Cincinnati Bengals: Breaking Down the Blueprint for Winning the Division

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistSeptember 6, 2012

Cincinnati Bengals: Breaking Down the Blueprint for Winning the Division

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    The Cincinnati Bengals kick off their 2012 NFL season with a matchup against the Baltimore Ravens on Monday Night Football,  beginning their pursuit of an AFC North crown.

    If the Bengals are to win the AFC North in 2012, the team is going to have to follow a very specific blueprint moving forward. 

    Cincinnati does not have the kindest schedule on paper, so there are key games where the Bengals will have to be at their best. The injury bug is already hitting the team, so remaining healthy is, of course, key as well. 

    While the Bengals are one of the more exciting, younger teams in the NFL heading into the season, the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers are no slouches either. The AFC North is quite possibly the hardest division to win in the NFL this year, so the Bengals have quite the task in front of them.

    Here is a blueprint for the Bengals to follow in 2012 in order to take home the AFC North crown once again. 

Remain Healthy

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    The Bengals have not even begun their quest for the AFC North title and are already without key players, thanks to injuries. 

    Rookie cornerback and first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick is out at least a few more weeks while he rehabs an injury, and the Bengals' best pass-rusher, Carlos Dunlap, is still out with a knee issue he suffered in the preseason. 

    Cornerbacks Adam Jones and Jason Allen have been hurt, as have tight end Jermaine Gresham and running backs Bernard Scott and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Add in the loss of left guard Travelle Wharton and having to place starting center Kyle Cook on IR and things are not looking good. 

    Luckily for the Bengals, most of these injuries are minor, even Cook can be taken off of IR, thanks to the new rules implemented by the league this preseason. 

    The important factor for the team at this point is to get healthy and stay that way. Injuries decimated the team at critical points last year. If fully healthy, the Bengals are built to win the AFC North. 

Discover a Running Game

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    Cedric Benson was allowed to walk in the offseason, promptly joining the Green Bay Packers. The Bengals added BenJarvus Green-Ellis as the proverbial starting running back, but we have yet to see a lot from him, thanks to injury. 

    Green-Ellis should be ready to contribute by the opener, but how effective he can be in the Bengals offense has yet to be determined. Bernard Scott is a nice spell back, but he will miss the opener thanks to injury. 

    Brian Leonard is still around to provide a third-down boost as well. Together, the trio should see the majority of the carries in 2012 against the elite defenses of the AFC North. 

    The Bengals are running a West Coast offense which means if the running game is not working, the team could rely on short passes to act as a rushing attack. However, that may not be the best strategy in the AFC North. 

    If the Bengals want any shot of winning the division, they cannot afford to become one-dimensional, which means somehow, someway finding a consistent rushing attack. 

Consistency on the Offensive Line

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    The Bengals should be in a bit of a state of panic after losing both a starting left guard, a center and starting a rookie at right guard. 

    With Travelle Wharton gone for the season, Clint Boling steps in as the starting left guard. Boling struggled mightily last season but looked improved this preseason. How he handles AFC North defensive linemen will have a huge impact. 

    Cincinnati went out and signed veteran Jeff Faine to replace center Kyle Cook, but how quickly he can learn the system (he is familiar with it) and develop chemistry with his teammates and quarterback will be a huge factor.

    Finally, the team is starting rookie Kevin Zeitler at right guard. He looked solid in preseason action, but it is a different animal going up against the Haloti Ngata and Jabaal Sheard's of the division. 

    Add in left tackle Andrew Whitworth struggling in the preseason and it could be a rough season for the offense. Chemistry and consistency are key on the offensive line; without it, the offense cannot put up points. 

    The situation will certainly be something to watch moving forward. 

Produce a Better Pass Rush

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    Cincinnati did not lack for an effective pass rush last season but lost some crucial members of the defensive line unit in the offseason. 

    With Carlos Dunlap consistently being sidelined with a new injury, some new faces are going to have to step up and help Geno Atkins disrupt the opposing offense consistently. 

    Defensive ends Michael Johnson and Robert Geathers are still around, but new faces like rookies Devon Still and Brandon Thompson, along with free-agent pickup Jamaal Anderson are going to have to wreak havoc as well. 

    Outside of the defensive line, getting creative with secondary blitzes, such as sending strong safety Taylor Mays at the quarterback consistently, could do wonders. 

    Lining up linebackers Manny Lawson and Dontay Moch at defensive end and turning them loose is something the coaching staff explored in the preseason as well. 

    No matter how it gets done, the Bengals are going to have to improve in the pass-rush department or risk being torched in the AFC North. 

Start the Season Strong, Finish in the Same Manner

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    At times last year, the Bengals made it a habit of playing down to the competition or playing solid against great opponents. 

    In 2012, the Bengals are going to have to be at their best right at the beginning and to conclude the season. 

    To kick things off in 2012, Cincinnati plays the Baltimore Ravens on Monday Night Football, and then, the very next Sunday welcomes the Cleveland Browns to Paul Brown Stadium. 

    To wrap up the season, the Bengals travel to Pittsburgh to play the Steelers in Week 16, then turn around and come home to take on the Ravens in Round 2. 

    That accounts for four of the six AFC North encounters Cincinnati will have in 2012. If the Bengals don't come out firing on all cylinders and start and finish strong, their hope for an AFC North crown in 2012 are doomed. 

Avoid the Cliche Sophomore Slump

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    By now, Bengals fans are sick of hearing about the sophomore slump—and rightfully so. However, until it passes, it is worth mentioning. 

    Predicting if quarterback Andy Dalton or wide receiver A.J. Green will suffer a slump is next to impossible, but there is certainly evidence pointing both ways. 

    For one, Dalton now has a full year under his belt and an expanded playbook to suit his skill set, so he could avoid a slump. Similarly, Green has done nothing but use the offseason as a way to work on his overall game. 

    Conversely, every team has more film on the duo now. Dalton could slump under the added pressure of an expanded playbook and new faces on the offense in most areas. Green could experience a drop in production simply if Dalton begins to regress. 

    It seems like a basic point, but Cincinnati's dynamic duo have to become even better than they were last season. Anything less will sink the ship. 

Score Touchdowns in the Red Zone

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    Again, a basic point that seems simple enough, but for the Bengals, it has not been easy over the past couple of seasons. 

    For whatever reason, Cincinnati has struggled to finish the deal in the red zone, settling for a field goal instead, which at times, has had a bad habit of coming back to haunt the teams. 

    The Bengals certainly do not lack for explosive players in the end zone. Players such as A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham should have no issues coming up with scores in the red zone consistently but only if they are utilized properly. 

    To bring home a division title in 2012, the recent red-zone struggles are going to have to disappear. Instead of trotting out Mike Nugent for three points consistently, making the most out of red-zone trips with seven points each time will be key. 

Rookies Must Come Up Big

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    At first glance, the Bengals 2012 NFL draft class did not appear to be a high-impact one but one that would pay dividends in the next couple of years. 

    Now, that is not the case. 

    With the injury issues in the secondary, having Dre Kirkpatrick contribute in at least some scenarios this season could be highly beneficial for the Bengals. 

    Similarly, guard Kevin Zeitler is going to be a crucial piece of the team's success on a depleted offensive line. 

    Defensive linemen Devon Still and Brandon Thompson are going to have to have a big impact as rotational pieces if the Bengals want to remain an elite defensive unit next season. 

    Finally, receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, more so Jones at this point, are going to have to make big plays consistently for the Bengals' passing attack to be effective. 

    The Bengals have a plethora of young talent, and this year, the youngsters are going to have to step up once again if Cincinnati wants to even think about competing for the AFC North title.