2015 AFC preview: Cincinnati Bengals
From now until the Patriots begin training camp, Phil Perry looks at the 15 other AFC teams: The biggest question they face heading into the season, their storyline on offense, their storyline on defense, and their "threat level" to the Patriots.
Today's opponent: The Cincinnati Bengals
THE BIG STORY
Can the Bengals win in January?
The Bengals have made the playoffs in each of the past four years, but have yet to win a postseason game in that span. Part of their inability to break through has been the play of quarterback Andy Dalton, who owns a playoff touchdown-to-interception ratio of 1-to-6 in his four-year career.
If Dalton is going to make the next step in his postseason progression in 2015, he's going to have to do it with a surrounding cast that is almost unchanged from last season. Twenty of the team's 22 offensive and defensive starters are projected to return to compete in the talented AFC North.
Last season, Dalton went to work against the Colts in the Wild-Card Round without AJ Green, Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert or Jermaine Gresham because of injuries. If the team's weapons can remain healthy deep into the season, Dalton will have a much better chance at advancing past his first playoff matchup, but he'll have to be sharper or the
Bengals could go a fifth consecutive season without a postseason victory.
OFFENSIVE STORYLINE TO WATCH
Can Jeremy Hill become one of the league's elite running backs?
It seems as though the Bengals offense has already started to lean more heavily on its running game, and that trend could continue into 2015.
While Green is the team's most talented player (four straight 1,000-yard seasons), running back Jeremy Hill emerged as Cincinnati's most dependable player at the end of the season in 2014. Hill ran for more than 100 yards in five of the team's final nine games, including the last three. And in the Bengals final three regular-season games, Hill racked up 5.6 yards per carry.
With Giovanni Bernard complementing Hill on third downs as a legitimate pass-catching threat, Hill could remain fresh enough to take the bulk of the carries, alleviate some of the pressure on Dalton to make plays, and solidify himself as one of the conference's top backs.
DEFENSIVE STORY LINE TO WATCH
How will Geno Atkins perform two years removed from knee surgery?
The Bengals were statistically the worst team in the NFL last season in terms of compiling sacks, totalling just 20 for the year.
Part of their inefficiency in rushing the passer may have been due in part to the fact that the team's best defensive lineman, Geno Atkins, was still not himself after tearing his ACL in 2013. If Atkins resembles something more akin to the player he was before his injury,those sack totals should rise.
Carlos Dunlap (eight sacks last season) and Michael Johnson, back in Cincy after a year with the Bucs, should also benefit if a healthier Atkins attracts more attention from opposing offensive lines.
THREAT LEVEL: MODERATE
The Bengals should, once again, threaten for a playoff spot. They have enough talent at their offensive skill positions to give defenses fits, and their offensive line appears as though it will be solid enough to provide Dalton with the protection he needs.
But because there weren't any significant upgrades made to last year's roster, the fashion in which 2015 ends in Cincinnati could very well depend on Dalton's effectiveness late in the season. Unless Dalton takes the next step in his development under center, the Bengals could have another one-and-done season on their hands.