NFL

Five Critical Questions Facing the Cincinnati Bengals

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The Bengals are one of the NFL’s great enigmas. Cincinnati has made the playoffs each of the last four seasons, but is widely dismissed as a contender, largely because of the franchise’s inability to break through in the postseason.

Is this the year the Marvin Lewis & Co. finally taste playoff glory? Or will another disappointing finish result in a massive makeover next offseason? Here are five critical questions that will help determine which path these Bengals follow.

Can Andy Dalton quit dropping eggs? 

People rag on Dalton for being turnover-prone and inconsistent. However, for his career he has thrown 50 percent more touchdowns than interceptions and has led Cincinnati to four consecutive winning seasons. The real issue is his tendency to lay some eggs along the way (and for those eggs to be dropped in January).

There were two such games last season: Week 7 in Indianapolis (47.4 percent completions, no touchdowns, three sacks) and Week 10 versus Cleveland (30.3 percent completions, no touchdowns, three interceptions). When Dalton plays like that, the Bengals have no chance.

The good news is those games do not happen very often. The bad news is they continue to sneak up and bite him a couple times each regular season (and seemingly every postseason). For the Bengals to get where they want to go, Dalton will play closer to his full potential every time he steps onto the field.

“The guys do look up to [Dalton],” TE Tyler Eifert told the team’s website earlier this offseason. “We trust him. He’s our leader.”

Can Jeremy Hill pick up where he left off?

Life will be much easier for Dalton and everyone else on the offensive side of the ball if Hill continues to dominate like he did down the stretch last season. Hill finished his rookie year with 1,124 rushing yards despite being held under 40 rushing yards in six of his first seven games (when Giovani Bernard was the starter).

Hill uncorked some monster games down the stretch, including topping the 145-yard mark in games against the Jaguars, Saints, Browns and Broncos (all wins). Now, Hill must prove he is lightning in a bottle and not merely a flash in the pan.

The Bengals did Hill a solid by spending their first two draft picks on offensive linemen (Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher), although it’s unclear how those two will get onto the field this season with Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith entrenched in front of them (Whitworth, 33, and Smith will be free agents after the season). Regardless, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson wants to use a power running game to open up play-action possibilities and force linebackers and safeties to play closer to the line of scrimmage.

Hill believes Cincinnati will have the league’s best running game and insists Bernard will still be a big part of that.

“Obviously there’s going to be a balanced attack,” Hill said. “I don’t think [Jackson] has to wear either one of us out.”

Can the pass rush gets its bite back? 

The last time Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson played a full season together (2012), they combined for 24 sacks. Atkins is healthy again after spending last year working his way back from an ACL injury, while Johnson is back in Orange & Black after playing the 2014 season in Tampa Bay.

“It’s scary how fast and explosive [Atkins] is right now,” said defensive line coach Jay Hayes during OTAs. “I think he has the confidence that he has his legs under him.”

Coach Lewis can only hope that is enough to ignite a pass rush that finished with the fewest sacks in the league in 2014 (20). The 7-9 Vikings, led by former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, had more than twice that many sacks.

Another question: Can Cincinnati get anything from 2013 second-round pick Margus Hunt? He is currently battling a back injury but is expected to be healthy in time for training camp. The SMU product has been slow to develop and needs a strong camp and productive preseason to maintain his place on the roster.

Can Cincinnati dominate at home? 

In 2013, the Bengals went 8-0 at home during the regular season. In 2014, that record slipped to 5-2-1, with both losses coming against division rivals. This season, the Bengals need to get back to defending the Jungle.

Cincinnati has one of the most challenging home schedules. In addition to the three division games, the Bengals will host the Chargers, Chiefs, Seahawks, Texans and Rams. Except for St. Louis, each of those teams posted a winning record in 2014. And all of them — especially the Rams — made significant improvements this offseason.

The Bengals need to finish no worse than 6-2 at home if they want to win their third division title in the last seven seasons. For for a team that has struggled in the playoffs, winning its division and guaranteeing a playoff home game is critical.

Will all the expiring contracts become a distraction? 

This is an issue for every team, but especially the Bengals. In addition to Coach Lewis entering the final year of his contract — with the understanding he will lead the Bengals to a postseason win or seek employment elsewhere — Cincinnati has a slew of core veterans entering contract years.

Headlining that list is A.J. Green, who at just 26 years old has already established himself as the best receiver in the game. Green was a part of the same draft class as Julio Jones, who is on the brink of his own massive extension with the Falcons. That deal should set the framework for Green, but it won’t be cheap.

“I handle the part of playing. I’m not hurting for money,” Green told the team’s website. “I got my option. That’s enough for now. I’m just focused on football. Next year will take care of itself.”

The secondary has unresolved contract issues, as well, with Leon Hall, Reggie Nelson and Adam Jones entering contract years. Others slated for free agency in 2016 include WR Mohamed Sanu, OLB Vincent Rey and DE Wallace Gilberry. That doesn’t even mention the starting offensive tackles, whose precarious position was covered earlier.

Sometimes players perform best during contract years, as it is essentially an audition for a new contract. Others become distractions, either by acting selfishly or playing passively (as to not risk injury). Cincinnati must hope for much more of the former than the latter, or this franchise will be in for some massive turnover next offseason.

What do you expect from the Bengals? Discuss with Michael Lombardo during his weekly NFL Chat on Friday at 2pm EST. But you don’t have to wait until then … you can ask your question now


About Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo has spent more than 10 years as a team expert at Scout.com, primarily covering the Chargers, Cardinals and Panthers. He has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and other venues.