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What we learned from the Bengals’ victory over the Ravens

All in all, the Bengals finished the 2016 season on a good note.

Baltimore Ravens v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

At the tail end of a 6-9-1 Bengals season, it’s easy to become cynical. The Bengals did not win a Super Bowl or a playoff game, let alone even earn a trip to the playoffs. On paper, the Bengals’ 2016 season was a failure. A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Vontaze Burfict and Giovani Bernard, as well as others, were hampered by injuries, and suspension for Burfict. The offensive line was an issue throughout the entire season. Jeremy Hill was, for the most part, unproductive in virtually every game that wasn’t played against the Browns. It felt like the coaching staff wasn’t maximizing its roster — i.e. not cutting Mike Nugent soon enough, not giving some of the younger players reps early in the season, etc. Mike Brown is still the owner, Marvin Lewis is still the head coach, Ken Zampese is still the offensive coordinator, Paul Guenther is still the defensive coordinator and, unless an unexpected change occurs, the position coaches will likely be retained.

The Bengals’ resistance to change is frustrating. Cincinnati, while scoring quality players in Brandon LaFell and Karlos Dansby at bargain rates, didn’t take advantage of free agency in a way fans would’ve liked to see. Two of the Bengals’ top draft picks — William Jackson III and Andrew Billings — have yet to play a snap in the NFL.

And when the Bengals began to give snaps to their reserves, the team slowly began to yield dividends. Tyler Boyd and Cody Core started making plays at receiver late in the season, mostly after Green’s injury. Nick Vigil made some great plays, showcasing his athleticism — which begged the question why he wasn’t taking as many snaps earlier in the year. Rex Burkhead turned heads, quickly establishing himself a vocal following and, at the very least, made several plays the guys in front of him hadn’t been making all year. (At the most, one could argue he might be the best running back on the Bengals’ roster.) So yes, there was a lot of bad in the Bengals’ 2016 season. That’s not to mention the humiliating January playoff loss to the Steelers. People frequently called 2016 one of the worst years ever due to the shockingly high number of celebrity deaths, among other reasons. But for Bengals fans, 2016 felt like a terrible year no matter how optimistic or hopeful one might be.

All of that said, there are two sides to every coin. And for every infuriating moment — be it a missed Nugent field goal, offensive line collapse, lost challenge, miscommunication, etc. — there’s also an unforgettable one on the opposite side of the spectrum, be it a 71-yard kick return by Alex Erickson, a miraculous Hail Mary catch by Green, a blocked field goal by Margus Hunt, a two-interception game by Burfict, a Guenther blitz drawn up and executed perfectly, a beautiful pass breakup or interception by Dre Kirkpatrick or something else.

It’s easy to forget the great moments in a losing season, and it’s easy to forget the bad moments in a great season — how we feel about a team at a particular time generally dictates which moments we remember. This is evidenced in a guy like the aforementioned Kirkpatrick. The corner has evolved into a quality starter who, at least in 2016, played like the best player in Cincinnati’s secondary. Calling him a top-10 corner like the commentators did on Sunday seems a bit much, but that said, the corner has had several moments where he played like a top-10 corner throughout the season. Kirkpatrick, like Josh Norman, is a physical press corner. With that role comes moments both good and bad, which is why it seems players like Kirkpatrick and Norman can be great at one moment and terrible seconds later (and why analytics sites like Pro Football Focus are so inconsistent in evaluating guys at the cornerback position, specifically). It’s just the nature of the role.

As Bengals fans, we can either look at the 2016 from a cynical standpoint, an optimistic standpoint or a neutral standpoint. There’s no right or wrong way to look at things, but being the optimist that I am, here’s what I gathered from Sunday’s action and why I believe this Bengals team has a bright future ahead.

As mentioned, Kirkpatrick is a top cornerback and should be one of the Bengals’ top priorities in the offseason.

I’ve said it over and over, and I’ll continue to say it. The former first-round pick has blossomed into a playmaker. Yes, blossomed. (I got criticism for saying it early in the year — and in hindsight, I probably said it a little too early, but the cornerback proved himself throughout the year. He’ll be a hot commodity if he hits the free agent market, though it’s worth mentioning he seems to love playing for the Bengals.)

In terms of where Kirkpatrick ranks among all NFL corners, it’s tough to say. (For what it’s worth, he feels like a top 15-20 corner to some of us on the Cincy Jungle staff.) It occasionally feels as though he’s an inconsistent player, but for a press corner, Kirkpatrick is actually fairly steady. The defensive back’s improvements from last year, let alone his rookie season, have been immense.

Vigil’s progress is a major reason for optimism for the Bengals’ defense moving forward.

For all people criticize Lewis and his staff for not giving the younger guys a chance, Vigil got his chance this year — and it didn’t take major injuries for him to get his shot. Rey Maualuga evidently fell out of favor, leaving snaps open for the taking. With P.J. Dawson still figuring things out on the practice squad, Vigil took advantage of the opportunity, making plays at the linebacker position and eventually earning himself significant time in nickel packages alongside Burfict.

On Sunday specifically, while the rookie had a very up-and-down game, the positives from Vigil’s performance were evident. He’s a quick, versatile playmaker at the linebacker position who does exactly what Guenther needs his linebackers to do. Vigil can hold his own against the run, and he has the agility and instincts to retreat into coverage — an instrumental concept in the Bengals’ defensive philosophy, specifically when it comes to running double-A gap blitzes and disguises.

