Another season of so near and yet so far in Cincinnati, as the Bengals reached the playoffs on the back of an 11-5 record and the AFC North title. But for the third consecutive season they lost at the first time of asking in the Wild card round, leading to more questions being raised regarding the long-term future of quarterback Andy Dalton. The consistent success of the team has had a knock on effect for the 2014 season as both coordinators have left for pastures new; Jay Gruden to Washington and Mike Zimmer to Minnesota. The Bengals need to find a way to go deeper into the postseason in 2014 to appease their critics, but in a tough division with improving Ravens and Steelers teams this will be much easier said than done.
Dalton put up some solid numbers and yet still flatters to deceive in the big games. His rating of 88.8 came off the back of 4293 yards and a 33-20 touchdown to interception ratio. Yet in the playoffs his rating dropped to 67, adding to the critics’ momentum. On the ground BenJarvus Green-Ellis (with 756 yards) and rookie Giovani Bernard (with 695) effectively shared the duties and combined for 12 scores. Whether one of the two takes on a more senior role will be an interesting sub plot to the 2014 campaign. A.J.Green was once again the stand out performer amongst receivers, with 98 catches for 1426 yards and 11 scores. Marvin Jones recorded 51 catches for 712 yards and 10 scores of his own. Both Green and Dalton would benefit from an addition to the receiving corps to remove the focus of opposing defences from this combination.
Mike Zimmer’s defence once again ranked among the best in the NFL; coming in fifth in terms of points allowed (19.1 per game) and third in yardage allowed (305.5 per game). Vontaze Burlfict lead the way with an incredible 171 tackles, three scaks and an interception, whilst Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry each recorded 7.5 sacks and Geno Atkins chipped in with six of his own. Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick both recorded three picks to lead the team. With Michael Johnson, rated as amongst the best in his position by Pro Football Focus in 2013, off to pastures new in Tampa and Zimmer himself in Minnesota the challenge is on to maintain the standards that have been set and ensure that the 2014 vintage remains among the best units in the NFL.
Brandon Tate took on returning duties, averaging 26.1 yards per kick-off return and 9.3 on punts. Mike Nugent hit 18 of 22 Field Goals and Kevin Huber a NET 40.5 yards per punt. Nugent will look to improve on his accuracy from less than 50 yards next season.
Marv Lewis will enter his 12th season in charge of the Bengals in 2014 without his two trusted lieutenants in Gruden and Zimmer and how he and the players respond to the change of atmosphere will shape how the 2014 campaign develops in Cincinnati. The Bengals need to push on to the next level and whether or not Lewis and his new team is able to provide that progress will ultimately help decide if he is still in a job for 2015.
DRAFT/FREE AGENCY NEEDS
The loss of Johnson is a big one and will need to be filled via the draft as the team was unable to add that type of playmaker through Free Agency. Offensive Lineman Anthony Collins is also off to Tampa Bay meaning that there is a hole to be filled there too, despite the retention of Mike Pollak. Brandon Ghee’s arrival from the Chargers helps to strengthen the secondary and Andrew Hawkins (from Cleveland) may provide the extra weapon in the passing game that Dalton needs. Vincent Rey’s resigning ensures some continuity at linebacker and he will be looking to play a larger role in 2014.
The Bengals face tough competition in their division and will be looking to the draft to both fill needs and pick up impact players that could make the difference in a traditionally tight and hard fought campaign. Hawkins’ arrival could ensure that the initial focus is on the offensive line and at defensive end, although later picks could look at trying to pick up playmakers in the secondary and at wide receiver. Time will tell if the Bengals are able to make that next step but an important campaign lies ahead of them in terms of their future direction, especially with Dalton in a contract year…