Cincinnati Bengals: Why Last Year's Surprise Season Will Become Consistent

Kyle NewportFeatured ColumnistJune 27, 2012

Cincinnati Bengals: Why Last Year's Surprise Season Will Become Consistent

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    A year after sneaking up on the AFC North and the rest of the NFL, the Cincinnati Bengals will try to have consecutive winning seasons for the first time in 30 years.

    Entering 2005, the team had not made the playoffs in 15 years. Since then, they have made the postseason three times. With two division titles and a Wild Card berth in that span, they are still looking for their first playoff win in 22 years.

    In 2006, they followed up the previous year's winning record with a record of 8-8. Carson Palmer was coming off an ugly knee injury against the Steelers in the playoffs, but he managed to lead his team to a .500 season. 

    Fresh off winning the 2009 division title, Cincinnati signed Terrell Owens to pair up with Chad Ochocinco, two of the best wide receivers of their generation. In what I would call the most disappointing season in franchise history, the Bengals started 2-1 but lost 11 of their next 14 games.   

    Although the Bengals are known for being dysfunctional as an organization, they actually have been a good team in recent years.

    Even though history is against them, Cincinnati will continue to contend in the AFC North.

Consistent Coaching Staff

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    Even as his future with the Bengals is uncertain, head coach Marvin Lewis has been able to keep two highly coveted coordinators on his staff.

    Since taking over as head coach in 2003, Lewis has had his ups and downs in Cincinnati. His 69-77-1 record may not warrant keeping him around for the last nine seasons, but he has been able to handle numerous situations during his tenure. 

    While they used to have frequent run-ins with the law, Lewis started cracking down on his players. The organization started signing players with prior arrests and hoped they did not have issues while playing with the team. 

    When two members of their organization lost their lives during the Bengals' surprise 2009 season, Lewis kept the team focused and won the AFC North. The team faced a difficult task, and the rest of the season did not end the way they had hoped. 

    Last season's Carson Palmer situation could have torn this team apart. Instead, Lewis made it clear the team was moving on and led the team to a shocking playoff berth.

    Say what you want about him during a game, but Lewis has done a good job under some unique circumstances. In an organization that does not have a general manager, Lewis works with owner Mike Brown on personnel decisions.

    Now that Cincinnati is turning into a successful NFL franchise, they have to deal with other teams trying to take members of their coaching staff. 

    Arguably the most coveted coordinator in the NFL per Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk, Mike Zimmer has led the Bengals' defense to become one of the best in the league. After having the fourth-best defense in the NFL in 2009, Zimmer signed a three-year extension to stay with the team.

    He has been able to make his defensive schemes work without having a star on defense. Returning to the team for another season, Zimmer now needs to keep his defense playing at a high level.

    Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was also considered for vacant head coaching positions, according to an article by Gregg Rosenthal on Pro Football Talk. There was very little pressure on him last season because of the youth movement, and he exceeded expectations.

    A full offseason should help Gruden add to his offense, so the Bengals could see a more consistent offense next season.

    Entering the final season of his contract, Lewis does not know if he will be the head coach much longer (via Cincinnati.com). Consecutive winning seasons would go a long way to help Lewis secure an extension.

Dynamic Offense

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    The young Cincinnati offense enters its second season under Gruden's command, and they have the ability to make progress in 2012.

    Quarterback Andy Dalton exceeded expectations and led the team to a 9-7 record. But in his second season, he needs to grow as a passer.

    After completing only 58.1 percent of his passes, he has room to improve as he gains experience in Gruden's offense. Now that he has postseason experience, he has learned what it takes to win in this league.

    As the season went on, he took better care of the football. After throwing 12 interceptions in the first 10 games, he only threw one pick in the final six games of the regular season. He looked overwhelmed in his first postseason start, and he threw three interceptions in a loss to the Houston Texans.

    According to Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk, after Gruden went on the record of saying he is not concerned with Dalton's arm strength, the young quarterback should see a playbook to fit his skill set. 

    Wide receiver A.J. Green also enters his second year in the league, so Cincinnati has a bright future with these young stars. In a spectacular rookie season, Green hauled in seven touchdowns to go with 1,057 receiving yards. Dalton and Green developed chemistry quickly, and Green has the ability to go up and get anything around him.

