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Looking to Week 1, it’s time to turn the page on a new age of Bengals football

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The Cincinnati Bengals’ regular season kicks off on Sunday. Will the Bengals return to postseason form, or continue rebooting with a new version of an existing team.

Cincinnati Bengals v Detroit Lions Photo by Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images

Finally.

The regular season is here.

The exhaustive doldrums of the offseason have finally concluded.

NFL free agency: Bought and paid for.

The NFL draft: Depleted.

Spring practices: Conducted.

Training camp: Performed.

Fake football games (some insist on calling the “preseason”): Played.

Rosters: Built.

Fantasy teams: Drafted.

This offseason felt like an eternity.

As Bengals fans, we’re looking for a rebound. Some call it a reboot, perhaps a reset. It was supposed to be a new head coach, but that didn’t happen. Despite only winning 13 games since 2016 with a winless postseason record over 15 years, the Brown family brought back Lewis. There was no one else, we were told. Perhaps that’s true.

Recent years have captured familiar feelings; not so much desperation or despair, but irritation, frustration and exhaustion. Perhaps that’s our fault. We should have expected it. The Bengals lost players like Mohammed Sanu, Marvin Jones, Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler, and failed to expeditiously develop their replacements. Maybe we did expect rough waters and hoped for the calm sea, feeling extreme disappointment when they struggled to reach declining exceptions. Are we delusional?

To their credit, the Bengals knew change was needed.

“We have had a dramatic change with our team,” said owner Mike Brown during the annual media luncheon. “It isn’t fully understood. We have changed our whole offensive system. We have changed our defensive system. Usually, that is associated with hiring a new coach. We did it a little bit differently.

“We brought in new coordinators and let them have their chance at it,” Brown continued. “This will make us look different. It will be a challenge to digest for our players. It usually takes a little time. I will be holding my breath some as we start out with it. There will certainly be a few ups and downs with it. It should produce real change with the football team and we are trying to have change. We are trying to see if something a little different won’t be better.”

Cincinnati spent the offseason upgrading their offensive line, developing core receivers, and installing new philosophical schemes on defense. Older players are being replaced with rookies, with one uncharacteristically starting on defense.

Perhaps this team is a reboot.

Let’s use a nerdy Marvel Cinema lexicon for a moment: If the Carson Palmer era was phase one, and the start of the Andy Dalton era was phase two, could this be the start of phase three? How can you not eagerly welcome the regular season opener this Sunday?

We need a reset. Something new.

We. All of us.

For years, I ran this website and participated in every game, writing reports on major injuries, impressive scoring drives, postgame reviews, analysis, quotes, and added an extensive recap the next morning. Due to those obligations — little known fact — I didn’t attend a single regular season game from the 2002 opener (a 34-6 loss to the Chargers) through the 2016 season.

Weird, right?

Consider that for a moment: Despite spending endless hours writing, thinking, analyzing the Bengals (with many 14-15 hour days) for 10 years, I stayed away from Paul Brown Stadium. Not because of any boycott (Mike Brown won’t get MY money) or convenience (watching games at home IS better), it was all work. Hard work.

The fire was beginning to extinguish, the light starting to dim. My departure began with the Bengals’ postseason loss to the Steelers on Jan. 9, 2016.

In case you’ve forgotten, here’s a quick excerpt from that game.

Victory! They did it. But... they didn’t. It was that close. For the first time since Jan. 6, 1991, the Cincinnati Bengals nearly secured their first postseason win in the 9,134 days between victory.

Then everything collapsed.

Cincinnati, who scored 16 fourth-quarter points, taking a 16-15 lead with 1:56 remaining in the game, nearly iced the game when Vontaze Burfict intercepted Landry Jones at the Steelers’ 26-yard line.

They were going to do it! It was finally their time.

Whether you sprinted around the house, jumped around Paul Brown Stadium, or locked yourself in your car and shouted “Barbara, we won”, you were excited. A 25-year old narrative was facing extinction. Yet, on the very first play during Cincinnati’s ensuing possession, Jeremy Hill fumbled the football and Ben Roethlisberger, who exited late in the third quarter with a shoulder injury, returned to the game moments later.

Vontaze Burfict was flagged for leveling Antonio Brown, a penalty that would translate into a suspension. Adam Jones reacted to Joey Porter’s verbal harassment of Burfict, earning another personal foul. You know this already but I’m repeating it anyway: You can’t give an opposing NFL team 30 free yards in the playoffs and expect to win. Eventually placekicker Chris Boswell pooched a 35-yard chip shot to give Pittsburgh the win.

