Published August 24, 2013
| Sports Network
HBO has had its fair share of critically-acclaimed shows hit the airwaves over the past few years and saw enough in the 2013 version of the Cincinnati Bengals to make the squad the feature of its "Hard Knocks" documentary for a second time.
Only time will tell if the Bengals can live up the expectations of being the focus of the popular reality show, but president Mike Brown and head coach Marvin Lewis are hoping they have blended enough youth with experience to unseat the division-rival Baltimore Ravens as the kings of the AFC.
Lewis, entering his 11th season as the sideline general of the Bengals, has led the franchise to the playoffs in three of the last four years after the franchise went just once between the 1991-2008 seasons. But while Cincinnati has made it a habit of reaching the postseason, it is still looking for its first playoff victory since 1990.
That includes back-to-back first-round exits at the hands of the Houston Texans and the pressure will be on Lewis and quarterback Andy Dalton to take the next step.
Dalton, though, is only concerned with the expectations within his own locker room.
"That's what matters most," said the third-year signal-caller. "We've got a lot going into this year. We've got basically everybody back from last year. We've added some new guys, which are going to help us out a lot."
The Bengals' 10-6 record a season ago tied the eventual Super Bowl-champion Ravens for the best mark in the AFC North and the club carried big momentum into the postseason by winning seven of eight in the second half.
However, Baltimore's 22nd-ranked offense could not manage an offensive touchdown in the playoffs, leading to the quick exit.
To help Dalton and star wide receiver A.J. Green, the Bengals spent their first two draft picks on offense, grabbing Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert 21st overall before selecting running back Giovani Bernard with the first of two second-round picks.
Last year's sixth-ranked defense, one that set a club record with 51 sacks, returns basically intact with the addition of linebacker and former Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison, and special teams group remains solid.
With the young blood and a proven veteran in Harrison, Lewis is looking to mix together the perfect combination of experience and energy to provide the kind of depth needed to go the distance.
"Veteran guys want to win. They know the clock is running and you only have so many chances," said Lewis. "And you only have so many players, so sooner or later those young guys are going to be called on. You want to make sure they are ready to go when they step in that huddle with you. The mentoring of the young guys, and creating mentoring depth on the football team is very, very important."
Lights, camera, action for the Bengals.
2012 RECORD: 10-6 (2nd, AFC North)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2012, lost to Houston Texans in wild card round
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Marvin Lewis (79-80-1 in 10 seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jay Gruden (third season with Bengals)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Zimmer (sixth season with Bengals)
KEY ADDITIONS: QB Josh Johnson (from Browns), QB John Skelton (from Cardinals), RB Giovani Bernard (2nd round, North Carolina), TE Tyler Eifert (1st round, Notre Dame), TE Alex Smith (from Browns), G Mike Pollak (from Panthers), DE Margus Hunt (2nd round, Southern Methodist), LB James Harrison (from Steelers), LB Sean Porter (4th round, Texas A&M), S Shawn Williams (3rd round, Georgia)
KEY DEPARTURES: QB Bruce Gradkowski (to Steelers), RB Brian Leonard (to Buccaneers), G Travelle Wharton (released), DT Pat Sims (to Raiders), DE Jamaal Anderson (released), LB Thomas Howard (free agent), LB Manny Lawson (to Bills), LB Dan Skuta (to 49ers), CB Nate Clements (free agent), CB Jason Allen (released), S Chris Crocker (free agent), S Robert Sands (released) K Josh Brown (to Giants)
QB: Dalton is the only quarterback in Bengals history to lead the team to the playoffs in his first two seasons and is aiming to become the fifth starting signal-caller in league history to reach the playoffs in his first three campaigns.
The numbers have been there for Dalton: a 19-13 record, 7,067 passing yards and 47 touchdown passes to 29 interceptions in his two seasons. Now, the 25- year-old is taking on more of a leadership role, the next step in the progression of an NFL quarterback.
"He's going into his third year, the cast around him gets nothing but better, and we all feel his leadership, spreading his wings. He's maturing," said Lewis.
