By Cian Fahey
After breaking down the Baltimore Ravens yesterday, today it is the turn of the Cincinnati Bengals as I try to determine which team will be the greatest obstacle for the Pittsburgh Steelers to overcome during the 2012 Regular Season.
Last season: 9-7. Third in the division.
Rankings: 18th in scoring offense. 9th in scoring defense.
Head Coach and Notable Coaches: Marvin Lewis, Jay Gruden, Mike Zimmer.
At this stage, Lewis is about as close to a consistent for the Bengals as Dick LeBeau is for the Steelers. By that I mean that everybody knows what to expect from Lewis. This year will be quite interesting for Zimmer and Gruden however.
Gruden is considered one of the most exciting young coaching prospects in the NFL after his work with Andy Dalton last year. Nobody is overlooking the fact that Dalton is entering his second season with the threat of a slump after a stellar rookie season, but nobody is taking notice of the potential question marks over Gruden\’s head also. Just like Dalton, Gruden was a rookie offensive coordinator last year. We always question the consistency of players, but coaches are often presumed to be constants. That ideal is insane because coaches carry the human element also.
On the defensive side of the ball, Zimmer has proven that he can excel with limited talent in the past. However, Zimmer arguably has more talent his year than at any other time since being appointed to his current position with the Bengals in 2008. One would presume that more talent equals greater performances. Those presumptions are inaccurate as handling different personnel is always an issue and different coaching styles exist. Zimmer has to incorporate a lot of new faces in his defensive packages even though the starters will all return from last year.
Dalton and A.J. Green will be the talk of the Bengals entering the season as everyone ponders whether they can eclipse, or simply match, last season\’s performances. Green is phenomenally talented and plays at a position that he appears to already have grasped the nuances of. As a quarterback however, Dalton will face new challenges next year as teams look to test his complete understanding of the game even more.
At the very least, Dalton will have a consistent running game and excellent offensive line in front of him. Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith can make a credible claim to being the two best tackle teammates in the league, now that Eric Winston is gone from Houston that title is up for grabs. While Travelle Wharton and Kevin Zeitler should be upgrades over the departed Nate Livings, Mike McGlynn and Bobbie Williams.
Zeitler will be the name Steelers fans know, as the Bengals passed on drafting David DeCastro for him with a trade, but Wharton will be a bigger impact. Wharton is a two-way guard. He doesn\’t excel at either pass or run blocking, but is above average at both. His addition was very telling for the Bengals\’ offensive ideology overall.
The Bengals appear to be trying to imitate the New England Patriots\’ matchup offense by forcing defenses to show their hands with matchups. Drafting Orson Charles to go with Jermaine Gresham is supposed to act as a dual threat the way Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski do in New England. Of course nobody expects them to be as productive, but they could have a similar impact on opposing defense\’s formations by dictating what package they play.
Adding BenJarvus Green-Ellis from the Patriots was more of a coincidence than any scheme stealing strategy. Green-Ellis will be an instant improvement over Cedric Benson but won\’t be scaring anyone with his explosion. He and Bernard Scott will form a capable backfield.
The most underrated issue for the Bengals is finding that second receiver. Jordan Shipley/Andrew Hawkins should be a consistent slot receiver, but one of Armon Binns, Brandon Tate, Mohamed Sanu or Marvin Jones needs to step up.
Greatest effect on the Steelers\’ defense:
The Bengals offense is going to give the Steelers some issues next year. That\’s not to say that they will score a lot of points, but they will get tough games both in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Green showed how devastating he could be last year no matter what cornerback was covering him, while Gresham is going to be a difficult matchup once again.
Looking to run over the Steelers with their big offensive line will be the likely avenue that the Bengals will explore. That journey could prove dividends in Cincinnati as Casey Hampton likely won\’t be at 100 percent by Week 7. However, the Steelers\’ defensive line may have a bleaker than normal outlook this year, teams still shouldn\’t be able to consistently run over them.
The key for the Steelers will be if a second receiver steps up. Doubling Green is always a good decision, it\’s a much easier decision to make if there are less threats spread across the field.
Losing Leon Hall was a major blow to the Bengals defense last year. Hall is expected to return this season, but he still needs to prove that he has fully recovered from a devastating Achilles injury. Tearing your Achilles can be very damaging for a cornerback considering the type of movement they are consistently doing.
The Bengals have made many additions to their secondary to provide quality depth and capable starters. Nate Clements is fighting for his starting place with first round pick Dre Kirkpatrick, while Terence Newman could prosper playing as the nickel back. The possibility is there for Newman to move to safety which has been a weakness for the Bengals in recent years. With Jason Allen and Brandon Ghee also playing cornerback, the Bengals have a lot of flexibility in their secondary. Safety George Iloka is a rookie with relatively high expectations.
Keith Rivers was traded to the New York Giants this off-season, but the Bengals are losing very little with Thomas Howard, Manny Lawson and Rey Maualuga as their linebackers. None are major impact players in the form of a LaMarr Woodley or DeMarcus Ware, but each are reliable run stuffers and competent in coverage.
In past years, the Bengals have had strong defensive linemen, but haven\’t had overwhelming size. This year they addressed that through the draft adding Devon Still and, in particular, Brandon Thompson. Adding those two to Pat Sims, Geno Atkins and Domata Peko gives the Bengals a very deep rotation on the interior of their line. Dealing with Atkins is going to be the biggest problem for the Steelers.
The one thing that the Bengals may really regret is not adding a star pass rusher. Robert Geathers and Michael Johnson are joined by Jamaal Anderson and Derrick Harvey now, but unless Carlos Dunlap has a big year, rushing the passer could be a major problem for the Bengals. At least from the edge.
Greatest effect on the Steelers\’ defense:
The edge rush may not be there to test the Steelers\’ tackles, but the rookie DeCastro, as well as (rookie) guard Willie Colon, will face a baptism of fire trying to handle Atkins. Some will tell you that Atkins is the best interior pass rusher in the NFL. That may not be true, but he is certainly up there and played to an all-pro level last year.
While the Ravens have one of the strongest starting secondaries in the NFL, the Bengals may have one of the deepest with their off-season additions. None of the new faces are superstars, although Kirkpatrick may be in time, but they are all playing lower on the depth chart than they are accustomed to. Covering third and fourth receivers, and potentially getting help, could really get the best out of Newman in particular.
Considering each of those corners, outside of Jason Allen, are ferocious tacklers (relative to the position) the Steelers won\’t be able to spread out the defense and run over them with Isaac Redman either. The Bengals have one clear weakness and it is at safety. Todd Haley will need to use the speed of Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace to try and hit deep balls over the middle as a result.
The Bengals have built a defense on the rise, but they are already set to perform to a high level.
Playing in the AFC North means playing in one of the toughest, most talented divisions in football. The one clear advantage the Steelers have over both teams is a greater experience and less ambiguity. They may be replacing key veterans like James Farrior and Hines Ward, but they are replacing those players with guys like Jerricho Cotchery and Larry Foote, not a Pernell McPhee or Kirkpatrick.
Still, there is no clear favorite in the division.
For most teams that is not a problem, for the Steelers that\’s probably a good thing considering how they have played down to lesser opposition during the Mike Tomlin era.
Follow Cian on Twitter at @Cianaf