It was all bullshit.

Cincinnati lost it. Figuratively and technically. The fumble, the hit, the Adam Jones curse-filled drama when faced with adversity that you’ve come to expect, culminated in rage. We were all raging. Players. Fans. Everyone. It wasn’t just this game either; the tortured blowouts against Houston, the fumbled San Diego loss, the Carson Palmer injury, and even the snap issues during an extra point that led to a loss in Denver, all culminating into range. This wasn't going to change.

Eventually, my reign of terror at Cincy Jungle had concluded. The same stories were replaying year after year. The hardworking and dedicated Rebecca Toback took over and this bag of bones was able to relax. Finally.

Free on Sundays, a friend called last year, offering tickets to the regular season opener.

Hell. Yes.

Recall that my last attendance to a regular season game was the brutal 34-6 loss to the San Diego Chargers 16 years ago. Second-year quarterback Drew Brees faced the intimidating Gus Frerotte, while LaDainian Tomlinson, still in his prime, effortlessly demolecularized the morale of Cincinnati’s defense.

That was the last game I attended.

Why not head back to Paul Brown Stadium and replace that nightmare with a more welcoming outcome? Cincinnati wouldn’t look that awful again. Andy Dalton wouldn’t allow it. A.J. Green wouldn’t allow it. Vontaze Burfict shouldn’t allow it, but he was suspended. Not for the Antonio Brown hit. That happened a year prior to this.

I was excited.

Andy Dalton threw three first half interceptions — the other three first half possessions led to four yards, all ending with punts. By halftime, Baltimore was drubbing the Bengals 17-0. Fans were booing and items were thrown at Dalton when he returned to the locker room. Cincinnati turned it over three additional times in the second half, including a turnover on downs. Baltimore added another field goal to win 20-0. Walking through the stadium, I remember tweeting:

Seriously, Bengals. Two games attended in the last 16 years with the Bengals losing both by a combined score of 54-6?

Add in all of the playoff losses.

Yet, I’m hopeful.

Cincinnati’s star power on defense is bright. Their skill players and defensive workhorses have an unreached ceiling. Despite their inexperience, it’s easy to fall in love with their potential. This defensive line might be the best we’ve ever seen. Where will William Jackson rank among his contemporaries in the league?

Maybe this year is a reboot, who can say right now? Perhaps Cincinnati has poured the foundation to resume postseason entries, a sorely-missed streak of playoff qualifications that lasted five consecutive years.

Will they recover this year?

Predictions are lame. Don’t get me wrong, I fault no one for making them; I understand they are a necessity in today’s world, and can be engaging and entertaining.

Yet, predictions are still lame.

It’s difficult enough to predict a game, much less an entire season. Accurate predictions are justifiably based on controlled environments. Football is not that; like all sports, football is an assortment of unpredictable variables and unexpected outcomes. Did you expect the Bengals to lose 20-0 against Baltimore last year? Did you foresee Cincinnati knocking out those same Ravens on New Years eve, with an unexpected 49-yard touchdown reception by the rarely-used Tyler Boyd with 44 seconds remaining in the game?

Nope.

Could the Bengals finish with 12 wins?

Sure. Why not? Opposing quarterbacks sustain injuries, a fumbles bounces our way, a deflection turns into an interception, a defensive lineman slants left instead of right, an official rules a subjective call in our favor.

What happens if A.J. Green sustains a season-ending injury on the first possession against Indianapolis — can someone knock on wood... PLEASE KNOCK ON WOOD?!

What's left? Boyd (76 receptions, 828 yards, 3 touchdowns), Alex Erickson (18, 251, 1), Cody Core (17, 200, 0), and Josh Malone (6, 63, 1) have a combined 117 career receptions for 1,342 yards and five touchdowns. John Ross and Auden Tate have zero receptions and Core is still injured, though on the mend.

Will the young receivers step up?

If you say no, you’re a liar. If you say yes, you’re hopeful. And a liar. You don’t know how these players will respond. Ross might have a breakout season, or he’ll drop a bunch of third down passes and crawl to the finish line. Similarly, Boyd has potential. He’s also served time in the coach’s doghouse. Maybe they become a rebooted version of Chad and T.J. or Marvin Jones and Mohammed Sanu. Or not. Who can say?

