- 2012 Record: 10-6 (2nd in AFC North, lost AFC Wild-Card Game to Houston)
- 2012 Point Differential: +71 (10th out of 32)
- 2012 Strength of Schedule (per PFR’s SRS system): -2.4 (31st)
- 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 4.70 (20th)
- 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.76 (13th)
- 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 4.93 (16th)
- 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.95 (20th)
2013 Predictive Yards per Play Offensive Projection: 335.75 points
2013 Predictive Yards per Play Defensive Projection: 334.04 points
The Bengals are one of only eight teams that have made the playoffs each of the past two seasons, but their runs have been by far the most nondescript of each season. They’ve used easier-than-average schedules to make up for an average offense and an average defense. They have generally beaten the teams they’re supposed to beat and lost to the teams they’ve supposed to lose to. And they’ve earned the final Wild-Card slot in the AFC the past two years and have also been the first team eliminated each year, both times at the hands of the Houston Texans (a franchise themselves that is only slightly higher-profile than the Bengals).
Not much about the team has changed since 2011 when the team jettisoned Carson Palmer and installed second-round draft pick Andy Dalton as their new starting quarterback and not a whole lot changed in the offseason. The Bengals parted ways with some of the aging members of their secondary, brought in 35-year-old James Harrison to see if a change of scenery would hook him up to the 2008 rejuvenation machine (hey, when you’re the Bengals, you only get so many chances to stick it to the Steelers) and drafted Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert to give Dalton another weapon in the passing game.
Other than that: same old, same old. Cincinnati is betting on a third-year leap from Dalton, continued brilliance from his top receiver A.J. Green and a full season of the relative domination their defense unleashed on the league in the second half of the season. The middle proposition is the easiest to see occurring in 2013 – Green’s in the conversation for the Best Wide Receiver Not Named Calvin Johnson debate and has remained healthy to this point, only missing one game in his first two seasons due to injury (cue to Bengals fans furiously knocking on wood).
It’s the other two aspects of Cincinnati’s grand master plan that seem a little shaky. First off, it’s tough to say that a defense that finished 13th overall in Predictive Yards per Play was really that dominant. Yes, other than the season finale against Baltimore where both teams played scrubs for virtually the entire game, the Bengals didn’t give up more than 318 yards in any game in the second half and forced two or more turnovers in five games. It’s important to note the offenses they went up against in this span, however. The Giants and Cowboys both had legitimate offenses; Kansas City, San Diego, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh did not and the best way you could describe Oakland’s offensive attack last year was “meh.”
So a weak strength of schedule brings the Bengals defense down a peg. And so does their performance in the first three games of the season, where Joe Flacco, Robert Griffin III and Brandon Weeden – yes, Brandon Weeden – all took turns torching the Cincinnati secondary. Through the first three weeks last season, it really looked like the Bengals might be in the running for worst defense in the league. They obviously rebounded quite well, but let’s not forget those three games happened, either.
Will Harrison’s arrival make any big difference to Cincinnati’s defense in 2013? Probably not. Harrison posted only six sacks last year for Pittsburgh and has missed at least three games each of the past two seasons. Plus, it’s not like he’s suddenly going to find any extra athleticism now that he’s hit age 35.
Additionally, rushing the passer was actually the strong point of the Bengals defense last season. Geno Atkins racked up 12.5 sacks from his defensive tackle position and is generally considered the best 4-3 tackle currently playing. Defensive end Michael Johnson picked up 11.5 more and as a team, the Bengals got 51 for the season and posted a sack rate of 8.3%, ranking behind only St. Louis and Denver.
Really, if the Bengals were looking to make upgrades on their defense, the secondary would be the obvious place to look because any defense that’s counting on significant contributions from both Terence Newman and Pacman Jones for a second year in a row is looking for problems. 2012’s first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick continues to fight knee injuries into training camp and top corner Leon Hall, though solid, hasn’t been able to fill Johnathan Joseph’s role as shutdown corner since Joseph’s departure to Houston in 2011.
And then there’s the quarterback. Dalton currently owns a pair of pretty awesome nicknames (Red Rifle and Shawshank) that aren’t exactly befitting one of the NFL’s middle-class-at-best quarterbacks. Dalton reads coverage well and knows where to get the ball to out of the shotgun in spread formations. His accuracy is solid on short-to-intermediate throws, especially between the numbers. And he also knows that A.J. Green is really effing good and can generally get the ball in his area code so Green can come up with spectacular plays.
Two full seasons into his career, though, it’s a stretch to say Dalton will ever develop into an above-average starter in the NFL, let alone an annual Pro Bowler. His tendency to stare down receivers could fade away with more experience and it’s possible that with enough practice he’ll eventually get to the point where he stops overthrowing deep receivers by ten yards on every streak route. His popgun arm strength isn’t going to magically get better at this point, though, unless he’s able to work some visits into the Biogenesis lab into his schedule and most quarterbacks who come into the NFL with poor pocket presence wind up leaving the NFL with poor pocket presence.
Offensive coordinator Jay “THIS GUY” Gruden does an excellent job scheming around his quarterback’s limitations and the Bengals have enough talent surrounding Dalton to score points. But to boost the Bengals from yearly Wild-Card hopefuls to serious AFC North contenders, Dalton has to avoid stretches like he suffered through in December. The Bengals went 4-1 in December thanks to their defense’s excellence, but Dalton mustered only three touchdowns against five interceptions, got sacked 20 times and averaged only 4.7 net yards per attempt – a figure that would have been the worst in the league if he had maintained that over an entire season.
