The Cincinnati Bengals once again have some adversity to get over early in the season, the most obvious of which is proving they are in fact a contender after surprising everybody last year. To do that, they will have to yet again overcome some questions, but that isn’t anything new for these young Bengals.
The biggest news from Cincinnati’s training camp was quarterback Joe Burrow’s appendix bursting prior to camp starting. He was finally able to get back on the field right before the first preseason game, but he missed a huge chunk of practice time.
This isn’t anything new for the face of the Bengals. When he was drafted in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic gave him a virtual offseason to adjust from college to the NFL. Then his second training camp was spent finishing a miraculous rehab from an ACL injury he suffered in October. Now he will be putting on weight just in time for the season as the first quarterback to take the Bengals to the Super Bowl since Boomer Esiason.
What may be more concerning for the upcoming season is how little all the starting offensive line has been able to play together. Offensive tackle La’el Collins missed most of camp with a lingering back issue. Alex Cappa also missed time to start camp. We may see some pretty rough patches in the first couple of weeks as these guys get used to in-game action with each other. Jackson Carman still looked like a liability this preseason, and lost his spot to rookie guard Cordell Volson. That means the starting five offensive linemen will have never started a regular-season game next to each other.
There was also the lingering holdout from safety Jessie Bates, which he ended on Aug. 24. He did miss out on the risk of injury during training camp, but still receives $12.9 million guaranteed for the 2022 season. While sitting out, he remained in contact with rookie Daxton Hill and even went to the Bengals’ first preseason game to watch, so it all appeared to be business separating Bates from the field, and that’s now apparently resolved.
What can we expect from the Bengals given all these issues?
It seems strange to say we can expect an even better season than 2021, but hear me out.
People love to point out how bad the offensive line was for Cincinnati last year. It is a true statement, but what gets left out is how good this offense was despite that offensive line. Burrow and the passing game were one of the best in the NFL with stretching the field.
The biggest difference I think we will see is in the running game. Offensive line coach Frank Pollack’s return last season resulted in Joe Mixon having his best year. The running back had career highs in rushing yards (1,205), receiving yards (314), total yards (1,519) and total touchdowns (16). He did this despite constantly having to make defenders miss in the backfield or having the offensive line pushed into his lap. Imagine what he will be able to accomplish with a competent offensive line.
Mixon having a bigger year also means a more consistent offensive attack. As mentioned, Cincinnati had an incredible deep passing game, but they often struggled to sustain drives consistently. If Mixon is able to keep this offense on schedule rather than having to overcome third down-and-long so frequently, it makes a world of difference. That will only get better as the offensive line gels.
We also can’t ignore how big the defense was to Cincinnati last season. This defense honestly didn’t get the attention it deserved, to the point everyone said Derrick Henry was going to run wild all over them in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. He ended with 20 attempts for only 62 yards.
It is understandable that people are more infatuated with Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase creating these bonkers highlights together again. However, this defense needs to get the respect it deserves. Twice, they shut down a Kansas City Chiefs offense completely in the second half to allow the Bengals offense to make a comeback. They are able to get consistent pressure on the quarterback while also running coverages that are confuse quarterbacks and keep offenses off balance.
Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo isn’t afraid to drop his defensive ends into zones that the quarterback expects to be open prior to the snap. Taking away that easy read often gave the blitz from the other side enough time to get to the quarterback.
Hill will also be a quality addition to a defense that loves to rotate personnel in to dictate how they will attack the offense. His speed makes him a nice addition in coverage, but also a sneaky blitzer when called on. He is added to a defensive back group that was a great room of free agents coming together last season. Chidobe Awuzie had the best season of his career after injuries had plagued him in Dallas. Mike Hilton added a bit of an attitude this defense desperately needed, as well as being a very good addition as a slot corner. Eli Apple was also surprisingly reliable most of the year.
The front seven is also filled with incredible depth behind their star players. Trey Hendrickson proved he was for real with 14 sacks last season, and D.J. Reader has to be the most underrated defensive lineman with how well he stuffs the run. Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt lead the linebacking group. All of those guys have several players who can rotate in to fill any number of roles as well, which gives this defense amazing diversity.
Currently, DraftKings has the Bengals’ total wins over/under at 10 for the season. The way things are set currently, I have a hard time believing Cincinnati doesn’t win 10 games. After all, they won 10 games last season when they were a very up-and-down team. We should see a more consistent product on the field from the offense, and these young players learned how to avoid letdowns later in the season.
It is true that they will likely get every team’s best shot this year, as beating the reigning AFC Champions would be a great feather in the cap of even a team having a bad year. I think this team cruises to at the very least 12 wins if they avoid any major injuries to any prominent players.
The Bengals are also fortunate to only play the Chiefs, Buffalo Bills and Tampa Bay Buccaneers as contenders from outside the division. The Baltimore Ravens should also give the Bengals two good games, but even if they only come out of those games winning three of the five, 11 or 12 wins is still very much on the table.