Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
The Bengals were the team that surprised everyone around the league last season.
Rookies Andy Dalton and A.J. Green were the key connection that led to Cincy's remarkable season. The Bengals also had one of the league's most underrated defenses which was anchored by linebacker Thomas Howard. But can the Bengals be a threat to the Ravens and Steelers, or will Dalton and Green go through a sophomore slump?
Offense: The Bengals offense needs Dalton and Green to repeat their excellent seasons if they want to have any chance at a playoff spot.
Dalton threw for almost 3,400 yards as a rookie, and more than half of those yards went to Green or former Bengal Jerome Simpson. The Bengals wide receiving group is thin, and that is being polite.
Other than Green, their next best option is their tight end Jermaine Gresham. Gresham is a solid tight end, but not one that defenses will key on. Green is going to be dealing with a lot of double teams, and it will be tough to repeat last season's numbers if nobody else rises to the occasion. The receiver to watch is Brandon Tate. Tate was a punt returner last season, but did not catch a single pass.
The running game may have been upgraded by acquiring Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis. The 'Law Firm' is a consistent scorer, but he didn't get much of a chance to run in New England's pass-happy offense. The offensive line should be able to help Green-Ellis as they helped Cedric Benson rush for more than 1,000 yards last season. The Bengals' offense will need more than a couple of players to step up and help Dalton and Green.
Defense: The Bengals' defense had a great campaign last year. The Bengals ranked seventh in average yards allowed per game and gave up just more than 20 points per game last year.
Cincinnati also sacked the quarterback 45 times thanks to their fearsome pass rush led by defensive tackle Geno Atkins. They also forced 20 fumbles during the season, which ranked fourth in the league.
The downside of the Bengals' defense was that they only picked off 10 passes, which ranked almost at the bottom of the league. The Bengals' defense consists of a lot of players that football fans might not have ever heard of.
Guys like, Atkins, Thomas Howard, Domata Peko, Manny Lawson and Leon Hall are all guys that are young and quickly improving. Unlike the Ravens and Steelers, the Bengals' defense is full of young players that have a great upside in the future.
Prediction: The Bengals are a very interesting team to evaluate this season. Their defense is so solid and so young that it is hard not to like this team in the future. But right now, I have some doubts.
Their schedule is very favorable in the early going, with games against Cleveland, Washington, Jacksonville, and Miami, but every game after the bye could be against teams contending for a playoff spot. The Bengals finish the season against Dallas, on the road against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and finally Baltimore at home.
My next reason for concern is that Cincinnati's offense does not have a legitimate playmaker outside of A.J. Green. Green-Ellis is a decent option at back, but has not shown that he can shoulder the load of a NFL running back.
I think Andy Dalton is a good quarterback, but I think he will stumble a bit this season with his thin wide receiving core. If guys like Gresham and Tate step up, this team is a contender, but I don't think they will. The Bengals' defense is good enough to help this offense along, but a playoff spot is very questionable. I have the Bengals' taking a step back this season, finishing at 8-8.