It’s been a long, often-excruciating wait for the NFL’s return. I know I’ve pulled the same damn weed from the azaleas at least a half-dozen times since the 2017 season ended. But, at last, Bengals football—featuring the kudzu that is Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton—is just about back!
The question is, can we avoid a repeat of last season, when the playoffs were essentially lost within the first five days? What should we expect when the campaign gets underway on Sunday in Indianapolis?
In the macro view of things, the Bengals will always be a roughly average team so long as they start Dalton, a roughly average quarterback. We’ve been on the DaltonCoaster for so long we’ve memorized every sudden dip and every corkscrew rise. He can win if the talent around him wins their individual battles and the scheme creates mismatches he can exploit. That’s his strength. His weakness comes when things don’t go as planned, which they seldom seem to do in big games. When the decision was made to run it back with Dalton and Lewis, a concrete ceiling was enacted on the team’s hopes for 2018. For now, the main goal is that they can be better than the last two editions of the team, which won 13 games between them.
Prognosticating the Bengals on offense comes down to a single word: “maybe.” Maybe the offensive line, which was an anchor that submerged the team the last two seasons, will solidify around new left tackle Cordy Glenn and rookie center Billy Price. Maybe John Ross becomes a legit deep threat worthy of the ninth overall pick. Maybe Tyler Eifert actually plays a full season. If the preponderance of maybes pays off, Cincy could certainly be explosive. But they haven’t in the past couple of seasons. An optimist would say the team is due for some good fortune in that department.
The preseason games were tantalizing at times, frustrating at others. The passing attack looked extremely promising, with a multitude of worthy targets, and Dalton was crisp. Yes, it was against some vanilla defensive looks, but at least Andy D. carved them up. On the other hand, the line continued to lack push in the running game, and there is still a gaping talent maw on the right side of the O-line, where Alex Redmond and Bobby Hart are slated to start. Needless to say, there’s plenty of room for improvement.
When the rushing line is iffy, look for screen passes—and the Bengals ran more of those to their backs than any team but New Orleans last year, averaging over 10 yards per attempt. Having Joe Mixon and Gio Bernard, excellent receivers who are begging for running room, around to catch them means we should expect plenty more in the coming season. If defenses are loosened up by having an extreme deep threat (Ross) and a deadly seam threat (Eifert) on the field, not to mention all-around threat A.J. Green, then the Bengals may just have something.
Defensively, matters appear a bit clearer. With the newly rich—or, more accurately, even more rich—Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap safely in the fold and the promising development of Sam Hubbard, Jordan Willis, and Carl Lawson, the team has what should be its best pass rush rotation in some time. The secondary, led by corner William Jackson III, is highly talented, if a bit thin.
What remains to be seen is if the team is stronger against the run than it was a year ago, when the Bengals ranked 29th in Adjusted Line Yards allowed (I’ll be using Football Outsiders metrics all season, so go here for a primer), and if they can at long last cover tight ends and running backs in the passing game. A little bit more scheme diversity from new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin should help with the latter, and tackle Andrew Billings appears to be ready to live up to his enormous promise up front, which should help greatly with the former. The linebackers are, as usual, a combination of “Where’s Vontaze” (the punishing but unreliable Burfict is suspended for the first four games) and praying for improved play from the likes of Jordan Evans. Overall, it’s a unit that may not dominate but should keep the team in most contests.
In 2017 the Bengals forced a mere 14 turnovers, just ahead of Cleveland for dead last in the NFL. The good news is that turnover rates and margins generally are subject to the “plexiglass principle,” meaning they’re likely to bounce back from the extremes. Ending more drives with turnovers (just 7.7% of enemy drives stopped with a turnover last year, 30th in the NFL) will vastly help in multiple areas, and the coaching staff has made this goal a priority in the offseason. Time for rookie safety Jessie Bates to earn his starting role with a few picks and for the D-line to get some strip sacks.
To me the defining defensive play from 2017 came late in the game against Tennessee. Marcus Mariota scrambled away from Dunlap, who raised up and karate chopped the quarterback down. Somehow, Mariota held on to the ball, and the Titans scored shortly afterwards for a last-second win. If that ball squirts free, the Bengals likely win the game. The line between winning and losing in the pros is often that narrow. The fact Cincinnati is due a few more takeaways in 2018 is reason for optimism.
As for special teams, it appears like another season of an accurate kicker (Randy Bullock) who can’t reliably kick 50-yarders and a decent punter (Kevin Huber) who isn’t a Michael Dickson-esque weapon but is sound, particularly in downing punts inside the 20 (he was fifth in the league at that in 2017). The return and gunner units have been weakened over the last couple of years by free agency but appear to have been reinforced.
I say that because perhaps the best thing that’s happened since last season ended is the roster churn. As of the final cuts over the weekend, the Bengals had become the youngest roster in the league (though re-signing Michael Johnson pushed them just behind the Browns), at 25.2 years old. In 2016, Cincy had the 23rd-youngest roster. Lewis has prized “veteran leadership,” which can have benefits for sure, but not when the players are the likes of A.J. Hawk or Brandon LaFell or even Pacman Jones—guys who prevent development of talented players behind them. Lewis promised some things would change when he surprisingly re-signed last winter. Cutting seemingly safe veterans shows it wasn’t just talk, though they just couldn’t quit Johnson.
Of course, being an ultra-young squad will probably have some negative effects, at least in the first half of the season. Dumb mistakes, missed assignments, errors of over-enthusiasm—look for plenty of these while the kids are still learning how to be pros. It’s a fine line for Lewis and the coaches. They need the coltish athleticism of players like Bates, Ross, and Hubbard out on the field, but they’ll be learning on the job and practice time is limited from here on out. One thing the kids hopefully will provide is better stamina, leading to second halves that aren’t total washouts. It’s been an issue in the Lewis Era, and last year’s efforts after halftime were an abomination. A lot of that was on the coaching and the limitations Bill Lazor faced with an offense that wasn’t fully his, but some of that was fitness as well. Younger players and more depth should help fill the void.
Over at Football Outsiders, we’ve projected the Bengals to be just what you’d expect: average, with DVOA, our efficiency metric, hovering around 0.0% in all three phases of the game and a mean win total of 7.1. Unfortunately, the schedule projects to be tough, with cyclical bouts with the rugged NFC South and tricky AFC West on tap this season. The opener at Indy will be crucial, which isn’t usually the case with game one. Lose, and then the game with Baltimore five days later sets up a similar dynamic to 2017, when two quick losses put the Bengals behind the eight ball while it was still hot and humid outside. If Cincinnati can reverse last year’s action and get off to a quick 2-0 start, the season should stay interesting all the way to December, when the team closes with three out of the last four on the road.
It says here the Bengals exceed the expectations of the likes of Sports Illustrated (which predicts a 4-12 season) and Las Vegas (a win over/under total of just 6.5) and contends for the postseason in the wide open AFC. Indeed, the team could well be 9-6 when they travel to Pittsburgh for the finale, a playoff berth on the line.
Robert Weintraub is a Fulcher 2 Stay contributor and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. He is also the author of three books. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.