Marvin Lewis is back for two more years as the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals and his coaching staff is mostly set, so now the focus is turning toward 2018 with the Senior Bowl coming up at the end of the month and the NFL Scouting Combine at the end of February, followed by free agency in mid-March.
So, we took to the Internet to see what Bengals fans were wondering about.
Let’s get right to it.
Case Keenum, Nick Foles, Blake Bortles and Tom Brady are playing this weekend for the right to participate in Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4 in Minneapolis. That means that in any given year the quarterback isn’t the end-all, be-all to getting to February.
Which means the Bengals are closer to Jacksonville, Philadelphia and Minnesota than they are the Cleveland Browns in terms of reaching championship weekend next season. But it doesn’t mean there isn’t work to do for head coach Marvin Lewis and coordinators Bill Lazor and Teryl Austin.
Here’s how the Bengals can be playing at this point in 2019:
Have a dominant scoring defense (and win on third down)
This year it’s pretty clear how important this is when you have the No. 1 scoring defense in the league in Minnesota, along with No. 2 Jacksonville, No. 4 Philadelphia and No. 5 New England all participating this weekend.
But 2017 is not an outlier.
From 2011-16, nine of the 24 conference title game participants were top five in scoring defense and another seven were in the top 10.
Being one of the better defenses on third down also sets a team up for success. The Patriots are the oddball in 2017, as they ranked just 21st in opponent third-down percentage. But Minnesota (No. 1), Philadelphia (No. 3) and Jacksonville (No. 4) were dominant on that down.
From 2011-16, 11 of the 24 teams that reached a conference title game finished in the top 10 in opponent’s third-down percentage and another three finished in the top half of the league.
Cincinnati was No. 16 in scoring defense in 2017, but it’s a group that has been in the top 10 in scoring defense in six of the last nine years and in the top five twice. Some work needs to be done on third down, however. The Bengals were 25th in the NFL in opponent’s third-down percentage last year and they haven’t finished in the top half of the league since 2014 (No. 7). They were No. 2 in 2013.
With the entire starting 11 in the nickel defense returning in 2018, Austin is charged with making the Bengals elite group in both scoring and third downs.
Have a top 10 scoring offense (by running the ball)
The final four teams this year feature the No. 2 (New England), No. 3 (Philadelphia), No. 5 (Jacksonville) and No. 10 (Minnesota) scoring offenses in football.
This is also not an outlier. From 2011-16, the 24 title game participants featured 19 of the league’s top 10 scoring offenses.
And the 2011-13 San Francisco 49ers were No. 11 in scoring each year and the 2011 Baltimore Ravens were No. 12 in scoring offense.
Only the 2015 Denver Broncos were middle-of-the-pack in scoring (No. 19).
An interesting complementary stat to those scoring ranks is this: All four teams playing this weekend are in the top 10 in rushing offense this year. Jacksonville led the league in running the ball while Philadelphia (No. 3), Minnesota (No. 7) and New England (No. 10) were all some of the best in the game.
That is also not an outlier for teams advancing to this point of the playoffs. Of the 28 total teams to reach a conference title game since 2011, 17 were top 10 in the league in rushing.
This is where the work has to be done for the Bengals.
They were No. 26 in scoring offense in 2017 and have only had two, top-10 offenses in the last decade. The last time was in 2015, when they were No. 7. They were No. 6 in 2013.
The last time the Bengals finished in the top 10 in rushing was in 2014 (No. 6).
There is hope for 2018, however. Over the last six weeks of last season, Joe Mixon, Giovani Bernard and Brian Hill averaged 4.6 yards per carry – good for sixth in the league. And new offensive line coach Frank Pollack oversaw a top 10 rushing attack in Dallas the last three years, including the No. 2 rush units in 2016 and 2017.
Andy Dalton has to play like he did from 2013-15
Blake Bortles’ best season is on par with Dalton’s worst. Case Keenum’s career year at the age of 29 this season is about Dalton’s average campaign. Nick Foles, coming on in relief of an injured Carson Wentz at the end of the year, is on average, more Bortles than Keenum over his six-year career.
It means that this year’s conference championship quarterbacks can only reinforce the belief in the offices at 1 Paul Brown Stadium that Dalton can get them to the Super Bowl.
To do that in 2018, Dalton needs to be better than he’s been the last two seasons, however. He has not been as sharp as he was from 2013-15 and clearly the Bengals feel offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and new quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt can return him to the form he played with under Jay Gruden and Hue Jackson.
The AFC title game is a tough contest to crack largely because half of the bracket has included just one team and one quarterback – Tom Brady – since 2011. The AFC participants the last seven years include Brady (seven trips), Joe Flacco (two), Peyton Manning (two), Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and now Bortles.