Guenther has received far too much criticism for a guy who is one of the best defensive coordinators in football.

Skeptics will point to the talent Guenther inherited from Mike Zimmer’s past defenses, but that shouldn’t take away from what the Bengals’ defensive coordinator has been able to accomplish in his brief tenure as a coordinator. After allowing 17.4 points per game last season (second-best in the NFL), the Bengals allowed 19.7 points per game in 2016. After letting ball-hawking safety Reggie Nelson walk in free agency, Cincinnati still managed to snag 17 interceptions (with plenty of dropped picks) this year, good for fourth in the NFL.

Guenther has made it abundantly clear that his objective as a defensive coordinator is to allow the fewest points possible. Sure, there are areas where he can improve, but the coordinator’s defense has been phenomenal in this regard, even with obvious limits in personnel.

One specific play comes to mind from Sunday’s game: Wallace Gilberry’s sack. Guenther dialed up a blitz, stunting the defensive lineman behind Vincent Rey. Gilberry trotted towards the quarterback untouched, recording an easy sack. It takes an outstanding coordinator to design a play in which a 32-year-old defensive lineman can run straight towards (and sack) an opposing quarterback without being touched.

Burkhead is in for a payday, and that will probably come from a team outside of Cincinnati.

Again, that team will not be the Patriots — they’re set at running back. In fact, I’d wager it’s more likely Burkhead returns to Cincinnati than leaves for New England. But after sitting behind Hill and Bernard on the depth chart for virtually the entire duration of his rookie contract with limited opportunities to make plays, even in a supporting role, it’s hard to imagine Burkhead wouldn’t leave for a team that offered a more prominent role on offense.

That said, it’s interesting to think about whether the Bengals will offer Burkhead an increased role to remain in the Queen City. Sure, Bernard is under contract, but as we’ve seen with teams like the Falcons (with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman) or even the Patriots (with Dion Lewis and James White), having two similar players in the backfield isn’t always a bad thing.

Down Green and Eifert, Cincinnati’s pass-catchers stepped up in a big way.

The box score looked good, but the film looked even better for Cincinnati’s receivers. Tight end C.J. Uzomah caught his first touchdown pass of the 2016 season, Burkhead contributed out of the backfield and the wideouts made plays left and right. The Ravens have the excuse of Jimmy Smith’s absence — which, to be fair, is major — but Cincinnati’s receivers seemed to consistently beat man coverage on Sunday, which was huge.

With the emergences of Boyd and Core, re-signing LaFell becomes less important and more difficult.

I personally love the guy — he’s a fun player to watch and seems like a great person off the field — but LaFell seems to desire a prominent role wherever he ends up in free agency. He probably won’t have that opportunity in Cincinnati, should he re-sign. On the bright side, the veteran has earned himself a contract and certainly won’t be out of work come the 2017 season.

The Bengals’ defense is really deep.

Especially down the stretch, Guenther has done a great job of creating roles for the players on his defense. With Maualuga falling out of favor, Vigil carved out a role for himself as a nickel ‘backer opposite Burfict. Rey — the other one — has been a Swiss Army Knife, playing wherever the Bengals have needed him to line up, and he’s made plays doing so. Dansby has been an unheralded surprise in Cincinnati this year, especially as of late. He’s been solid both in coverage and run support as the season has progressed. And at corner, the Bengals have four guys behind the starters in Josh Shaw, Darqueze Dennard, KeiVarae Russell and Jackson who have the talent to be playmakers in the NFL. Whether or not they’re able to hit their ceiling remains to be seen, but Cincinnati’s cornerback corps is deep.

Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap are still the playmakers we know and love, but there’s still not much behind them on the defensive line.

The common consensus among Bengals fans, and even national NFL analysts, is that Cincinnati’s biggest need in the near future — whether in free agency or in the Draft — is an edge rusher opposite Dunlap. Another defensive tackle certainly wouldn’t hurt, as injuries have plagued the position group over the past half-decade.

The Bengals are a playoff-caliber franchise coming off an anomaly season.

My column, my opinion. You, the reader, are completely entitled to disagree — and I welcome all feedback, whether agreement or disagreement. But from my experience, this is a team that simply couldn’t adapt and adjust to the changes and transition between 2015 and 2016. We’ve seen guys like George Iloka, Shawn Williams and others ascend late in the season, hitting their stride just a tad too late after a slow start. For as much criticism as he’s gotten, Zampese has drastically improved as a play-caller throughout the season, though he still has a ways to go. Green, Eifert, Burfict, Bernard and others will hopefully return from injury ready to roll early in the 2017 season. The optimist in me sees the Bengals’ roster, the team’s upcoming schedule (hello, AFC South) and its continuity between seasons — a formula that had worked prior to the team’s 2016 aberration — and believes there’s a good chance the Bengals are back to contention next year. You can disagree, but I’m going to be optimistic.

Despite beating the Ravens, the Bengals are picking ninth in the 2016 NFL Draft.

Cincinnati lucked out on Sunday, but I think most fans would probably agree with me in that moving down one spot (from eighth in the order last week) was worth the win. It was a real feel-good moment to go out with a victory over a division rival on Sunday and go 3-3 in AFC North play. It wasn’t a perfect season for the Bengals, but things could always be worse.