The 2013 season is here, and with it comes a bevy of questions surrounding the Cincinnati Bengals, as the team looks to ride the momentum of back-to-back playoff appearances paired with sound drafts to the top of the AFC North.
Despite recent success both on the field and off, the Bengals have as many questions as any team in the NFL.
Fans know what to expect from guys like A.J. Green and Geno Atkins. However, it will be the play of newcomers and old faces alike that will answer over the course of 16 games some of the burning questions presented in the following slide show.
In the meantime, we can have some fun trying to predict what those answers might be.
Much of the hype around the recent Cincinnati draft class has to do with a second-round pick rather than the team's first-round selection.
Whereas first-rounder Tyler Eifert will have an impact—but not necessarily change what the team can and cannot do on a broad level—running back Giovani Bernard is expected to change the dynamics of the Bengals offense in a big way.
Bernard is the speed back offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has been craving. He can catch passes out of the backfield and run tough between the tackles. He also sports breakaway speed—an element sorely missing in the BenJarvus Green-Ellis's game.
Fans have already seen Bernard in action this preseason and his role is clear. He has lined up as a wide receiver, been targeted in the passing game, and he even rushed 23 times for 104 yards in three games.
Not only that, Bernard's well-rounded performances in those three games earned him a No. 11 overall ranking among NFL backs from ProFootballFocus (subscription required). His only negative mark from PFF came in pass protection.
He has some work to do in that regard, but Bernard figures to see 10 to 18 total touches a game running and receiving. Time will tell if his strong preseason translates to when it matters.
Some Bengal fans believe that the arrival of Giovani Bernard has thrown the future of veteran running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis into the air.
Green-Ellis is not going anywhere and he will carry the majority of the load at running back for at least the 2013 season.
While Bernard may see more touches overall thanks to his pass-catching abilities, Green-Ellis will see more carries. He is the type of bruising back who can carry the load 200 or more times and remain efficient.
Green-Ellis goes as his blocking goes. This was evident in Week 3 of the preseason when fullback John Conner exploded through a hole before Green-Ellis and he racked up six yards. His other four carries resulted in -4 yards.
The Law Firm is a plodding back, but he's one of the best in the businesses in short-yardage situations. His workload will enable Cincinnati to keep Bernard fresh all season for a potential playoff run, so don't expect him to hit the bench.
In spirit, second-year receiver Mohamed Sanu is the No. 2 receiver across from A.J. Green. The team's official depth chart lists him as such.
In reality, the whole thing is much more complicated.
Sanu is actually a better fit for the slot, while fellow second-year receiver Marvin Jones fits better on the outside. Both will be battling for quarterback Andy Dalton's attention, but both will also be fighting to even see the field.
Cincinnati, especially if the preseason is any indication, will move toward more two-tight end sets, thanks to the skills of Pro Bowler Jermaine Gresham and first-round rookie Tyler Eifert.
Someone needs to step up and be the No. 2 receiver. It does not matter who wins as long as someone does. Last year Sanu had a nice stretch in which he hauled in four touchdowns in three games before going down with an injury, and Jones, after getting healthy, came on at the end of last, grabbing a touchdown in Week 14.
Consistency is the name of the game. If Dalton has no other reliable target to throw aside from Green, his play will wane like it did last year.
Who's it going to be?
Since moving to the middle of the defense in 2011, Rey Maualuga has been a major disappointment for the Bengal faithful.
Maualuga was the No. 46-rated inside linebacker in 2011 and No. 52 in 2012, according to ProFootballFocus (subscription required). In particular, Maualuga struggled in pass coverage, and opposing offenses targeted this liability when devising game plans against the Bengals defense.
Despite these mediocre seasons, Cincinnati decided to bring back Maualuga this offseason after he briefly flirted with free agency.
That move was probably for the better—Maualuga appears to have changed.
If his preseason play is indication, Maualuga looks slimmer, faster and more productive. Through three preseason contests, PFF ranked as the No. 13 inside linebacker in the NFL.
It's only preseason, but Maualuga has done his damage against starters. Perhaps testing free agency woke him up. Maybe it was the backlash from media and fans. It simply could even be the further development of skills.
Whatever the reason, Cincinnati needs a productive leader in the middle of the defense if it is to take the next step.
After a season of the ineffective Taylor Mays and aging veteran Chris Crocker at strong safety, the Bengals entered this offseason needing to find an answer at the position.
Everything is fine across from the open slot thanks to free safety Reggie Nelson, whom ProFootballFocus ranked as the fourth-best safety overall in the NFL last year (subscription required). Nelson tallied 85 total tackles and three interceptions and demonstrated outstanding coverage skills.
But Cincinnati is still searching for a complement to Nelson, who is versatile enough to play either safety spot. He cannot, however, play two positions at once.
Mays is still around as of the fourth preseason game, as is second-year Boise State product George Iloka. Rookie Shawn Williams rounds out an unattractive group, all of which struggle mightily in coverage and repeatedly take bad angles on running plays.