    Their young QB-WR duo made the Pro Bowl last season, and another season together will lead a better offense. 

    Tight end Jermaine Gresham also made the Pro Bowl last season, so Cincinnati's offense is loaded with young playmakers.

    Jordan Shipley, Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones and Brandon Tate are all question marks at the receiver position. Production from these players would give the Bengals a dangerous offense.

    When the team decided to replace Cedric Benson in the backfield, they signed running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis and drafted Dan "Boom" Herron.

    In only 181 carries last season, Green-Ellis rushed for 667 yards and 11 touchdowns in New England. Although he only averaged 3.7 yards per carry, he has yet to fumble in his NFL career. He ran for over 1,000 yards in 2010, but he did not get many opportunities to carry the football last season. 

    Herron will complement Bernard Scott as a change-of-pace back. They are both capable of coming out of the backfield and catching passes. While Dalton grows as a passer, the Bengals could use their backfield to be productive.

Underrated Defense

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    Having lost their best player in free agency, the Cincinnati defense came together as a unit in 2011. 

    Fresh off of signing an extension, cornerback Leon Hall played at a high level until tearing his Achilles tendon against Pittsburgh. Injuries made it difficult for the Bengals to consistently play as a whole, but their replacements filled in nicely.

    Newcomer Nate Clements played very well in his first season with the team, but it did not have much depth behind its top two corners. Adam "Pacman" Jones returns from injury this season, so he should play a bigger role on defense.

    On a defense that ranked seventh in the NFL in yards allowed per game, the team made upgrades in the offseason.

    In the 2012 NFL draft, they selected cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick at No. 17. To further upgrade their depth at cornerback, Cincinnati signed Terence Newman and Jason Allen in free agency.  

    While their cornerback unit is one of the deepest in the league, the rest of their defense gave their opposition nightmares. Their defensive line uses a deep rotation, and they tend to use fresh bodies against tired offensive lines. 

    Allowing only 20.2 points per contest, the Bengals managed to stay in games with their defense. 

    With Zimmer calling the shots on defense, this unit will continue to perform at an elite level.

Aging Defenses in AFC North

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    While the Bengals have one of the youngest defenses in the NFL, the AFC North has two of the oldest defenses in the league.

    For years, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have had defenses that have ranked among the league's best. In 2011, both teams ranked in the top third of the league in oldest defenses, per Mike Sando of ESPN.com.

    With defensive end Aaron Smith and linebacker James Farrior not returning in Pittsburgh, the defense got younger. But by doing so, they got rid of players who provided leadership.

    Injuries and suspensions also hurt Pittsburgh's defense, so age is not the only thing against them. James Harrison is an aggressive player, and he risks suspensions with his style of play. When Troy Polamalu suffers an injury, this defense struggles. After two seasons of battling injuries, he managed to stay healthy last season.

    In Baltimore, the Ravens have to deal with aging veterans and nagging injuries. On a defense with arguably two of the greatest players at their positions, they are seeing their window of opportunity closing.

    When the team was eliminated by New England in the AFC Championship, questions arose about the future of their stars on defense.

    According to Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com, it is still unknown if Ed Reed will play this season, but injuries have plagued him as of late. Whether or not the 33-year-old safety plays, the Ravens' window appears to be closing as well. 

    Linebacker Ray Lewis dealt with injuries last season, and his time in the league may be coming to an end. He is one of the best linebackers the game has seen, but age is starting to become a factor.

    Perhaps the biggest reason for concern is the loss of Terrell Suggs. The 2011 Defensive Player of the Year tore his Achilles tendon in the offseason and will likely miss most of the season, according to USA Today.

    Am I doubting these defenses? No.

    Both teams draft very well on defense, especially Baltimore. Rookie Courtney Upshaw will try to replace Suggs, but they should not put pressure on him to do too much.

    Cleveland has a nice young defense, but they have too many issues on offense to put them in a conversation with the rest of the division. With three AFC North teams making the playoffs last season, the Browns have a lot of work to do to catch up to their division rivals.

    Age is starting to become an issue for both teams, and Cincinnati's young defense could become the best in the division in the near future.