NFL Team Previews: Cincinnati Bengals

The city of Cincinnati is enjoying good times in professional sports, with the Reds running away with the NL Central and now the Bengals getting back in action after a year where they got surprising success with a rookie quarterback and made the playoffs. TheSportsNotebook sees how Marvin Lewis’ team sizes up in the traditionally competitive AFC North…

OFFENSE: Andy Dalton had a good, albeit somewhat overrated year as a rookie quarterback. He played good mistake-free football, with a 20-13 TD/INT ratio, although the 58 percent completion rate needs to go up in his second year. He’ll be well-protected on the edges, with elite offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth taking care of his back and Andre Smith on the left side. There are significant issues with the interior of the line that could leave Dalton vulnerable to gut pressure.

The bigger problem Dalton has is that the skill position weaponry is not very good. Those words exclude receiver A.J. Green, who joined his quarterback in having a good rookie year and Green is a great talent with a long career ahead of him. There is very little to draw coverage away from him though. And if the answer to the running game is to sign BenJarvus Green-Ellis away from New England, then you either don’t take the run seriously or don’t like any options on the market. This offense will hope Dalton-to-Green can add up to enough big plays to create points.

DEFENSE: This is where the action is for Cincinnati. It’s Lewis’ area of expertise and it’s where the good football players are. We can start up front where all four defensive lineman are rock solid and all are just coming into their own right now. Carlos Dunlap made the conversion from college linebacker to defensive end in the 4-3 and 6’7” Michael Johnson is a physical presence on the opposite side. And the interior is even better, where Domata Peko joins the brilliant Geno Atkins in pressuring up the middle. Atkins is the best of the group, but you can’t be comfortable letting any of them operate one-on-one.

The linebackers don’t have to be great, and middle man Rey Mauluga is competent in the middle as is Manny Lawson on the flank. Thomas Howard is the only weak link in the front seven. The secondary is even better. Leon Hall and Nate Clements are solid—not stars, but solid corners. The same goes for Reggie Nelson at free safety. The intrigue back here comes from 24-year-old Taylor Mays at strong safety. His cover skills aren’t great, but there’s room for improvement given his age. And he plays the run well, and given Lewis’ aggressive style, he may prefer Mays spend his time closer to the line of scrimmage anyway.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN PROJECTION:  8–If we take the broad view of Marvin Lewis’ tenure, he’s 74-69-1, and that includes some teams that were a lot worse than even the most pessimistic observer can think this one is going to be. This isn’t a team with a huge ceiling, but it’s a solid team and certainly worth of betting on to win at least nine again. Go Over.