It's funny how powerful of a machine the national media can be. Whether it's politics, general breaking news or sports, those who inform the masses through the major mediums can sway opinions in a big way. One such example is the recent NFL narrative surrounding the notion that offense and elite quarterback play is the truest path to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
Super Bowl 50 went against that grain, pitting two of the best 2015 defenses against each other in the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos. Some felt the game was quite entertaining, while others found the 24-10 Broncos win, complete with six total turnovers in the game, very sloppy. Whichever side of the fence you're on, there was little doubt that swarming defenses ruled the day over superstar quarterbacks in Cam Newton and Peyton Manning.
I began writing my Bengals positional needs post before the Super Bowl, but the idea of having a team loaded with pass-rushers helped to produce the piece. I noted both the Panthers' and Broncos' respective ability to get to the passer from various positions on their defenses. If the six turnovers weren't enough evidence of defensive dominance, then the 12 combined sacks from both teams definitely should be sufficient.
It appears that The Cincinnati Enquirer's Paul Dehner, Jr. and I shared some of the same thoughts as he wrote some similar feelings earlier this week. In his post-Super Bowl observations article, Dehner said:
Take a look at the last three champs: 2013 Seahawks (yards per game 1st/points per game 1st), 2014 Patriots (13/8), 2015 Broncos (1/4). And remember, the Seahawks also led the league in both defensive categories when Malcolm Butler and the Patriots stole the Super Bowl title from them. As much as the league does fight a parity problem due to a limited number of elite quarterbacks, this trend keeps hope alive for teams without one.
The notion goes beyond some of these aforementioned stats though. Of the 12 total playoff teams in 2015, 10 were in the top half of the league in yards per game, and nine of the top-10 defenses in quarterback sacks also made the postseason. If you look at some of the perennial playoff squads over the past half-decade, you'll see solid-to-great defenses across the board. The Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans, Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers, Kansas City Chiefs litter the brackets.
The Bengals are on the right track:
Despite the 0-7 playoff record and frustrations boiling over with their inability to get over the postseason hump, the Bengals' roster is largely constructed in a way to get them a championship, based on the stats of recent Super Bowl winners. Since Marvin Lewis re-built Cincinnati's roster in 2011, a stretch of time where the team has uncoincidentally made the playoffs every year since, the defense finished seventh, sixth, third, 22nd, and 11th in yards allowed per game.
While it has been a criticism in the early years of Andy Dalton's career, the embattled Bengals signal-caller had a great 2015 campaign, instilling hope in the fan base for years ahead. Aside from building a stout defense with sound coaching on that side of the ball, the other part of Cincinnati's plan was to surround a good, but a not yet great quarterback with many weapons.
The hope for 2016 resides in a few factors, first and foremost the total health of the quarterback who would have been an MVP candidate had he not fractured his thumb at the end of 2015. Obviously, keeping their productive trio of receivers from the past four to five years is key, as they will look to re-sign Mohamed Sanu and/or Marvin Jones as they head to free agency is another, in an effort to continue the above-mentioned strategy of surrounding Dalton with talent.
It may be taking far longer than every Bengals fan would want for postseason success, but it could be very possible that the sixth year in the Dalton-era is the lucky one. This thought is predicated on defensive statistical trends and the Bengals following them, a potential increase in health to critical positions and continuing to add young talent in the draft.
Prevalent Swagger and Tenacity:
If you look up the term "swagger" in the dictionary, "2015 Carolina Panthers" might be one of the associated definitions. Sure, Newton was a large part of the flashy nature of the NFC Champions this year, but Josh Norman, Luke Kuechly and just about every player on the team exuded confidence at a very high level. This is a by-product of both innate confidence and results from previous big performances.
Despite his on-field flaws, there is little doubt that when Vontaze Burfict is in the Bengals' defensive lineup, swagger and tenacity are on display. He, like many other on the unit, is fast, strong and relentless when it comes to standing up to an opposing offense. This is a defensive unit that held the regular season's No. 1 offense in yards per game at bay.
Cincinnati has cultivated defensive talent and has also shown an uncanny ability to get the most out of free agent reclamation projects, so the continued success of the unit seems likely. The Bengals will need to keep pace if they want to continue this unprecedented run they have paved in the franchise's history.
Needed areas of Improvement:
It was a nice bounce-back year for Paul Guenther and his defensive unit in a number of way, but there is always room for improvement. Adding an exciting pass-rusher to the mix, even if just a rotational one, is always a solid place to start. Reigning in uncontrolled emotions and reckless play from some of these emotional leaders is another.
The latter has popular opinion pointing to coaching issues, despite Guenther's improvement in 2015. Lewis' 0-7 postseason record and the team's deplorable performances in primetime call the staff's preparation methods into question. Lewis has one more year on his contract and while the Brown family has been prone to giving Lewis these little one-year, rental-like contract extensions, 2016 might be the final straw if similar or worse heartbreak occurs.
One final area the Bengals could improve upon, as we discussed in this week's Inside the Jungle podcast episode, is an uncharacteristic aggressiveness from the team. We're not advocating the signing of mega-deals to a player like Von Miller, but the willingness to move up in the draft for an immediate impact player would be a nice start. Nobody wants the Bengals to get into salary cap trouble in the years ahead, but some risks, be it in the draft or free agency, might be needed to avoid an 0-8 postseason record under Lewis.
Defense is still winning Super Bowls, whether it's at the forefront or in the background, and the Bengals have created a formula similar to some of the recent champions. Some peripheral aspects need to be addressed to get past the first round of the playoffs and it appears Cincinnati seems oh so close to having one of their vilified defenders propping up the Lombardi Trophy. No matter how you slice it, excuses are running out and an 0-8 record in the playoffs, should it happen, is simply unacceptable for this regime and its roster construction.