Someone is going to have to take the field across from Nelson, but it's impossible to predict whom that will be. Consistency and productivity from the spot in 2013 would be nice, though, as it would go a long way in answering one of the major questions surrounding the team.
One of the questions before the start of every season in Cincinnati had always been how to prevent Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison from flattening Bengal quarterbacks.
Now the question becomes, "How do you use Harrison in Cincinnati?"
A free-agent arrival following a bitter breakup with his old team, Harrison finds himself in an unfamiliar role in Mike Zimmer's 4-3 scheme after spending his nine years in Pittsburgh as a rush linebacker in the Steelers' 3-4 system.
Harrison is penciled in as the starting strong-side linebacker for now, which is easily the best decision by the coaching staff—if the analysis of ProFootballFocus carries any weight. In the 3-4 last season, Harrison was ranked as the No. 8 outside linebacker, with PFF giving him an extremely positive grade against the run.
In the confines of the 4-3, Harrison will be asked to stop the run on the first two downs. In third down or other obvious passing situations, he will come off the field for an extra defensive back or stay in the game and rush the passer either from a linebacker spot or with his hand in the dirt as a defensive end.
Zimmer is one of the best defensive minds in the league. Harrison's attitude and leadership will work wonders for Cincinnati in 2013, but it's how Zimmer puts him to use that will determine whether the signing was a success or a failure.
On paper the cornerback situation looks great in Cincinnati. There's the wily veteran in Leon Hall, who continues to be criminally underrated as a defensive playmaker (take a look at his interception return for a touchdown in the playoffs last year).
There's Terence Newman, a veteran sound in all phases of cornerback play. Adam Jones sits in the slot and is one of best in the league in that role. Heck, there's even a former first-round pick, former Alabama star Dre Kirkpatrick, waiting in the wings.
Yet, the unit could end up being the primary weakness of the Bengals defense in 2013.
For one, these guys simply cannot stay healthy. Hall appeared in only nine games in 2011 and missed two last season. Jones missed 19 games two years prior to last year, which marked his his first 16-game season. Kirkpatrick missed essentially all of his rookie year with a bone spur in his knee.
Play isn't the issue—or at least it has not been in the past—but health certainly is. To build cohesion and string together solid performances, the unit has to be together on the field at the same time. If that cannot happen, this elite defensive unit could come back down to Earth.
Let's take a step back for a moment from the on-field fortunes of 2013 and paint the Bengals future in broad strokes, courtesy of a question that deserves answering as soon as possible.
Geno Atkins is the best defensive tackle in the league. It's not close. The 25-year-old Georgia product notched 12.5 sacks and 54 total tackles a year ago. ProFootballFocus ranked him No. 1 at the position with a total score of 85.4.
The next closest player came in at No. 2 with a score of 31.7.
Stats aside, the impact Atkins has on others cannot be measured. He flushes quarterbacks into the waiting arms of defensive ends rushing upfield. He clogs up running lanes and makes linebackers look great in the process. The pressure he generates allows corners to stick with receivers.
The list goes on, but the focal point here is whether or not Cincinnati will cough up the money to keep Atkins around as he is in the final year of his rookie contract.
Per the National Football Post, Atkins and the Bengals still have "a ways to go before ink meets paper."
While the focus right now may be on the 2013 season, a bigger storyline is quietly developing behind the scenes. How it pans out could change the franchise or keep things as is for the long term.
At the end of the day, the Bengals' playoff hopes this season rest on the shoulders, or should we say arm, of Andy Dalton.
Statistically speaking, Dalton was by no means mediocre last season, but pocket awareness and accuracy issues with deep throws prevented him from fully taking the next step. A sophomore slump was completely avoided, but year three now needs a major jump.
Through three games in the preseason, Dalton has been hit or miss. He was 0-of-5 on passes 15 yards or more downfield, signaling that the deep-ball issues may not be all cleared up.
High-quality weapons surround Dalton. A top receiver, two massive tight ends, a crop of versatile receivers, quality at each offensive line position and a power-speed combo at running back are all at his disposal. But as talented as the rest of the roster is, the Bengals will go only as far as Dalton takes them.
His time is now.
It really is a simple question.
Have the Bengals matured into a team that can compete with contenders? The answer the past two seasons has been a resounding "no." Look no further than the postseason collapses of the past two years for proof of that.
Furthermore, Cincinnati has failed to impress against teams with winning records. There's something to be said for judging team's records when they actually played Cincinnati, but looking at how each team wound up gives a better idea as to how good the team truly was over the long term.
The numbers speak for themselves. In the past two seasons, Cincinnati has defeated only three teams with a winning record. That speaks both to how much the team struggles against legit competition at times and how easy the Bengals schedule has been.
2013 is no walk in the park schedule-wise, at least upon first glance. New England, Green Bay and Indianapolis pay visits, while road games against Chicago, Detroit and Miami could pose some serious issues. That doesn't even touch upon the ultra-competitive AFC North, which features the defending Super Bowl champions, an always competitive rival looking to return to the playoffs and a new-look team looking to make some noise.
Things are not as easy as they seem for Cincinnati, talented roster or not. Time will tell if the Bengals grow up in 2013.
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