NFL

2010 NFL Preview: Cincinnati Bengals

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Between now and the September 9th season kick-off, Hank Koebler, IV will be previewing all the NFL teams with new teams being released daily.

2009 Season Breakdown

2009 final record (overall, division): 10-6, 6-0
Division finish: 1st AFC North
Offensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 22nd, 24th, 26th, 9th
Defensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 6th, 4th, 6th, 7th

2009 Individual Statistical Leaders

Rushing: Cedric Benson, 1,251 yards, 6 TD; Bernard Scott, 321 yards, 0 TD; Larry Johnson, 204 yards, 0 TD
Passing: Carson Palmer, 3,094 yards, 21 TD, 13 INT
Receiving: Chad Ochocinco, 1,047 yards, 9 TD; Lavaranues Coles, 514 yards, 5 TD; Andre Caldwell, 432 yards, 3 TD; J.P. Foschi, 260 yards, 2 TD
Tackles: Dhani Jones, 76 total tackles; Chinedum Ndukwe, 63 total tackles
Sacks: Antwan Odom, 8.0 sacks; Jonathan Fanene, 6.0 sacks
Interceptions: Jonathan Joseph, 6 INT; 1 TD; Leon Hall, 6 INT, 0 TD

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2010 Season Outlook

Schedule
(* denotes division game)

Key Matchups

September 12 at New England: This is not who the Bengals want to start the season against. After their monumental collapse in the playoffs last season, and an offseason filled with speculation that their dynasty had fallen apart, the Patriots are embarrassed and angry. Last time the Patriots were embarrassed and angry, they rewrote the record books and recorded the first-ever 16-0 regular season to make the NFL world forget about the “Spygate” debacle. Both the Patriots and the Bengals have defenses that were ailed by injuries late in the season and are looking to regain their early 2009 form this year. On offense, the Patriots are going to throw the ball early and often to build a lead, so the run-first Bengals will have their passing offense tested majorly in this game, and we will see how the addition of Jermaine Gresham and Terrell Owens boosts the Bengals' passing attack.

October 24 at Atlanta: This is going to be a major test for Cincinnati. The Bengals will likely be able to run the ball without too much difficulty, but they will struggle to pass against Atlanta's super-talented secondary. Meanwhile, the Falcons can do it all on offense, but the Bengals' defensive backfield will probably make the Falcons want to keep the ball on the ground as much as possible. For this reason, the team who plays the best run defense will probably win.

December 26 vs. San Diego: The Chargers have been media darlings for quite a while now, and are still picked by many publications to win the AFC West. They will have receiver Vincent Jackson and left tackle Marcus McNeill back in the fold, so their passing game should be going full throttle at this point, and tight end Antonio Gates will be a nightmare for defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, as he is for most defensive coordinators. However, the Chargers' running game has suffered a decline in recent years, so they may be more predictable when they gear towards the pass. If the Chargers get hot and start scoring quickly, the onus will be on Carson Palmer and his revamped receiving corps to bring the Bengals victory.

Key Losses

Chris Henry, WR; Larry Johnson, RB

Key Returning Players

Carson Palmer, QB; Andre Smith, OT; Cedric Benson, RB; Chad Ochocinco, WR; Rey Maualuga, LB; Keith Rivers, LB; Jonathon Joseph, CB; Leon Hall, CB

Key Draft Picks

Jermaine Gresham, TE; Carlos Dunlap, DE; Jordan Shipley, WR

Key Free Agent Signings

Terrell Owens, WR; Gibril Wilson, FS; Adam “Pacman” Jones, CB; Antonio Bryant, WR; Matt Jones, WR

Key Acquisitions via Trade

Chris Harris, FS

Offensive Overview

Chad Ochocinco might be un poco loco, but he's still a major contributor to the Bengals' passing game. From 2003 to 2007, Ochocinco (then known as Chad Johnson) was constantly near the top of the league in receptions, yards, and touchdowns. After a disastrous 4-11-1 season in 2008 where Ochocinco was plagued with nagging injuries, he bounced back majorly in 2009, accumulating 1,047 yards and 9 touchdowns in an offense that registered only 477 passing attempts, compared to their 2003-07 average of 538 pass attempts per year. A posting on CBSSports.com revealed the following data, which I confirmed via NFL.com's official statistics:

“Chad Ochocinco accounted for 25.2% of his team's receptions, as compared to 25.3% for Andre Johnson, 24.7% for Larry Fitzgerald, and 24.9% for Reggie Wayne.

Ochocinco accounted for 33.4% of his team's receiving yards, as compared to 32.7% for Johnson, 26.0% for Fitzgerald, and 27.4% for Wayne.

Ochocinco accounted for 42.9% of his team's touchdown receptions, as compared to 31.0% for Johnson, 48.1% for Fitzgerald, and 29.4% for Wayne.”

