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Bengals quarter review: Biggest differences between 2016 and 2015 squads

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There have been both pleasant surprises and big disappointments with the Bengals in the first four games this year. How does that compare to what we saw last year?

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Cincinnati Bengals Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, the Cincinnati Bengals charged to a franchise-best 8-0 start, largely beating the opposition by sound point differentials during that time. It led to fans and pundits feeling as if the 2015 squad was the one to finally lead The Queen City to the promised land.

Familiar heartbreak ensued in the postseason and offseason personnel attrition hit the Bengals on their path to a possible 2016 redemption. A tough schedule to start this year has also brought a somewhat-disappointing 2-2 record after the completion of the first quarter of the season.

So, what has been the biggest differences, in both the positive and the negative, for the Bengals this year compared to last? Let’s have a look.

The Positives in the Differences:

Getting through the Injuries: A big storyline to the team’s 2015 success was the returns of Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones after both were out for basically the entire 2014 season. Both paid immediate dividends and helped propel quarterback Andy Dalton to MVP conversations throughout much of last year.

Jones left for Detroit, while Eifert has missed the first four games, yet the Bengals have gotten through a pretty tough beginning of the schedule with a .500 record. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict also missed the first three games this year, which was a similar beginning to his 2015 campaign, so they also still didn’t have one of their best defensive players to start the year. In short, the Bengals might be getting both healthier and jelling with new weapons as the season is wearing on.

Dre Kirkpatrick: In his first year as a full-time starting cornerback last year, Kirkpatrick disappointed, as he was a stark contrast from the big-play reserve defensive back we saw at times in the previous three seasons. Last season, Kirkpatrick got his hands on a lot of footballs, but didn’t intercept any. Even in a start of the season where big plays allowed by the secondary have occurred, Kirkpatrick has played well and already has one interception and three pass breakups.

Margus Hunt and Will Clarke: Last year, the Bengals preferred to rely on Wallace Gilberry, as well as their starters as pass-rushers off the edge. Hunt and Clarke were afterthoughts and fought for game-active status in 2015. However, after worries among fans were prevalent in the team’s reliance on these two going into the year because of their draft status and injuries along the front, they have far surpassed expectations four games into the season.

If you were to find out that Clarke is tied for the team lead in quarterback sacks (3.0) with Carlos Dunlap, would you be surprised? That’s currently the case and it appears that things are clicking for both high-ceiling guys. It’s been a nice crutch with so many injuries and offseason departures on the defensive line.

The Negatives in the Differences:

The Safety Play: It’s not like the play from the last line of the defense has been utterly abhorrent, but many look at the vacancy left by Reggie Nelson and see a gaping roster hole. The Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers have particularly been thorns in the side of the secondary, as both losses could be partially pinned to huge plays given up that we just didn’t see in 2015.

Shawn Williams, a guy the Bengals showed big faith in this offseason with a starting role and a big contract extension, has largely disappointed. Williams has had at least two easy interception opportunities in four games so far, with one against the Broncos looming large in that loss. George Iloka has played relatively well, but Cincinnati has invested a ton of money (though not much guaranteed) in both players, and so far, the Williams-Iloka tandem doesn’t look as strong as the Nelson-Iloka pairing.

Return Game on special teams: One of the things that constantly sparked the 2015 team and sometimes carried the 2014 squad was big punt and/or kick returns. My CJ colleague, Connor Howe noted as much in his quarter report card impressions, but even the constant spark plug Adam Jones hasn’t looked the same.

Part of free agency losses resulted in the Bengals rolling the dice on some unproven players, such as Alex Erickson. After the former Wisconsin Badger ran Brandon Tate out of town, the undrafted rookie free agent hasn’t given Cincinnati anything in the punt return game during the regular season. While reliance on constant big returns from special teams isn’t safe for sustainable success, it would have been nice to see some consistency, especially with Eifert, Burfict and others out of the lineup throughout the first four weeks.

The Offensive Line: The running game, even with good backs like Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, struggled in 2015. Unfortunately, that narrative hasn’t changed all that much, as Bernard is averaging 2.7 yards per carry through four games, while Hill is at 3.8 per clip. Usually those stats and the missing of so many stars in the first part of the season would lead to a much poorer record than the 2-2 in which they currently stand, but Cincinnati has battled through the various issues.

What’s been particularly startling with the big boys up front is their lack of pass-blocking prowess, which has long been a staple from the crew. Sure, Cedric Ogbuehi is stepping in for Andre Smith at right tackle, but four of the other starters have been in those roles since at least 2014. A combination of receivers not getting open quickly, Dalton hanging onto the ball, and just poor play from the group has led to giving up the second most sacks in the league with 13 in four games.

That’s a pace for an allowance of 52 for the season after only giving up 32 all of last season. The tough schedule also plays into this statistic, but if the Bengals want to be a playoff team, the play up front has to be better.

What have you noticed as big differences from the 2015 Bengals to the 2016 squad in four games so far?