If you're an avid follower of the NFL, then you're probably familiar with FO's work. They do some of the best analysis and advanced statistical breakdowns of NFL teams and matchups you'll find. They just put out their new Football Outsiders Almanac for the 2015 season, which you can now purchase at their store.
Here's a look at our Q&A session with some of their staff on what to expect from the Bengals in 2015:
CJ: Much is being made about Andy Dalton's performance in big games and the playoffs, but we could argue the losses are a result of a whole team failure. Is this a true assumption or does the onus really fall on the quarterback?
FO: Both are true. Dalton has been dreadful in big games, especially the playoffs, but so have many other aspects of the team, from A.J. Green to the vaunted defense to the coaching staff. Everyone involved has shrunk from the moment, which is incredibly dispiriting for the fans. Given the importance of his position, though, more of the focus falls on Dalton.
Last year is a good example. He can hardly be blamed for the rash of injuries that left the offense crippled against Indy. But great quarterbacks rise above that, at least enough to keep things competitive for four quarters. Dalton has yet to be able to do that. By this point, it seems unlikely he can improve enough to become that quarterback who excels regardless of circumstances.
That doesn't mean he can't win a playoff game--of course he can--but rather that everything needs to be firing on all cylinders around him for it to happen. So long as he keeps putting the Bengals in position to have that perfect postseason day, that's about the most that can be expected of Ol' Red.
CJ: Obviously injuries and offseason rehabilitation were direct influences, but how much was Cincinnati's decline last year based on the transition to Paul Guenther's defense and his philosophy to rely on his defensive front to bring pressure?
FO: I didn't see a huge difference in schematic change between Zimmer and Guenther, except where forced by injury. There were a few less A-gap blitzes on third down, but otherwise, they both called the game similarly, which makes sense given that Guenther is Zim's protege. The main reasons Cincy's D fell off were due to missing Vontaze Burfict and missing the usual Geno Atkins, who played but was hardly the same disruptive force inside.
All indications point to Geno's revival, and that combined with improved linebacker depth and Michael Johnson's return should shore up the run defense in particular. Increased sack rate (the Bengals were 31st in the NFL last year) should be a by-product as well--there's nowhere to go but up.
CJ: What does the tape tell you about Dre Kirkpatrick? High-ceiling guy that just needs more playing time to be a lockdown corner, or athletic gambler who will both make and give up big plays regularly?
FO: Dre's main problem heretofore was that he didn't have much tape--he couldn't get on the field regularly due to injuries and the excellence of the guys in front of him. He certainly was a gambler early on, but he has responded well to coaching and has been a ball-hawking presence in his small sample of snaps (six picks in just 546 snaps). I expect him to start and fulfill his first-round promise beginning in 2015--he may not become Richard Sherman, but a wealthy contract extension is there for him with high-caliber play this year.
CJ: The Bengals offensive line has earned a lot of praise over the past few years in both the running and passing game. Some people attribute some of the group's success in pass blocking to Andy Dalton's quick release. Are these claims at all substantiated?
FO: Certainly the Bengals preference for a quick passing attack, employing plenty of bubble screens and slants, helps the o-line numbers, as does Dalton's underrated ability to move in the pocket and get rid of the ball when needed. But that undersells the excellence of Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler in particular. As with most aspects of o-line play, the symbiosis of the unit and the quarterback is what matters.
Whether the line becomes truly dominant depends in large part on the development of center Russell Bodine. He was iffy last year, not unusual for a rookie thrust into the starting role. He must improve his short area punch and ability to stretch to impact defenders outside his initial reach. This is especially true for a team that wants to live between the tackles like the Bengals expect to this season, with Jeremy Hill ascendant.
CJ: George Iloka has improved each year in the league, and many believe he is on the cusp of being an all-pro caliber player. Does your perspective add to a similar conclusion and what are your general thoughts on Iloka?
FO: He already is an all-pro caliber player, at least against the pass. Iloka put up the best-adjusted success rate against the pass in the entire NFL. In the past, his bugaboo was his hands, but he improved there too, with three picks and no egregious drops. He is not an equally elite run defender--he's decent, but that's not really his game.
This is the last year of his rookie deal, and I doubt the Bengals will let him get away. What they decide to do with the other safety, Reggie Nelson, who has been very good too but is seven years older than Iloka, is the bigger debate.
A big thanks goes out to the FO guys for doing this interview with us. Be sure to grab their Football Outsiders Almanac 2015.