This data suggests that despite being targeted less than other top receivers, Ochocinco makes just as much of an impact on his team as any other elite receiver in the game. However he didn't have astronomically high statistics due to the Bengals' newfound emphasis on the run, as well as the departure of T.J. Houshmanzadeh, who joined the Seahawks and left Ochocinco as the only legitimate starting-caliber receiver in Cincinnati. Laveranues Coles, signed in the 2009 offseason, was released this year because he turned out to be less productive than the Bengals expected him to be when they paid him $10 million last year, and while Andre Caldwell made some nice plays, he still needs to spend some time in the slot to develop and improve before he can become a full-time starter. Antonio Bryant was signed to a four-year, $28 million contract this offseason, but there are already concerns about his knee, hence the signing of Terrell Owens.

I still stand by what I said about Owens in May: "Although there has been talk that Owens' production has been slipping, that is only true in comparison to the lofty standards of his career. His 55 receptions, while lower than his totals in the past, aren't incontrovertible proof that he is in decline. Statistically speaking, his 2009 season was almost exactly identical to his performance in 2008. In 2009, Owens' receptions accounted for 12.47% of the Buffalo Bills' passing plays, remarkably similar to 2008 when he was on the receiving end of 12.61% of the Dallas Cowboys' passing plays. Considering the quarterbacking situation and offensive line play in Buffalo last season, it is highly impressive that Owens was able to achieve the same level of statistical production that he did in Dallas. More impressive is that he put up those numbers as a No. 2 option - Buffalo signed him to draw defensive coverage away from Lee Evans, not to be the primary pass-catcher." Owens is going to prove a lot of doubters wrong in Cincinnati.

While the popular stance among media circles has been to claim that Owens is past his prime and cannot be an impact receiver anymore, that belief is flat-out wrong, and stems from writers parroting each other instead of writing what video of Owens shows. He's lost very little speed, and his route-running is still impeccable. However, Owens' divisive personality has made him extremely unpopular in the media, so most analysts simply dismiss him as a cancer. Yahoo's Shutdown Corner writer Doug Farrar 's description of Owens written towards the end of July was perhaps the most accurate I've seen all summer: “as long as he has enough time to get acclimated with whatever offensive system he's now married to, I have little doubt that he can still be a very productive #2 receiver in the NFL. The idea that he's done from an on-field perspective is pure folly.”

The tragic death of Chris Henry last year was an absolute shame, and the Bengals will feel his loss not only emotionally, but on the field as well. Before a broken arm put him on injured reserve, Henry averaged 19.7 yards per catch. The team's next-best average was over 5 yards less, 14.5, posted by Ochocinco. Before Henry's injury they averaged 22.5 points per game, but afterward they averaged only 15.625, and only scored over 20 points once. Bryant or Owens must fill Henry's shoes as the big-play receiver in Cincinnati's offense, or the Bengals will be as predictable on offense as they were towards the end of last season. In reality, the receiver position was this offense's biggest weakness last year once Chris Henry was lost for the season. With Henry out for the season, the Bengals' opponents were able to stack the line of scrimmage and call more blitzes without the fear of being punished in the air. Along with Bryant and Owens, former Jacksonville Jaguar Matt Jones was signed for depth. Additionally, the Bengals drafted tight end Jermaine Gresham, a 6'5”, 260-pound athlete who blocks well and possesses the soft hands and big body to make tough catches across the middle, in the first round, out of Oklahoma, If the Bengals' upgraded receiving corps produces as expected, it will create more room for Cedric Benson, who has completely rejuvenated his career in Cincinnati after a rough start in Chicago. It's hard to find holes in Benson's game, but depth behind him is a concern, especially after Larry Johnson signed with the Redskins this offseason.

The offensive line last year consisted of three players who were new starters, as well as Andre Whitworth, who moved from left guard to left tackle. Surprisingly, the Bengals' line played a lot better than expected despite all the new faces. Right guard Bobbie Williams was the one offensive lineman who played the same position for the Bengals in both 2008 and 2009. He was decent in pass-blocking, but was at his best when run-blocking. At right tackle, rookie Andre Smith was a pretty good blocker once he finally got onto the field, and he appears to have the edge for the starting spot this year. Left guards Nate Livings and Evan Mathis each spent time as the starter, and are going to compete against each other for the starting spot this year. Currently, Livings has a slight edge over Mathis because Mathis will be a little bit behind after missing minicamp due to a foot injury. Center Kyle Cook played very well last season, and looks to be a center that the Bengals can rely on as a starter for years to come. Left tackle Andre Whitworth wasn't bad in pass-blocking, but his run-blocking left a bit to be desired. While he is a serviceable starter, he should not be mistaken for a franchise left tackle.

The offensive line is really good and Cedric Benson has the look of a star running back, so he will likely be the focal point of the Bengals' offense. If Cincinnati's upgrades at receiver pan out, then veteran quarterback Carson Palmer, who is fearless in the face of defensive pressure, will have the weapons at his disposal to lead a potent passing attack to match the Bengals' running game.