Reassuring for the Bengals is that Dalton seems to agree.
"That's how it should be. It should be the quarterback's team," said Dalton. "The quarterback is the leader of the team and the quarterback is the one that has the ball in his hands every single play."
Though Dalton has not missed a game in his young career, the Bengals brought in a pair of players to compete for the backup spot. They claimed John Skelton off waivers from Arizona in April and also signed former Tampa Bay and Cleveland quarterback Josh Johnson. Neither has had a ton of success in the league, though Skelton has the experience edge with 17 starts.
Cincinnati needs Dalton to stay on the field.
RB: Like most teams in the NFL, the Bengals are looking to get a pair of running backs involved in the offense.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis returns for his second season with Cincinnati after rushing for a career-high 1,094 yards on 278 carries last season. The 220- pound back excels at getting the tough, short yards and was key to the Bengals' second-half surge, but he found the end zone just six times after logging 24 rushing touchdowns in the previous two seasons with New England.
For a change of pace, the Bengals drafted Bernard out of North Carolina to add a speedier element and contribute to the passing game. His 5-foot-9 frame has him a better fit to slip through holes and break for daylight rather than pound the ball, though offensive coordinator Jay Gruden likes his demeanor.
"He's not afraid. He may not run over people like Adrian Peterson, but he'll make some people miss," said Gruden. "He's hard to find in there. Sometimes those smaller backs get in there and they get low, and linebackers and safeties can't find them. They pop out the back door. He's got great feet."
Special-teams ace Cedric Peerman will back up and four-year vet Bernard Scott is looming, but a torn ACL limited him to just two games last year.
Fullback John Conner and Orson Charles, listed as an H-back, are battling for a spot in the backfield as well. Charles may have the inside edge on Conner given his versatility, having played in 16 games last year as a reserve TE.
Former starting fullback Chris Pressley is still rehabbing a season-ending knee injury suffered late last season.
WR: The Bengals hope they have their own Montana-Rice-like combination in Dalton and Green, who has made the Pro Bowl in each of his first two seasons and last year emerged as perhaps the best young wideout in football.
Green's 162 career receptions are the most for a player in NFL history over his first two seasons and he had a streak of nine straight games with at least one touchdown catch last year, a Bengals record and only the second such streak in NFL history since 1964.
The other? A record 12-game streak by Jerry Rice in 1987.
There is little doubt that the duo of Dalton and Green (97 receptions, 1,350 yards, 11 TD), will define this offense for quite some time.
"As soon as we were both drafted, everybody already had already linked us together. Before we even played a game," said Dalton. "Now that we've played a couple years together, I expect us to play a lot more together. We've done some good things together since we've been here. We want to keep getting better and keep doing things to win games. Hopefully we'll be doing that for a long time."
The Bengals are less dangerous at the position after Green. Andrew Hawkins had the second-most catches by a Cincinnati wide receiver with 51, posting 533 yards with four touchdowns. He is best used in the slot position, so sophomores Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones will battle for the No. 2 spot.
Sanu gives Gruden a host of options as a threat both in the receiving and running game. He can also give a sort of wildcat look with his ability to throw the ball.
Brandon Tate can give Dalton a chance to go deep with his speed, but his primary role is as the club's kick returner. Cincinnati also hopes it got a steal in the sixth round with Arkansas product Cobi Hamilton.
TE: Expect to see a lot of two-tight end sets after the Bengals added Eifert to the roster alongside back-to-back Pro Bowl selection Jermaine Gresham.
Gresham (64 receptions, 737 yards, 5 TD) is the first tight end in franchise history to record three straight seasons of at least 50 catches and he ranked second on the club last year in receptions and receiving yards.
He should see even more field this year thanks to Eifert, a mismatch machine with excellent receiving skills who can make the contested catch.
"It adds another weapon. Whether you have two tight ends in the game at a time, or three possibly," said Gruden back in April after the first round of the draft. "It creates problems for defenses -- that personnel group -- because they want to leave their base defense on the field, so you get him matched up with a linebacker, most likely."
