Cincinnati Bengals: 5 Things Team Must Do in Order to Repeat as Division Champs
The Cincinnati Bengals finished the 2013 season with an 11-5 record, good enough to win the AFC North division. But this season they will have to continue what they did well and erase what they didn't in order to do it again.
The teams within their division have all seemingly gotten better.
The Cleveland Browns were one of the most active teams in free agency, signing Ben Tate, Miles Austin, Nate Burleson, Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner while also selecting Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel in the draft.
The Baltimore Ravens should have a much more exciting offense in 2014 with Gary Kubiak being chosen as the new offensive coordinator, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are the Pittsburgh Steelers—they don't usually stay down for long.
But with a solid nucleus of young players as well as 2014 draft picks Darqueze Dennard and Jeremy Hill, the Bengals have the talent to remain at the top—as long as they do the things listed here.
Find a Consistent No. 2 Wide Receiver
The entire league knows what A.J. Green is capable of doing. His 98 catches for 1,426 yards last season did not go unnoticed, and since entering the league, he has emerged as one of the top receivers in the NFL.
But Andy Dalton really needs another guy he can trust.
The second-leading receiver on the team last season was a running back, Giovani Bernard, who had 56 catches. The next best wide receiver was Marvin Jones, who caught 51 passes for 712 yards—roughly have of what Green did.
Tight end Jermaine Gresham had a down year in 2013, catching just 46 passes. The team also lost Andrew Hawkins to division rival Cleveland.
So who is going to step up and help Dalton in 2014? Whether it's Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Dane Sanzenbacher or one of the tight ends, the team would benefit greatly from someone being more productive.
Green will put up big numbers, but he'd be even more effective if defenses couldn't key on him as much.
In the playoff defeat suffered against San Diego, the Chargers were able to hold Green to just three catches for 34 yards. While Jones caught eight passes for 130 yards in that game, Dalton looked lost in the late stages trying to distribute the ball.
Play Good Run Defense
Last season, the Bengals had the No. 5-ranked rush defense in the league, giving up 96.5 yards per game on the ground.
This is an area they'll need to be strong in again, and they should be able to do that inside their division as Pittsburgh and Cleveland were both tied for No. 27 in rushing yardage last season while Baltimore was all the way down at No. 30.
If the Bengals are able to dominate the game up front, it will allow their athletic defense to become more aggressive after they put the opposition into 2nd- and 3rd-and-long situations.
Having a healthy Geno Atkins in the middle of the defense will only help matters, and the Bengals should once again be a tough unit to move the ball against on the ground.
Protect Andy Dalton
Last season, only two teams allowed fewer than the 29 sacks given up by Cincinnati.
However, in their Wild Card Round loss to San Diego, the Bengals dealt with a harassing Chargers defense for much of the game.
Andy Dalton was sacked three times and hit another six, while the Chargers also racked up another five tackles for loss.
The Bengals will have a bit of a different unit to start this season than the one that ended 2013. With tackle Anthony Collins signing with Tampa Bay as a free agent, Andrew Whitworth has been moved over to his spot on the left side of the line. Clint Boling will be moved into Whitworth's old spot at guard.
It will be interesting to see how this unit meshes together, but keeping Dalton upright has to be a priority in Cincinnati.
Win on the Road
The Bengals were able to muster a 3-5 record on the road last season, including going 0-3 on the road within the AFC North.
They were able to win the division on the strength of their undefeated record at home. Yet, if they could have been more successful in road games, they may have had a first-round bye in the playoffs.
In 2014, road games will be very important for the Bengals, especially since they open the season in Baltimore. Last season, they were very competitive against the Ravens on the road but lost the game in overtime.
Most importantly, the Bengals play five of their final seven games outside the confines of Paul Brown Stadium.
What the Bengals do on the road in 2014 may be the most important factor in defending their division championship.
The defense of the Cincinnati Bengals forced 31 turnovers in 2013, but it didn't make much of a difference as Andy Dalton threw 20 interceptions himself.
The team finished the season with a plus-one in turnover differential, a very underrated statistic. The team that had the best turnover differential, Seattle (plus-22), went on to win the Super Bowl.
Against San Diego in the playoffs, the Bengals turned the ball over four times and didn't take it away once. That is the biggest reason why they were issued an early exit from the postseason.
On top of that, the Bengals were penalized 106 times for 1,038 yards on the season, according to nflpenalties.com. Only four teams were penalized for more yardage.
In 2014, the team needs to become much more disciplined. New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and offensive quality control coach Brian Braswell need to help Dalton be less prone to making bad decisions.
This will be a huge year for Dalton and head coach Marvin Lewis as far as their future with the team is concerned. Limiting mistakes should be at the top of their list of priorities.