Now, obviously, if Dalton had actually played that poorly for even half the year, he wouldn’t have been around to see the whole season through. He did have bright spots and he did have good games and he had enough three-touchdown games to give the Bengals hope for the future. However, the fact remains that rather than improve on his solid rookie season, if anything Dalton took a step back in 2012. That doesn’t mean he’ll necessarily take another career-killing step back this season – but it doesn’t exactly augur hope that he’s the team’s legitimate quarterback of the future.
The Bengals will hang around in games this season and in the AFC playoff picture in December because that’s what teams with an average offense, average defense and average head coach do: they effectively loiter around the waiting room that is the American Football Conference until a team that’s actually good notices they’re still there and kicks them back out into the street where they belong. The last two years, being the unremarkable plebeian has been good enough to get the Bengals a Wild-Card spot and it may very well be good enough this year, too. But if 2013 ends up the same as 2011 and ’12, Cincinnati would be wise to shake things up a bit. Because while sustained mediocrity can be an effective means towards achieving respectability, it does little to no good in helping a team actually contend for a Super Bowl,
|PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg.||2012 Consistency Index||Ball Control %||Projected Strength of Schedule||Projected Points Scored|
2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: FB Brian Leonard
Notable 2013 offseason additions: RB Giovanni Bernard, TE Tyler Eifert, C Mike Pollak
Eifert was almost universally considered the best tight end prospect in the draft and his arrival should mean a whole lot more two tight-end sets pairing Eifert with the Bengals’ second-best receiver, Jermaine Gresham. Dalton’s usually more effective throwing to the middle of the field and having another big, talented target to throw to in that area should help him out considerably. So if you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic about Dalton’s 2013 chances, that’s a pretty good one…Second-round pick Bernard adds to an already deep backfield headed by the Law Firm (i.e. BenJarvus Green-Ellis), Cedric Peerman and Bernard Scott. Green-Ellis is the four-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust guy, Peerman’s the shifty scat back who averaged over seven yards per carry last year, Scott’s one of the better third-down backs in the league when he’s healthy (which he wasn’t last year) and Bernard’s probably the most-talented of all four. Both Peerman and Scott are both on the Physically-Unable-to-Perform list, meaning Bernard may get a chance to start early…The Bengals gave up 46 sacks last year, but watching some of their games on tape it’s apparent the biggest issue was Dalton’s refusal to get rid of the ball rather than inherent issues on the offensive line. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth was particularly impressive and made the Pro Bowl for the first time…
|PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg.||2012 Consistency Index||Ball Control %||Projected Strength of Schedule||Projected Points Allowed|
2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: OLB Manny Lawson, CB Nate Clements, S Chris Crocker
Notable 2013 offseason additions: DE Margus Hunt, OLB James Harrison, S Shawn Williams
Atkins ranked #1 in Advanced NFL Stats’s Expected Points Added metric for defensive tackles last year and he only turned 25 in March. In addition to his 12.5 sacks, Atkins also registered 20 quarterback hits, three forced fumbles and 18 tackles for a loss. There isn’t defensive lineman on the planet who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as J.J. Watt right now, but Atkins can stake a genuine claim to being among the best of the rest…Harrison joins Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict as the Bengals’ starting linebacking corps that’s got some pretty big question marks sitting next to it. You know about Harrison’s age already, but he still could be the best of the group by the end of the season. When opposing quarterbacks targeted players Maualuga was covering last year, they averaged 8.4 yards per attempt and had a passer rating of 109.5. Almost makes you think he shouldn’t be in on passing downs. And Burfict played well in his rookie season last year, but is just two years removed from playing terribly in his last season at Arizona State and subsequently blaming everyone but himself for that sub par year. Maybe he really turned a corner in his first season with the Bengals, but cautious optimism is probably what’s called for in this instance…
|1||September 8||@||Chicago Bears|
|2||September 16||Pittsburgh Steelers|
|3||September 22||Green Bay Packers|
|4||September 29||@||Cleveland Browns|
|5||October 6||New England Patriots|
|6||October 13||@||Buffalo Bills|
|7||October 20||@||Detroit Lions|
|8||October 27||New York Jets|
|9||October 31||@||Miami Dolphins|
|10||November 10||@||Baltimore Ravens|
|11||November 17||Cleveland Browns|
|13||December 1||@||San Diego Chargers|
|14||December 8||Indianapolis Colts|
|15||December 15||@||Pittsburgh Steelers|
|16||December 22||Minnesota Vikings|
|17||December 29||Baltimore Ravens|
2013 Projected Strength of Schedule: -0.59 points per game harder than average (19th-toughest)
Somewhat surprisingly, the Bengals didn’t ask Josh Brown to return after he went 11-for-12 on field goals in the wake of Mike Nugent’s season-ending calf injury. Nugent, a career 81% kicker who has never made more than 87% of his kicks in a single season, reclaims the position for the start of 2013…Kevin Huber had the fourth-highest net punting average in the league last year and the Bengals’ coverage units were excellent, only allowing 7.8 yards per return. Otherwise, as you might expect, Cincinnati’s special teams were wholly unremarkable…Outside of their game against the Browns (and even then, remember the Bengals lost in Cleveland last year), the first five weeks of the Bengals schedule don’t look particularly fun, with the Steelers, Packers and Patriots all coming to visit Paul Brown Stadium. Once you hit mid-October, though, there’s nothing that looks too arduous.
2013 Predictive Yards per Play Wins Projection: 8.0 wins (3rd in AFC North)
The defense feasts off another easy slate of offenses, but Dalton establishes that he does in fact have a low ceiling and the Bengals are left fighting for the last AFC wild-card spot late in the season as usual.
2013 Subjective Prediction: 7-9 (4th in AFC North)
Sooner or later, mediocre teams wind up with mediocre records.