Do predictions account for penalties, like pass interference, roughing the passer, and this weird helmet rule, all subjective with human interpretation? If you argue for 10 wins, how, why? Are you legitimately predicting wins or providing a baseline on how they’ll do against teams when these games are played on paper? They’re capable of beating the Colts, Panthers, Browns, Broncos, Raiders, Buccaneers, Chargers, and Dolphins. Traditionally I split the season series against Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and I’m sure the Falcons will be tough in Atlanta.

Let’s go 10 wins.

Is it that easy?

Cool.

Ten wins, division title, and a playoff win.

Competing narratives at the line of scrimmage. Cincinnati is looking to reverse a depressive trend that’s led to consecutive losing seasons. A huge reason is the depletion of talent on the offensive line. Since they finally understood that course correction was a necessary reality, Cincinnati addressed the offensive line.

After replacing Paul Alexander for Frank Pollack — a stunning change — they uncharacteristically completed an offseason trade to bring in Cody Glenn to play left tackle. It was a major concession, or recognition, of their failure with Cedric Ogbuehi — a former first-round pick designed to replace an aging, yet still dominating, Andrew Whitworth. Despite attempts to re-sign Russell Bodine, who left for Buffalo, Cincinnati used its first-round pick on center Billy Price.

Cincinnati’s effort to upgrade the offensive line was designed to:

  1. Give Andy Dalton time to deliver passes to A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, John Ross, Giovani Bernard, Tyler Boyd, Joe Mixon, and Josh Malone. Dalton faced pressure on 170 drop backs last year, taking 38 sacks, completing 45.2 percent of his passes for a passer rating of 75.9. We’re not sure if the offensive line sported inoffensive Nike cleats or roller blades. Conclusively, there was a systemic lack of confidence with their consistency. Bill Lazor evolved his scheme to get the ball out quickly. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Dalton’s “time to throw” (the time it takes for Dalton to receive the snap and throw the football) was 2.48 seconds — third quickest in the NFL last year and up from 2.5 seconds in 2016.
  2. Open lanes for Cincinnati’s impressive roster of running backs. Since 2014, the Bengals rushing offense has declined each season, from 2,147 yards rushing on 492 attempts in 2014, to 1,366 yards on 377 attempts last season, catastrophically resulting in one of the worst performances in franchise history — It should be noted that the Bengals have had losing records and played from behind (factors that lead to depressive rushing efforts) for many years, especially in the 90s. Last year was arguably the worst.

Bengals Rushing Offense in 2017 vs Franchise Worst

RUSHING 2017 RANKING FRANCHISE WORST
RUSHING 2017 RANKING FRANCHISE WORST
RUSHING YARDS 1366 49 949 in 1982 (Strike)
RUSHING YARDS/GAME 85.4 50 85.4 in 2017
RUSHING YARDS/CARRY 3.67 46 3.53 in 1982
RUSHING TDs 6 t-47 3 in 1993

Bobby Hart, signed as a free agent in February, was pooled with a collection of players designed to help Cincinnati find the best combination along the offensive line. While Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher, headliners from the 2015 NFL Draft, start the season in backup roles, Hart is projected as the starting right tackle. Alex Redmond, Christian Westerman, and Trey Hopkins, made the squad but remain on a war footing for long-term roles (Redmond is the starting right guard), while Clint Boling, the team’s veteran anchor on the line, will start on the left.

While the Bengals offensive line looks to improve, Cincinnati’s defensive line could arguably be one of the best groups we’ve ever seen.

Quarterback sacks didn’t become an official statistic until 1982. Despite Eddie Edwards being widely acknowledged as the franchise record holder with 83.5 quarterback sacks, half of them are not recognized by the NFL. Between 1982 and his final season in 1988, Edwards officially has 47.5 sacks.

This means that Carlos Dunlap (64.5) already holds the franchise record for quarterback sacks with Geno Atkins (61.0) on his heels. Both were rewarded with a combined $110.5 million in extensions.

Pass rusher Carl Lawson could be one of the biggest threats facing opposing offenses. Lawson, named to the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team, led all rookies with 8.5 quarterback sacks, beating household names like Myles Garrett (7.0) and T.J. Watt (7.0) (all in the AFC North, interestingly). The second-year player added 59 total pressures last season.

Cincinnati added Sam Hubbard, who ranked second on the team with 10 total pressures during the preseason with two sacks and five defensive stops, during the NFL Draft. Jordan Willis was the only defender with a stronger output as an edge rusher in the preseason, with three sacks and 14 pressures.