Defensive Overview

The Bengals' defensive backfield is absolutely impenetrable. Jonathan Joseph and Leon Hall are quite possibly the best cornerback duo in the league, intercepting a total of 12 passes between the two of them. Strong safety Roy Williams played better than expected in coverage last year, and his physicality and aggressiveness set a tone for the defense, especially when he helped in run coverage. After the fourth game of the season, he broke his arm, but Chinedum Ndukwe played well in his stead and was a very good tackler. While the defense will be great if Williams stays healthy, they will be fine if he cannot. At free safety, Chris Crocker had a good year before struggling with an ankle injury, and former Dolphin, Raider, and Giant Gibril Wilson was signed in free agency to provide depth and possibly push for a starting spot if Crocker falters. Additionally, backup free safety Tom Nelson provides even more depth in the secondary, and he had 23 tackles and an interception in the three games he started. The Bengals will do well in nickel packages as well, with Adam “Pacman” Jones's incredible athleticism allowing him to compensate for any mistakes he makes in technique after being out of football for the entire 2009 season.

The defensive line has the potential to develop into the best unit on the entire team. Defensive end Antwan Odom was playing phenomenally at the start of last year, amassing 8 sacks in only 6 games before going on the injured reserve list for a torn Achilles tendon. In Odom's stead, end Jonathan Fanene played extremely well, too, tallying a total of 6 sacks in the 10 games he played. On the other end of the line will be Robert Geathers, who had 3.5 sacks and swatted down 3 passes. The interior defensive line will be buttressed by the return of a healthy Domata Peko, whose strong start to 2009 was derailed by a knee injury against Houston that hampered him for the rest of the season. When Peko missed games towards the end of the season, the line was more susceptible to runs up the middle, but Tank Johnson and a healthy Peko should anchor this line and allow the Bengals' ends to make a ton of plays. As if the line already wasn't good enough, the Bengals added Florida defensive end Carlos Dunlap in the second round of the draft. Dunlap is an athletic freak of nature similar to Jason Pierre-Paul, and he likely would have gone in the first round if it weren't for a DUI arrest before the SEC championship game. In passing situations, it is possible that Dunlap will get on the field from time to time and wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks. While the depth at defensive tackle is a minor concern, depth at end most certainly isn't, so the Bengals will likely have one of the best 4-3 pass rushes in the league as long as Peko stays healthy.

Linebackers Keith Rivers, Dhani Jones, and Rey Maualuga are all very similar to each other in that they are players who aren't necessarily the fastest, but do a great job of shedding blocks and getting to the ball-carrier. While they are excellent in run support, they are a major liability in the passing game. Because of the Bengals' talented defensive backfield, opposing quarterbacks often looked to their underneath routes and found them wide open, as Cincinnati's linebackers were simply too slow in pass coverage. Even though the defensive backfield was excellent last year, a member of the secondary still ended up as the team's second-leading tackler, because too many passes were being completed, and those completions were coming underneath the secondary. There's really no way to fix this weakness, so look for offenses to heavily employ slants and drags against the Bengals, especially if the pass rush is as strong as it is expected to be this year.

Special Teams Overview

The Bengals' kickoff coverage played solidly last year, ranking 13th in average yards allowed per kickoff return allowed despite a ranking of 28th in average kickoff distance. In punt coverage, they did not do as well, ranking 19th in average punt distance yet a disappointing 27th in average yards allowed per punt return.

Punt returner Quan Crosby was excellent, averaging 11.9 yards per return and giving the Bengals the second-best average punt return distance in the league. The Bengals ranked 21st in kickoff returns, and receiver Andre Caldwell, who handled most of the kicks, averaged a less-than-impressive 18.6 yards per return. Backup running back Bernard Scott returned 16 kicks for an average of 31.5 yards per return, and brought one of those kicks back for a touchdown. For the Bengals to consistently obtain advantageous field position, they might be better off with Scott as the full-time kick returner.

In free agency the Bengals lost kicker Shayne Graham to their division rivals in Baltimore, and chose to replace him with former Arizona Cardinal Mike Nugent, who hasn't played in more than four games since the 2007 season and has successfully made only 79 percent of the field goals he has attempted in his career.

Head Coach: Marvin Lewis

Lewis has been criticized often in his career for the high number of times his players have been arrested, and for putting up with the antics of Chad Ochocinco. However, the team's reputation for harboring so-called “bad boys” has given the team a “nobody believes in us” mentality and brought the team together. Winning the AFC North in the face of the tragic deaths of receiver Chris Henry and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's wife Vicki showed last year that Lewis knows how to unify a locker room for a common goal.

Top 2011 Free Agents

Cedric Benson, RB; Dhani Jones, LB; Jonathan Joseph, CB

Season Prediction

2nd AFC North

This team is definitely a lot better than it was two years ago, and they look to be getting better. The reasons the Bengals are ranked lower than the Ravens is that Cincinnati has less depth at receiver, less speed at linebacker, and a tougher schedule (as a result of winning the division last year). However, if Bryant and Owens live up to expectations, the offense could be very potent. There are a lot of talented teams in the AFC, and the Bengals are definitely among the top half of the conference. - Hank Koebler, IV

Hank is a sports journalist attending the University of Missouri's school of journalism.

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