The NFC has been much more democratic, with Colin Kaepernick (two), Aaron Rodgers (two), Matt Ryan (two), Russell Wilson (two), Carson Palmer, Cam Newton, Alex Smith, Eli Manning, Keenum and Foles.
While the Patriots continue to be an issue in the AFC there are some similarities between all the other quarterbacks reaching this point.
- Career years (Keenum, Smith, Palmer, Newton, Luck, Ryan in 2016).
- Getting hot in the playoffs (Eli Manning in 2011, Flacco in 2012).
- Play great team ball (Bortles, Foles, Kaepernick, Wilson, Ryan in 2012, Peyton Manning in 2015, Roethlisberger in 2016).
Lewis set the bar on Dec. 24 when he said, “Our goal as an organization is to be world champions.
“That’s all I can say. There’s nothing in between as a coach — you either do or you don’t. And this year we didn’t.”
To do that in 2018, the Bengals need Dalton to fit into one of those quarterbacking categories while the rest of the team and offense finds a corresponding level.
What is your project offensive line for next season?
— StevO (@StevO_1960) January 17, 2018
Honestly, impossible for me to answer at this point. The starting center and right tackle are free agents. The season-opening starting tackles ended the year injured and not playing. The starting right guard didn’t exactly cement his role in 2018. There’s a new offensive line coach and offensive coordinator (basically) so who knows at this point who they like on this roster, or if the team will bring in one or two other free agents.
All I can put in pen is Clint Boling will start.
And while I find it highly unlikely Boling will remain at left tackle for 2018, I guess that option has to remain on the table until it’s taken off.
I've seen reports about the Bengals potentially looking to extend Atkins and Dunlap in the offseason, but what about Dennard? Seemed to have his best year as a pro and certainly earned some consideration.
— Robby Kuhnhein (@r_kuhnhein) January 17, 2018
Dennard, who will play 2018 under his fifth-year option, will also be a candidate for an extension. The Bengals typically like to approach players who are entering the final years of their deal but this is a pretty top-heavy list and obviously, the club can’t pay everyone. And, not everyone may want to take an extension this summer and elect to play out the year.
That list, including their 2018 cap number, is as follows:
- Geno Atkins ($9.55 million)
- Darqueze Dennard ($8.52)*
- Carlos Dunlap ($7.3)
- Adam Jones ($6.66)**
- Michael Johnson ($6.12)
- Brandon LaFell ($4)
- Cedric Ogbuehi ($2.97)
- Vincent Rey ($2.75)
- T.J. Johnson ($1.85)
- Jake Fisher ($1.36)
- Clark Harris ($1.07)
- Tyler Kroft ($891K)
- Josh Shaw ($828K)
- Randy Bullock ($790K)
- C.J. Uzomah ($758K)
*Fully guaranteed fifth-year option
**Team option that must be picked up in March
Chances of resigning Geno? & what do u think they do with the 12th pick? Also does Eifert stay or go?
— Chase Sallee (@Chaser502) January 17, 2018
Atkins is interesting. He has clearly out-performed the extension he signed back in 2013. The questions are these:
- Does Atkins want to do that type of thing again, and take the security but perhaps less money up front in a smaller signing bonus?
- Do the Bengals want to pay close to $100 million to a player entering his ninth year and about to turn 30 years old to play until he’s 35?
I think the “chances” are always good until they’re not – and that means if he doesn’t sign an extension before the season it seems less likely. They could always franchise tag him for 2019 as well.
We’ll get to Tyler Eifert’s free agent status tomorrow on Cincinnati.com, along with all of the other 2018 free agents.
This is interesting because so much focus (and rightfully so) is placed on the “franchise quarterback” but yes, if you look around the final four teams this year there aren’t those tremendous “franchise” receivers. Philadelphia’s Alshon Jeffery is the highest paid receiver remaining.
Since the new CBA was signed in 2011, the 28 conference championship game participants featured just seven, top-10 paid receivers in their respective years*:
2011: Anquan Boldin, Baltimore, $7.5 million, No. 10
2012: Wes Welker, New England, $9.5 million, No. 4
Roddy White, Atlanta, $8 million, No. 10
2015: Demaryius Thomas, Denver, $13.2 million, No. 3
Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona, $10.8 million, No. 6
2016: Julio Jones, Atlanta, $15.9 million, No. 1
Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh, $11.8 million, No. 8
Of all of those top-10 paid wideouts only Thomas and Jones were on teams that went to the Super Bowl.
Provided there is no change in the 2018 cap hits, A.J. Green will be the Bengals’ second-highest paid player next year ($13.8 million) and he and the Bengals would be bucking recent history by reaching the conference finals.
*Dollars are for the cap hit, per www.spotrac.com