Eight-year vet Alex Smith was signed for added depth.
OL: The Bengals added depth to their offensive line, but stand a good chance of returning all five anticipated starters from a year ago. However, that group saw Dalton get sacked 46 times in 2012 after he was taken down just 24 times on 12 fewer attempts as a rookie.
The leader of the line is left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who is coming off a Pro Bowl selection and was been a key part of this unit since being selected in the second round of the '06 draft.
Andre Smith was re-signed to resume his role as the starting right tackle and he'll look to build on his chemistry with Kevin Zeitler, who started every game at guard last season as a rookie next to Smith. The former first-round pick should improve this year.
Clint Boling also started all 16 games last year at left guard, but has also taken snaps this preseason at tackle and could be pushed by Mike Pollak, a six-year vet signed as a free agent.
Kyle Cook went into last season having started 50 straight games at center, but missed the first 12 games due to a foot injury before returning to start the final two games and the wild card contest. He'll be challenged by Trevor Robinson, who appeared in 13 games with seven starts at center last season as a rookie.
Rookie Tanner Hawkinson can play both guard and tackle, adding nice depth.
DL: Cincinnati's defensive line contributed 43 of the club's 51 sacks a year ago, led by 12 1/2 from defensive tackle Geno Atkins. That total led all NFL interior lineman and earned Atkins a spot on the Associated Press' All-Pro first team in his fourth NFL season.
While Atkins made a habit of getting in the faces of quarterbacks, nose tackle Domata Peko uses his 322-pound frame to stuff would-be runners. He matched Atkins' 53 tackles last year, with just two of those sacks.
Of course, the Bengals also get pressure from the outside in the former of 6- foot-7 right end Michael Johnson and the newly-extended Carlos Dunlap. Johnson posted 11 1/2 sacks last year and was designated with the club's franchise tag that will pay him just over $11 million this season, while Dunlap inked a five-year extension through 2018.
That commitment means that Dunlap should start over 10-year veteran Robert Geathers, who made all 16 starts at left end a season ago. He logged 30 tackles and three sacks to Dunlap's 40 stops, six sacks and four forced fumbles in 14 games.
More snaps for Dunlap could make this unit even better than last year, and perhaps one of the best to ever suit up for the Bengals.
"I'll leave the comparisons to the media," said Bengals defensive line coach Jay Hayes," but we liked what our group did last year and we've got only the highest expectations for them this year. It's up to us as coaches to get the most out of them. There's a lot there to get."
With Johnson's future with the club uncertain as he plays out his franchise tender, Cincinnati may groom his possible replacement, second-round pick Margus Hunt, a native of Estonia who stands at 6-foot-8 and used his frame to become a fierce kick blocker in college.
Six-year vet Wallace Gilberry had 6 1/2 sacks in a reserve role last year, while second-year pros Devon Still and Brandon Thompson back up in the middle.
LB: Teacher becomes the student for Harrison, who will look to blend in with linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga, Cincinnati's top two tacklers from last season.
Harrison, though, will have plenty to experience to teach as a five-time Pro Bowler and shook off a knee injury that caused him to miss the first three games of last year with Pittsburgh to notch six sacks. There is no doubt Harrison is on the decline at 35 years of age, but he should add plenty of energy to the strong-side spot.
"Tez (Burfict) and Rey are helping me out with things that I need to know on the field," said Harrison. "It's a switch of positions for me, so to speak, where I'm learning from younger guys."
Harrison should like what he sees from Burfict, who went undrafted due to some character questions but ended up leading the Bengals with 127 tackles. He was a starter from Week 1 because of a season-ending injury to Thomas Howard.
Maualuga, meanwhile, turned in another solid season with a career-high 122 tackles. He returns to the middle spot after re-signing this offseason.
