By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) The Cincinnati Bengals are the NFL equivalent of a “butterface.” Everything that meets your eyes during a slow scan of their roster is appealing until you get to that pesky-yet-essential starting quarterback position.
That’s not to say Andy Dalton is a total brown bagger. Despite making every start since being drafted, Dalton’s still an unfinished, developing prospect. He joined Dan Marino and Peyton Manning as the only quarterbacks to have thrown for 20+ touchdowns in their first two NFL seasons, and broke a 30-year drought by leading the Bengals to back-to-back playoff appearances.
It’s Dalton’s performances in those playoff appearances that stokes my skepticism.
The primary reason Dalton slid to the second round – arm strength – has manifest itself in crucial moments. In the Bengals most recent playoff loss to the Texans, he was late and generally inaccurate on multiple deep throws, which ended up being the difference in the game. Dalton also plays gun-shy at times, taking sacks that he shouldn’t. Perhaps this is a byproduct of him not trusting his arm enough to fit the ball into tight windows.
Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has done an effective job covering up Dalton’s blemishes and accentuating his strengths.
Dalton is a rhythm passer who anticipates inside-breaking routes well. Gruden has accordingly schemed quick reads on short drops, rollouts to cut the field in half, and utilizes play-action to help Dalton gear up for longer throws, which takes more time in the pocket.
Fortunately, the Bengals offensive line is stout in pass protection, particularly on the edges. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth adroitly uses angles to wall off defenders, surrendering a mere 19 sacks over the past four seasons. Whitworth is still recovering from offseason knee surgery, so if he’s unable to go, Anthony Collins would start. Right tackle Andre Smith has shown consistent improvement, developing into a premier right tackle.
With a weapon as skilled as wide receiver AJ Green, it’s essential that the line keeps Dalton clean, confident, and upright in the pocket. Green and Dalton were the Bengals top two selections in the 2011 draft and have been rewriting the record books ever since. With uncanny body control, smooth route running, and a willingness to be a go-up-and-get-it guy, Green has firmly entrenched himself among the NFL elite.
Finding a complimentary receiver to take advantage of a coverage-dictating receiver like Green has proven to be a challenge.
Tight end Jermaine Gresham was Dalton’s second favorite target last season, but he’s failed to distinguish himself. With slot receiver Andrew Hawkins (ankle) on the shelf, second-year receiver Mohamed Sanu could emerge. Sanu’s rookie campaign was hampered by a broken foot, yet he reeled in four touchdowns in limited action.
Judging by the Bengals most recent draft, they’re all in on determining if Dalton is the guy to get them over the hump. The new brand of athletes they’ve brought in on offense may signal a shift in philosophy to the ubiquitous spread attack.
The Bengals spent their first-round pick on Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert. Eifert must improve as an in-line blocker, but he gives Dalton another dynamic weapon to work up the vertical seam. Eifert is a mismatch against backers and nickels, so look for Gruden to utilize him in the slot in addition to traditional two tight end sets with Gresham.
In the second-round, the Bengals bypassed the opportunity to draft “load” back Eddie Lacy, opting instead for Giovani Bernard. Bernard is a compact, shifty third down back and dangerous in the open field. Bernard is the flashy compliment to the plodding-yet-reliable Benjarvus Green-Ellis.
Defensively, the Bengals are for real.
The Bengals wisely kept their defensive core intact. They retained their most critical players and were fortunate that defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer didn’t receive a head coaching job. Combining continuity with top-shelf talent and quality depth forecasts big things ahead.
The Bengals plan of stockpiling defensive line talent early in the draft is paying off. Zimmer has developed this homegrown talent into one of the most dominant groups in the league.
The Bengals are able to press the pocket with a four-man rush, generating 43 of their 51 sacks from their defensive line. Rushing four and dropping seven allows Zimmer to play a lot of press-man and judiciously mix in a creative blitz package.
Defensive tackle Geno Atkins is the centerpiece and has emerged as the NFL’s premier 4-3 defensive tackle.
Atkins is powerful, quick, relentless, finishes with burst, and plays with low pad level which allows him to win leverage battles at the point of attack. Despite being the focal point of protection schemes, Atkins still registered 12.5 sacks and created single block opportunities (“singles”) for his linemates. Atkins recently inked a well-deserved 5-year, $55M extension.
Right defensive end Michael Johnson was the primary beneficiary of the singles created by Atkins, registering 11.5 sacks. That effort was strong enough to earn Johnson the franchise tag designation for 2013. Johnson is an angular athlete, who uses his long arms and a variety of pass rush moves to disengage.
Left defensive end Carlos Dunlap (concussion) – who also recently inked a rich contract extension – was just as disruptive as Johnson last season and offers more in run defense. Zimmer frequently uses three defensive ends together, kicking Wallace Gilberry inside.
At the second-level, the Bengals low-risk gamble on linebacker Vontaze Burfict paid huge dividends. Burfict was a 14-game starter, a three down Will-backer, and led the Bengals with 127 tackles. Burfict is still developing and his play borders on reckless at times, but the initial returns indicate the Bengals may have outsmarted the rest of the league.
After years of playing as a 3-4 rush linebacker, free agent acquisition James Harrison will now man the strong side in a 4-3. It seems like a curious fit, as Harrison doesn’t rush the passer like he once did, but can still set the edge versus the run. In Cincinnati, Harrison may find himself in the foreign situation of being subbed out on third down.
The loss of Emmanuel Lamur is a big blow. Lamur was a developing nickel linebacker, but a dislocated shoulder may cost him the season. Vincent Rey is the logical replacement, but doesn’t offer the same range in pass coverage.
The Bengals have a deep group of cornerbacks, led by Leon Hall. Hall is adept at press-man coverage and slides into the slot in nickel, replaced by Adam Jones on the boundary. This group’s willingness to bump and be physical affords Zimmer a lot of flexibility with his underneath coverages.
Opponents will look to work in between the numbers and exploit the soft middle of the Bengals defense. Rey Maualuga is a liability in coverage, and the Bengals are still searching for answers at the strong safety position.
It’s become trendy to pick the Bengals as the team that takes the next step in 2013 and it’s understandable, to a point. This is a very deep and talented roster, with a great blend of young prospects and proven veterans. But, come January, teams have to lean on their trigger man, and I haven’t seen enough from Dalton to think he’s going to take the necessary quantum leap.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @djdurkin