I bet if you were to ask Cincinnati Bengals’ quarterback Andy Dalton if this season was “the season” for the Bengals, he’d probably say it’s just like any other season, and the team’s goal is to win and get to the Super Bowl. It’s true for every season and team in the NFL.
But this year, with the recent winning seasons and the Bengals’ focus on offensive players this recent draft, not to mention the decline of the AFC North’s powerhouse teams - Baltimore and Pittsburgh – this season feels like “the season” for Dalton and the Bengals.
All of the pieces are in place. Last year, Cincinnati’s weak link was the offense. Dalton only had A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham to throw to and the shortcomings came to light in January against Houston. This year, the Bengals went out and picked up TE Tyler Eifert and RB Giovani Bernard in the first two rounds of the draft.
If there was a time for a third-year quarterback who has made two winless trips to the playoffs to show that he can become an elite player, this would be the time.
As Bengals’ head coach Marvin Lewis would say, “This season is a grind.” It will be especially true this year with the Bengals’ bye week not coming until Week 12. Add to that a short turnaround into week 3 after a Monday Night game against the Steeelers on the 16th and the opening schedule for the Bengals is brutal.
But it has to start somewhere, and for the Bengals it’s in the windy city against the Bears on Sunday. Here are the key factors
1. Andy Dalton
Aside from one long ball during the preseason, most of Dalton’s passes in his limited playing time were of the short-to-medium variety. The biggest criticism for Dalton in 2012 was his lack of accuracy on the long ball which limited the Bengals to a shorter field. When the safeties don’t respect a quarterback’s arm, they suddenly become a real nuisance against shorter routes and the running game.
Since we didn’t see much of a downfield attack in the preseason – partly due to Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green being out with an injury – this is the number one priority for offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and Dalton to address against Chicago.
There is a lot of caution tape with Dalton going downfield. Chicago’s defense was one of the best in the NFL at creating turnovers and its defense ranked ahead of the Bengals in net yards. With the always imposing Julius Peppers on the line for the Bears, and the uncertainty of Bengals’ veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth making the start due to injury, Dalton may not have much time in the pocket to set up for deep throws.
Even if Dalton does get breathing room on passing downs, the Bears’ secondary is no slouch. Chicago Bears’ CB Tim Jennings is coming off his best season yet with nine interceptions in 2012, and 11-year-veteran Charles Tillman is equally as impressive with three interceptions and an incredible 10 forced fumbles.
Chicago isn’t keen on using double teams against opposing receivers. This way, the safeties are free to roam in zone coverage. If Dalton’s deep ball accuracy isn’t pinpoint, it will be a long afternoon of short routes and dumps offs for the Bengals.
2. Ground ‘n Pound
If Dalton has trouble getting the ball to Green and company, then the Bengals are going to have to rely on the running game that finished 18th in the NFL last season with 109 yards per game.
The task should be much easier this year with the addition of speedster Giovani Bernard and the incumbent RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis coming off his second 1,000-yard season in his six-year career. However, Green-Ellis had not only the first fumble of his career in 2012, but his second and third as well. Hopefully, Green-Ellis got that out of his system because the Bears are one of the better teams in creating turnovers with 29 forced fumbles in 2012, second-most in the NFL
Dalton will need Bernard and Green-Ellis to find holes early in the game and bring the Chicago defense in the pocket so that the air game will work. If the Bears stuff the Bengals at the line of scrimmage, chances of the Bengals winning this game are slim.
3. Offensive line
With veteran Andrew Whitworth likely out this week from his injury during the preseason, whoever is working left tackle is going to have a long day going against Julius Peppers. While most NFL players would be past their prime at the age of 33, Peppers seems to keep on wrecking havoc against opposing offenses.
In 2012, Peppers had 11.5 sacks and 39 tackles. For any defensive end, those are good numbers - for Peppers - it was a slight down year. That’s how good he is.
With the Bengals most likely putting Anthony Collins in place of Whitworth Sunday, it could be a good start for the 2013 season for Peppers.
The Bengals offensive line has also been victimized by their own penalties this year with multiple false starts during the preseason. Center Kyle Cook had two penalties in the preseason opener and has struggled finding a groove. The offense will need its line functioning flawlessly on Sunday if they want to win the possession battle.
As mentioned, the Bears had the second-most forced fumbles last year, and they tied for the league lead in total turnovers. Charles Tillman accounted for a majority of those fumbles – he even had one against Green in the Pro Bowl.
The deciding factor in which team wins on Sunday will come down to the turnovers – this is true for almost every game in the NFL. Both teams are good a forcing turnovers, but the Bears are exceptional and have the edge over Cincinnati.
5. Bengals’ Defense
This falls down the list because the Bengals’ defense will do what it is expected to do – put pressure on the quarterback and force sacks and turnovers via downs. The Bengals were second in the league with 51.0 sacks last year and third in the NFL, but they were in the middle of the pack with 14 interceptions.
Who was last years’ interceptions leader? You probably guessed right - the Chicago Bears at 24.
This game will definitely be a defensive battle, and for the Bengals to win the season opener in Chicago, it will be up to Dalton and the offense to find a way to break through one of the best defenses in the league. The Bengals’ defense will put ample pressure on Jay Cutler and the Bear’s league average offense, so it will be up to Dalton to break the deep-ball stigma in the season opener if the Bengals are going to win this one.
Against an elite defense that’s playing at home, the Bengals have their hands full. With limited attempts at stretching the field this preseason, chances are the Bengals’ offense will be relying on the short game which is where the Bears want it.
At home, the Bears have the edge, and Cutler may just have enough time to expose the Bengals’ secondary.
Chicago wins 20-17