The Cincinnati Bengals have worked long and hard to improve the offense over the past several drafts, landing both a franchise quarterback and a franchise wide receiver. Throw in a tight end and several offensive linemen who are poised on the edge of stardom, it’s safe to say that the Bengals should have one of the better offenses in the league during the upcoming season.
But the Bengals cannot—and will not—win in 2012 based on its offense along. With a schedule loaded with franchise quarterbacks, the defense, led by coordinator Mike Zimmer, will be the key for Cincinnati this season.
Both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens have made their reputations on defense. And while both will still be near the top of the defensive rankings, their respective offenses must also be considered. Both are perfectly capable of piling on points.
That’s why it will be crucial for the Bengals defense to step up this season. Cincy made the playoffs last year without beating the Steelers or the Ravens, but they can’t rely on that happening again, not with Denver, the New York Giants, Dallas and Philadelphia among the offensive heavyweights on the schedule.
With passing in so much in vogue in the league, the Bengals will have to be able to put pressure on the quarterback. A year ago, Cincy recorded 45 sacks with Geno Atkins leading the way with 7.5 in his breakout season. But only two other Bengals had at least six sacks—Jonathan Fanene with 6.5 and Michael Johnson with six.
Cincinnati seems poised to do just that. Atkins and Johnson will only get better while Carlos Dunlap, who slid back in his second year, should be able to rebound with possibly a big season. Second-round draft pick Devon Still, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, could also make an impact.
Of course, along with putting pressure on the quarterback comes putting pressure on the receivers. Leon Hall has proven himself to be one of the better cover corners in the league, but he's coming off injury. The Bengals will need its cadre of first-round corners to come up big and live up to their draft status. Here’s betting they will do that.
And you can’t forget the linebackers. Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard were the two most underrated free-agent pickups in the league last year and solidified the Bengals’ linebacking corps. Middle backer Rey Maualuga has been somewhat of a disappointment, but he could emerge big time in his third season as a starter.
Andy Dalton and A.J. Green will get all of the headlines this season and for good reason, but it will be the play of the defense that determines whether the Bengals return to the playoffs or not.