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How to fix the Bengals in 2018: Establishing a team identity

The Bengals have a lot of talent and high draft picks all over their roster, but what is it they do particularly well? Understanding what the team vision is will be critical to the success of the club next year.

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If one were to asked to describe the Bengals team since 2011, one might be hard-pressed to come up with proper adjectives.

They did just enough in the rookie seasons of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green in 2011, winged the ball all over the field in 2013 and 2015, but relied heavily on the run in 2014.

Just who is this team and what do they wish to excel at, going forward?

On this week’s Orange and Black Insider, we continued our segments in how to fix the Bengals this year. The most recent installment talked about how the Bengals need to find a semblance of an identity.

This is especially critical this offseason, as the coaching staff has undergone a bit of transition. The head coach, coordinators and assistants all need to be on the same page if the team wants to be successful.

Perhaps in his negotiations, Marvin Lewis talked Mike Brown into more say on the staff, with the hope being that a great cast can propel the team back into, and through the postseason.

Offensive options: Ground-and-pound, balanced or bombs-away?

The Bengals have spent significant capital (mostly in the draft) on skill positions. Unfortunately, between those recent decisions and the attrition in the draft, this year needs to be more about the “meat and potatoes” of a roster.

Still, the team has been enamored with using high picks at receiver, cornerback and running back in the rebuilding project that commenced back in 2011. Yet, there hasn’t been a true identity to what the Bengals want to do—particularly on offense.

Cincinnati has invested three second round picks on talented running backs over the past five drafts (Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill and Joe Mixon). Yet, they only finished in the top-10 once in the category during that time (No. 6 in 2014), with no other year netting a better ranking than 13th, in terms of rushing yards per game.

The “best available” strategy is great, but at some point, aren’t you drafting players who you’re drafting because of value over scheme fit? That shouldn’t be the case this year, with a coaching staff that should be on the same page with a trickle-down effect.

Bill Lazor apparently has one of “his guys” with Bob Bicknell coaching the wide receivers, while Lewis had to have hand-picked Frank Pollack at offensive line coach, while the up-and-coming Kyle Caskey remains the running backs guru. This should be a group who knows who and what they need on the offense.

Now, as usual, questions about Andy Dalton are coming up again this year. Do the Bengals want to rely on at least two of those talented backs (Hill is an impending unrestricted free agent), with a revamped line to get through the rugged AFC North? Or, will certain additions and a unified message on offense bring Dalton back to his MVP-like 2015 form?

Regardless, big decisions need to be made on how the offense is going to look this year, as it has largely been this side of the ball that has held the Bengals back the past two seasons.

Defensive options: A bunch of big thumpers, varying looks or opportunistic turnover-machines?

With gigantic defensive ends in Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap, as well as the electric Vontaze Burfict, when available, and future Hall of Fame tackle Geno Atkins, new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin appears to have a lot of talent to work with in 2018.

When Mike Zimmer headed up the defense in Cincinnati, it was a well-rounded group. One that could get to the passer frequently, stop the run with vigor and create turnovers on the back end. Under Paul Guenther it was more about doing one or two of those three things well, instead of a truly dominant group in other areas.

Even with the upside of Austin and the roster he’s working with, he will hard-pressed be mimic the output that Zimmer produced for the team from 2008-2013. Obviously, though, that would be the ideal situation.

Still, if we’re being realistic, maybe Austin can improve on the weaker areas of Guenther’s defenses over the years. Will the team be opportunistic and grab more turnovers in 2018?

That was a forte of Austin’s defenses in Detroit and not one last year with the Bengals.

With Atkins, Johnson, Geno Atkins and Rookie of the Year nominee, Carl Lawson, the pass rush fury should continue, but how to fix the run defense that finished 30th in the league? Again, “ground and pound”, or play and opportunistic and big play-type of football?

Don’t forget about special teams:

Look no further than within the AFC North with John Harbaugh and the Baltimore Ravens. Unlike his brother’s prowess with the development of quarterbacks and overall offenses, the older Harbaugh cut his teeth as a special teams guru.

His teams, whether or not they make the playoffs, feature the random big play, stout defenses and excellent special teams play. Whether it was in Jacoby Jones’ innate ability to make big plays on returns and/or Justin Tucker essentially being the Ravens’ best player, Baltimore values the more underrated aspect of NFL football.

Luckily for the Bengals, Lewis and Darrin Simmons are on the same page with the importance of this unit. Sure, they haven’t always made the best decisions when it comes to place kickers, but later draft picks are almost annually used on players who can help on this side of the ball.

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