The Cincinnati Bengals were so close. They were just a few kneel-downs away from beating the Pittsburgh Steelers and advancing to the Divisional Round. If they had beaten the AFC Champion Denver Broncos in Week 16, they would have been looking at a two game playoff run. The Bengals aren’t that far from returning to the Super Bowl. They can actually make it to Super Bowl 51, but with a few tweaks.
There were tons of reasons for Bengals fans to be giddy with excitement. There’s no reason to think that the upcoming season will be worse. They have all the weapons necessary to be a force in the AFC North and shock the NFL.
The Running Game Must Improve
When Hue Jackson was offensive coordinator for the Bengals, he was adamant in saying the ground game was alright. Yet, when looking at the numbers put up by Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, the numbers stand out.
While Bernard seemed to get better and run stronger, Hill didn’t looked confused. The rookie sensation, that dazzled the NFL and Fantasy Football pundits, was mired in the throes of a sophomore slump. There could be more than just the mental aspect of Hills game that held him back. There could have been an injury that was kept secret. Whatever the cause, the end result is what’s noticeable.
Looking at his numbers, per ESPN, Hill gained 330 fewer yards on the same amount of carries. That took his bruising average of 5.1 yards down to 3.6. That’s a respectable amount of yards for any running back, but it was a tease coming from Hill.
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Petersen likes what he sees in Hill. His advice was plain and simple.
“Just let it go. I’ve seen him play and he’s a good back.”
Getting him back to form will be a major factor in getting to the playoffs and beyond. A strong ground game will take the pressure off the passing game.
The Return of Andy Dalton
Bengals fans got a taste of what life would be like without Andy Dalton. When Dalton went down against the Steelers in Week 14, AJ McCarron filled in nicely. But the explosive Bengals offense wasn’t the same without Dalton. Offensive coordinator Ken Zampese thinks the Bengals had a chance to make it to Super Bowl 50 without Dalton. Now that he’ll be returning from his thumb injury, the odds are even better.
If the other 45 guys played like they did under Dalton, the Bengals would be playing for the Lombardi Trophy. That speaks to his development as a leader and his ability to run the offense. The high-octane Bengals offense should remain the same under Zampese. Of course, there will be tweaks and additions. But, the core of what made Dalton the AFC Passing Champion will be the same.
Bengals fans got a treat last year. They were able to watch a Bengals team that had one of the best defensive units in the league. The Bengals ended the season ranked as the No.2 scoring defense in the NFL. The departure of George Iloka, Reggie Nelson and Adam Jones could happen through free agency. Bengals brass will do all they can to retain the strength of the secondary.
Bengals linebackers coach Jim Haslett is an addition that will give some needed experience and stability to Vontaze Burfict. The consensus is that coaches will not tolerate the unnecessary foolishness that cost the Bengals a shot at a longer playoff run.
The core of defensive coordinator Paul Guenther’s unit should be ready for the campaign. When the Bengals offense was subpar, the defense was able to hold on for more than a few key wins.
With a little luck and a few smiles from the football gods, the Bengals should be able to get back into the playoffs. ESPN‘s Bill Polian said the Bengals should be playing the Panthers.
“It’s sad they didn’t get beyond where they did,” Polian explained, via the Cincinnati Bengals site. “They had the best team, I think. When Dalton got hurt, that was a terrible blow.”
The Bengals will be back. Last year’s best team may be this year’s AFC representative in Super Bowl 51.
[Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images]