The Cincinnati Bengals made back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in 30 years, but for many fans, simply getting to the playoffs isn’t enough. And understandably so. Every team in the league has won at least one postseason game since the last time the Bengals did so in January 1991.
What will it take to make it three-straight trips to the playoffs and even, dare we say it, advance? There certainly are areas that the 2013 Bengals will need to improve on if they want to climb permanently into the upper echelons of the AFC.
Let’s take a look at the main areas of concern for the Bengals in the months ahead.
Andy Dalton has already led the Bengals to as many playoff appearances in two seasons as Carson Palmer and Boomer Esiason did in their Cincinnati careers. But Dalton was hardly dominating and the Bengals seem at times, to win in spite of, rather than because of, Dalton.
Both Dalton’s ability to throw the long ball and his accuracy have been questioned throughout the season. His decision-making has also been mentioned thanks to four interceptions returned for touchdowns and a penchant for taking sacks.
Dalton is a good quarterback and with time, he could even bloom into an upper-tier signal-caller. But as he enters year three, he will have to raise his level of play considerably or the Bengals should look elsewhere for their franchise quarterback.
While Andy Dalton certainly needs to raise his level of play, it is worth noting that the skill players around him—other than A.J. Green—didn’t exactly light the world on fire.
Dalton is not the type of quarterback who will raise the level of play of those around him. As a result, the Bengals need to find the best pieces to put in place that will help their quarterback grow.
Other than Green, the Bengals receivers showed only momentary flashes of brilliance. Maybe Mohamed Sanu is the answer, but the rookie from Rutgers got hurt just as he was warming up. And while Jermaine Gresham made the Pro Bowl, he never had the feel of a big-time, go-to receiver.
Likewise, the running back position needs to be improved. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a solid back, but he doesn’t provide the consistent punch needed to take the pressure off the passing game. Bernard Scott has often been mentioned as an explosive change-of-pace back but he can’t stay healthy.
This wasn’t the best of seasons for second-year offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. While Gruden must be credited with helping the development of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, he also didn’t seem to fully take advantage of what weapons he had.
Gruden’s biggest sin was the play-calling in the playoff game against Houston, where the Bengals targeted tight end Jermaine Gresham instead of Green in the first half. It was a fatal mistake that put the team in catch-up mode all afternoon.
Gruden had his moments, most notably the Mohamed Sanu to Green pass to open the Redskins game, but for the most part, his game plans seem to resemble more of his predecessor Bob Bratkowski than that of the rookie coordinator from a year earlier. He needs to rediscover his magic.
The Bengals had 14 interceptions this year, but most of those picks could be more attributed to a dominating defensive line than the play of the secondary.
It is at the safety position where the Bengals need the most improvement. The defense didn’t fully take shape until Chris Crocker and Nate Clements stepped into starting roles. And it should say something about the original starters at safety that it took a guy cut in training camp and a converted cornerback to make a difference at the position.
Safety is a position that the Bengals have long overlooked. Rarely, if ever, have the Bengals taken a safety high in the draft. But the last two high picks—Darryl Williams and David Fulcher—turned out to be pretty good. Imagine of those guys on this defense.
Rey Maualuga had a much better second half of the season, but it appears that Vontaze Burfict will be the team’s starter at middle linebacker next season. And for good reason. The undrafted free agent led the team in tackles despite hardly playing in the first three weeks of the season.
Maualuga may be back (he’s a free agent), but regardless, the Bengals need to upgrade the position. Like the secondary, there needs to be more playmakers at what is one of the premier positions in the sport.