live with that. Yet, when writers allow for sheer stubbornness to form their "professional" opinions which they are moved to print, it makes me wonder if the media influences public perception, or if it's the other way around.
Regardless, the Bengals look good to repeat as divisional champs to me at least.
Like a good Roman general, Mike Zimmer has the unquestionable loyalty of a fierce and talented legion of men. His power and reputation as a leader has even stirred the public to wonder if he will eventually take over as Caesar himself someday soon. The defense is young and still improving; the potential has yet to be fulfilled with this group, and that's encouraging.
Now that Zim has all of his guys healthy and even more familiar with his system, the sky is the limit.
Add Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins to a grizzly, versatile and fearsome front defensive line—not to mention the expected return of the promising Antwan Odom—and you have a good starting point already on defense. If we consider Dunlap and Atkins players who are likely to see action this season, then that would give Cincinnati 10 linemen in the expected rotation. That's a lot of beef.
But then consider the return of Mr. Maualuga, who has the most impact-play ability on the defense, and his mates, Keith Rivers and Dhani Jones, both consistent and solid in their roles. Sprinkle in the long-loped Brandon Johnson, who is excellent in coverage and had a terrific Wild Card showing in January, and the new flashy-named, Roddrick Muckelroy, to the linebacking depth, and that too seems like a team strength.
If that weren't enough, the Bengals boast perhaps the best corner tandem in the league with the technically sound Leon Hall, and the athletically gifted Johnathan Joseph—each had six picks a year ago—and are backed up by the serviceable Morgan Trent. The team also drafted Brandon Ghee, who Marvin Lewis compared to Joseph when Joseph was a rookie, and I remember hearing that they signed a person named Adam Jones as well. Injuries to either starter would be an immense setback and opposing offenses might then feel like they've found a weak-spot in the Death Star, but the development of Trent and Ghee, and the seized potential in He-Who-Mustn't-Be-Called-Pacman Jones, could not only soften such an injury blow, but also provide more coverage to the ever-popular, multiple wide-receiver sets. After all, the schedule does include Indianapolis, New Orleans, New England, San Diego, and so on.
What about safeties, you ask? Got any of them? Admittedly, this may be an area that is weaker than the other defensive tiers, but I feel the concern at the safety position has been greatly exaggerated. Nonetheless, someone not named Tom Nelson needed to be written into the safety depth chart and that person became the nomadic veteran, Gibril Wilson.
If anything, the group of safeties is indeed a veteran one. Old-school tacklers, Chinedum Ndukwe and Roy Williams, will once more battle it out for the starting strong-safety position in training camp. If Roy wins that battle but then smashes his bionic forearm again, there isn't much of a drop off once Ndukwe is installed.
Wilson should battle Chris Crocker for the free-safety spot. Each man has been around a good while and the biggest test for both of them might be how well they physically hold up in camp. There could be some issues regarding the range of these guys in coverage, but they can both tackle, and hopefully the improvement of the nickel-back position will ease some of those coverage concerns.
Either way, once more, these safeties—minus Wilson—played well in this system last year. Yes, they are a year older, and no, the Bengals didn't draft a safety of the future per se, but these guys they do have aren't bums. Plus, with a theoretically improved pass-rush, the entire secondary can operate under less pressure.
All in all, this defense hunts wild game with wolves in the offseason and sleeps uncovered in the rain. They are weather-beaten and rugged and are insistent to make the opposition's Sundays as difficult as possible. It remains the heart of the team and is the most convincing reason to pick the Bengals to win the division.
But if that didn't do it for you, let's look at the offense.
The transformation from a vertical-pass offense to a power-run offense was astonishingly successful, considering it happened within one season, and hadn't been attempted here before. Cedric Benson burst through holes and ran to stardom last year, becoming the offense's best player in the process. This year should be much of the same as Ced Ben is this year running for the mega-contract the Bengals aren't likely to cough up to him. Essentially, he is auditioning for other teams, but again has the makings to carry the ball 30 times a game and rush for 1,700 yards this season. Even if it is only for next season, I'll take it.
Backing him up is one of my personal favorites, Bernard Scott. The guy is a bouncy-ball runner with good vision. I felt Scott was underutilized in the offense late in the season once Benson returned from his injury. He can't be used like a traditional power runner; he needs time to see the defense and pick his route. Screens, pitch plays, misdirections, these are the kinds of plays that best use Scott's strengths.
Brian Leonard is the Pete Rose of the NFL; no one gives more effort. He has skills too. His jukes, hurdles and spin moves appear as if a PlayStation controller is moving him around. He's not fast, but he really, really wants to get the first down, and so he usually does. Carson loves him too, which helps any player's job security—unless that player is asking for too much dough—so I see Leonard back in there on third-down packages this fall.
As for the passing-game, you might not even recognize it. The biggest difference should be how open the receivers are this season. After Chris Henry broke his arm, average safeties blanketed starting Bengal receivers. At one desperate point in the playoffs against the Jets, Quan Cosby appeared to be the team's second-best receiving target, and the difficult became the impossible.
Gone is Laveranues Coles, and possibly demoted is Andre Caldwell. Here instead are Antonio Bryant, Jordan Shipley, and the curious Matt Jones. Also somewhere on board is Jerome Simpson, but it seems widely agreed that this training camp and preseason is his last chance to get his second-round shit together or else the experiment dies as a failure.
Also gone is J.P. Foschi, replaced by the studly Jermaine Gresham. Never before has offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski featured a tight end in the passing game all that heavily. Fans were excited about last year's rookie tight end, Chase Coffman, but had to put their enthusiasm on hold since he couldn't make the active roster and was eventually shelved with bone spurs in his ankle. This year, Carson gets a large target who can help him when he scrambles out of the pocket and needs to improvise. Gresham should help in the red-zone and on third down, areas where Cincinnati struggled last year.
Oh yeah, the Bengals also have that guy Ochocinco who you might have seen on television this summer. It seems that his status among the league's receivers has slipped, yet his skills don't appear to have waned all that dramatically. I think he is ready for another big season. With the improvement of those around him, defenses will not be able to key on him as vigorously as they did last season. Plus, he obviously needs more dance practice, and there's only one place on the football field worth dancing in and that's the end-zone.
There isn't much to write about the offensive line. They are the same as last season, only this time Andre Smith gets to participate throughout the entire offseason. I don't expect any of these guys to play worse than a year ago, with perhaps the exception of Bobbie Williams, who is aging and seemed to slip some last year. Reggie Kelly is back to assist the hogs in run blocking and perhaps can be used in this year's unbalanced-line formations.
The offense will operate similarly to last year, but it should run smoother. In style and function, I expect much of the same: large quantities of Benson, crossing stuff to the second and third receivers and sideline stuff to Chad. We should see more plays designed for Gresham who could run deep patterns in the middle of the field, and, if everything goes right, see a few jump balls to Matt Jones and/or Jerome Simpson.
The offense won't match the defense in general prowess, but it should eat up clock, wear out opposing defenses while keeping our own fresh on the sideline, and score enough to win.
This team is well-composed and improved from a playoff season ago. Even without mention of the other AFC North teams, and how well they match-up with Cincinnati, just examining this team on paper provides plenty of firepower to the argument of why the Bengals will succeed in 2010.
So, there it is, the early outline of the Bengals. It's a strong case, I think, and one that isn't too over the top with blatant favoritism and bias. But even if it is, it doesn't matter; the Bengals went 6-0 in their division last year and are better this year. Nuff said.
Mojokong—farming through the dust.