The Four Most Important Pieces To The Bengals' Playoff Puzzle
By Joe Sorensen
The Cincinnati Bengals exceeded expectations last season when they reached the playoffs for a second consecutive season for the first time since the 1981-1982 seasons. This year’s expectations appear to be ever higher as their young players continue to grow and develop under coach Marvin Lewis.
Repeat the Dominance
Several groups and individuals were able to dominate the AFC North and the league last season. WR A.J. Green (1,350 receiving yards, 11 touchdowns) leads an offense that did not have many other weapons. He needs to prove that he can repeat last season’s production and show that he can make those around him better. If both Green and QB Andy Dalton can take the next step together, this offense has the potential to be ranked in the top 10.
On the defensive side of the ball, the defensive line needs to bully the league the way they did last season. For a team that recorded a franchise-high 51 sacks, the defensive line accounted for 43 of them. Led by DT Geno Atkins (12.5 sacks) and DE Michael Johnson (11.5), this group needs to continue to be considered one of, if not the, best defensive lines in the NFL. Atkins and DE Carlos Dunlap (six sacks) each received big paydays and their ability to rush the passer was a big reason why.
The Passing Game Needs More Options
Last season, Dalton and Green formed one of the most deadly quarterback-receiver combinations in the league. Other than Green, Dalton did not have many other options. For the majority of the season, all Dalton had was WR Andrew Hawkins (533 yards, four TDs), WR Armon Binns (210 yards, one TD), and Marvin Jones (201 yards, one TD) – none of which proved to be a major threat.
This season, expectations fall on second-year WR Mohamed Sanu, who looked strong in the early parts of last season before it ended due to a foot injury. Before the injury, Sanu caught four TDs and threw a 73-yard TD pass to Green. The former Rutgers star will most likely be the second receiver, hopefully providing Dalton with another option on the outside. Sanu will join Green and TE Jermaine Gresham (737 yards, five TDs) in what needs to be a prolific passing attack this season.
Hopefully, Sanu can continue to evolve and carry the momentum he had before he got hurt. If it’s not Sanu, the production needs to come from the tight ends. Gresham has proven that he is a valuable target down the middle of the field and on short passes. It will also be up to the team’s first-round pick out of Notre Dame, Tyler Eifert, who showed during his time at South Bend that he will catch just about anything he can get his hands on.
James Harrison Needs to Become More Than Just a Pass Rusher
A long-time Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker, Harrison joined the Bengals this offseason to add to their top-ten defense. Harrison – the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year – has always been known for terrorizing quarterbacks. With 64 career sacks in his nine years with the Steelers, Harrison is expected to add to an already-established pass rush.
With a league-high 43 sacks from the defensive line alone, Harrison may need to accept a new role within the defense. The front four showed that a fifth pass rusher is not necessary for the defense to be successful, so Harrison’s biggest contribution may come for a run defense that ranked 12th last season. With only five career interceptions, it is hard to see Harrison making much of an impact in coverage.
The Steelers and Baltimore Ravens Take Step Back
While the Bengals appear destined for a third straight playoff berth, every team would prefer to make things a bit easier on themselves by winning a division crown and guaranteeing themselves at last one home game. For this to happen, the Bengals main competition (Steelers and Baltimore Ravens) each need to take a step back.
Looking at the Steelers, they finished the preseason winless and were far from impressive. Projected starting RB Le’veon Bell is out indefinitely with a foot sprain. Other than Bell, the backfield is filled with a group of complementary backs and no real starters. Even though the offense also lost WR Mike Wallace to the Miami Dolphins, QB Ben Roethlisberger still has a number of targets in the passing game. Defensively, the same solid yet unspectacular core remains that helped the team finish 8-8 last season. If this trend repeats, count the Steelers out again this season.
As for the reigning Super Bowl champions, there are a lot of new pieces and even more question marks for the team. How will the team be without S Ed Reed and LB Ray Lewis? Can WR Torrey Smith replace the production that Anquan Boldin left behind? Will QB Joe Flacco continue where he left off in last season’s playoffs? With all of these questions surrounding the team, it is hard to say if the team will compete for a playoff spot, much less repeat as champs.
While this seems like a lot for the Bengals to ask for, all four are quite possible. However, it will take a lot of production from both sides of the ball to go along with another year of progression from the key players to see the Bengals get past the first round of the postseason for the first time since 1988.