Then there’s Andrew Billings, an ideal candidate to become breakout star this year. Pro Football Focus graded Billings as Cincinnati’s second-best defender during the preseason, and their top run stopper. Clogging lanes and obstructing views appears to be a fraction of his abilities; Billings rated as the team’s best pass rusher, with the exception of Geno Atkins, in August — on 25 passing snaps. Billings generated three pressures on the quarterback, including two sacks.

While the offensive line is rebuilding, the defensive front is boasting the most talent since names like Eddie Edwards, Reggie Williams, and Ross Browner dominated the conversation.

Emphasizing a change in turnovers. Dating back to 2008, Cincinnati featured two defensive coordinators who principally used the same system — Mike Zimmer (2008-13) and Paul Guenther (2014-17). Cincinnati’s current defensive coordinator, Teryl Austin, wants to inject a scheme similar to what he ran in Detroit, which focused on turnovers.

“It’s like anything else in coaching: You get what you emphasize. I know for a few years, our first year (with the Lions), we were really good,” Austin said in January. “Then, we kind of fell back a year. We talked about it and tried to emphasize (takeaways). This past offseason, I really dove into making sure we emphasized it more. We ran more takeaway drills, and we kept that going throughout the entire year. I think it paid off, because what our guys saw was tangible results early, and they kept building off of that. And that’s why I think we were able to get as many turnovers as we did this past year.”

Cincinnati’s need to force turnovers is very real. Last year the Bengals ranked 20th in interceptions, with only one defender posting multiple picks, and dead-last in forced fumbles and fumble recoveries. The team ranked 31st in expected turnovers, a new advanced analytic stat from SB Nation. Comparatively, Austin’s defense in Detroit ranked fourth in interceptions (19), eighth in forced fumbles (16), second in fumble recoveries (13) and fifth in expected turnovers last year.

“You only get what you emphasize,” said Austin after OTAs, using the same emphasis to emphasize. “So I think if you emphasize going after the ball every time it’s on the ground and develop a habit in a game you don’t run into that circumstance where you don’t go after the ball. We just have to keep coaching it and eventually it will come to them.”

Cincinnati forced five fumbles and three interceptions during the preseason, including three fumbles that the defense recovered — fourth-most in the NFL and highest for the Bengals since 2012.

Emphasizing turnovers is presumably what forced George Iloka out of Cincinnati. Despite starting 76 games in the prime of his career, Iloka was more comfortable as a big hitter rather than an optimistic centerfielder. Since 2013, he’s forced zero fumbles and recorded multiple interceptions in only two of his six seasons with the Bengals. Much of this had to do with Cincinnati’s confusing configuration after Reggie Nelson left for Oakland. Rather than developing an actual free safety, the Bengals improvised by shifting Iloka, who has the mind of a strong safety, over. Big shots were his identity, not turnovers.

In the meantime, after failing to sign Eric Coleman and then failing to avoid controversy with Eric Reid, the Bengals drafted Jessie Bates in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Bates has the mentality of being a center fielder; a player who drifts toward the ball. It only took a few practices and a handful of preseason games, but his coaches and teammates were convinced.

“I believe in Jessie,” cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said after Iloka’s release. “Just watching the film, he’s popping up. He’s all over the field, making great plays. Saturday night he was all over the field communicating. We were doing some great things and that’s where we’re at right now. That’s what we have to put our trust in and belief in.”

“He’s going to grow and make some mistakes,” Austin said. “He’s going to have some questions and they are going to have some bad plays. It’s going to happen. When you look at his upside and ceiling, I really think he has a chance to be a really good player and help us in terms of turning the ball over and as a field general and getting us lined up. I think he is really bright.”

Bates saw 102 defensive snaps during the preseason — 61 in coverage. Quarterbacks targeted three players he covered and two of those passes were completed for eight yards.

It does seem confusing that Cincinnati would release Iloka rather than having him compete against Williams as a strong safety, or stash him as a backup. Some believe his release was financial, but the Bengals had money to sign Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins to extensions with or without Iloka's salary; a greater financial argument could be made with A.J. Green’s anticipated extension next year. Either way, that money will be banked.

In the meantime, Bates will join names like Madieu Williams and Chinedum Ndukwe as safeties who started multiple games during their respective rookie years. Bates is the first rookie safety to start in Week 1 since Tremain Mack in 1997, and the first-ever during the Marvin Lewis era. He’s even the first defensive rookie to start a Week 1 game — regardless of position — since 2009 when Rey Maualuga did it at linebacker.

It’s time.

The season is here.