While there is a lot of talent at the top of the depth chart, the Bengals are young behind the starting three. Vincent Rey and Emmanuel Lamur, entering their third and second seasons, respectively, make up the reserve unit along with 2013 fourth-round choice Sean Porter, who is solid in pass coverage.
DB: With the Bengals parting ways this offseason with both Nate Clements and Chris Crocker, the strong safety position is up for grabs. That should be the lone new look in Cincinnati's secondary, with corners Leon Hall and Terence Newman set to return along with free safety Reggie Nelson (85 tackles, 3 INT).
Second-year safety George Iloka, a former fifth-round pick, appeared in seven games last year and has had an impressive offseason. He is looking to hold off challengers Taylor Mays, who played in all 16 games a season ago, and rookie Shawn Williams, a third-round pick out of Georgia for a starting job.
The Bengals are blessed with talent and experience at the two corner spots and Dalton is high on Hall, who returned one of his two interceptions for a score last year as he bounced back from an Achilles injury that sidelined him for the final seven games of the 2011 campaign.
Hall got stronger as the season went on and accounted for Cincinnati's only playoff touchdown with a pick-six.
"He's the best corner in the game," declared Dalton. "Lockdown. Leon Island."
Newman, a former Pro Bowl selection with Dallas, started 15 games with the Bengals last year, his first with the club, and was excellent at breaking up passes. He enters his 11th season in the NFL.
Adam Jones returns as the Bengals' third corner with yet another arrest hanging over his head. Jones is facing charges for allegedly assaulting a 34- year-old woman at a Cincinnati nightclub, with his trail delayed until Oct. 7.
That could lead to punishment by the NFL for Jones, who played in all 16 games last year with five starts and is key to the return game.
Should Jones face discipline, the Bengals hope that 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick can rebound from a knee injury that limited him to just five games a season ago. Reserve Brandon Gee is also looking to come back following a wrist injury that caused him to miss all of 2012.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Punter Kevin Huber returns after a solid 2012 season that saw him set club records with a gross punting average of 46.6 yards and a net average of 42.0 yards. His distance was perhaps only outdone by his accuracy as he pinned 11 kicks inside the five-yard line.
Cincinnati also opted to re-sign Mike Nugent even though he missed the final four games of 2012 with a calf ailment. He was 19-for-23 on his kicks before the injury, including a club record-tying 55-yarder.
Long snapper Clark Harris has been a fixture at the position since joining the club in October of 2009.
Jones ranked seventh in the NFL with a 11.6 yard return average on punts, taking one 81 yards to the house. Wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher could make the roster as insurance as he took a punt 71 yards to the end zone during preseason.
The speedy Tate averaged 24.8 yards per kickoff return a season ago.
COACHING: Lewis' 79 career victories have pushed him 15 past Sam Wyche for the most in franchise history. He is currently the second-longest tenured head coach with one team, behind only Bill Belichick's 14 seasons with the New England Patriots.
It took Lewis some time to get the Bengals competitive and he seemed in danger of falling off the radar when he followed up an 11-win campaign in 2005 with campaigns of 8-8, 7-9 and 4-11-1. However, he has been getting the most out of Cincinnati's roster of the past few years to extend his Ohio shelf life.
Gruden is building a reputation as a talented offensive mind and saw his name in the mix for a number of head coaching positions, while Zimmer has excelled at grooming home-grown talent.
THE SKINNY: The Bengals will certainly be expected to contend for the division crown this season and failure to advance in the postseason will be seen as a step back.
"For us the goal is to get back to the playoffs. That's everybody's expectation. Once you get back to the playoffs it's its own thing," said Dalton. "There's a lot of confidence on this team and there should be. We've done some good things since I've been here. We've got to play with that confidence and that swagger. I think everybody is excited and ready to go."
Dalton has plenty of weapons to utilize and a big step forward for the offense could be what the club is lacking. The defense shouldn't take a step back, not with Harrison's presence in the locker room keeping things high energy.
It's not a reach to see the Bengals overtaking the new-look Ravens for the AFC North crown, but like Dalton said, the playoffs are a whole new ballgame.