Don't worry, fans and haters, I haven't given up on getting through all 20 teams before the season starts. I've just been really busy this week, so--
What's that? There are 32 teams?! Holy Holly Golightly! I'd better get through these faster!
Today’s Absurd Prediction: Over the 2nd half of the season, the Bengals’ defense will be ranked in the top 16.
Doing so would, mathematically, put them in the upper half of the league’s ranks. Here’s why I think this long-suffering unit could finally have some success. 1) The guys at the weaker positions are young. As the season goes on, they get more experience and should improve. 2) A major reason the defense was so bad last year was that injuries hit very hard. I watched one game where they only had (I believe) one full-strength linebacker suited up by the game’s end. 3) They’ve made some coaching changes (addressed below) that should help as the players adjust. 4) They have a very easy travel schedule in the last seven games, never going more than a state away, which will minimize fatigue. The biggest problem with my prediction, save the fact that it involves the Bengals’ defense being better than average, is that they have 7 teams who finished above .500 last year in their last 9 games. But, my regular readers know, I put little stock in last year’s finish.
Coaching Changes: This Year, We’re Fixing The Defense, Part V (B)
The Bengals brought in Mike Zimmer, who earned his reputation as Cowboys defensive coordinator and ran the Falcons’ defense last year. I won’t fault him too much for anything that happened in Atlanta, but that was the 29th-ranked unit in the league. Just sayin’. Hopefully for Cincinnati, the players will buy into his system and this defense will improve fast. The other new hire was linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald, who coached the likes of Ray Lewis, Bart Scott, Terrell Suggs, Adalius Thomas, and Jarrett Johnson. This hire I like a lot, and it should greatly aid the development of youngsters Rashad Jeanty, Ahmad Brooks, and the #9 draft pick Keith Rivers. Adjusting to the new coaches may take time, but it should pay dividends later in the season and in future years.
Draft: Hey Chad, look at all the new receivers. (A-)
Rivers, the Bengals' earliest draft pick since Carson Palmer, couldn't have landed in a better spot. The LB-desparate Bengals will expect him to start day 1, and they've committed to getting him the coaching he needs to succeed. I like Rivers a lot; he's an explosive, fiery player who can get knocked over by a lineman and still get up and make the play. He's got the speed to catch most running backs and the awareness to be useful in the passing game. 2nd-round wideout Jerome Simpson has an interesting highlight reel - four shots of the same play where he hurdles over a defender with superhuman leaping ability, a few other catches, and one play where he has the fortitude to recover a long fumbled snap. I get a feeling it'll be a little while before he can be effective in the NFL; his route-running is shoddy, and he's not a blazing-speed guy, so he's going to need a good deal of coaching. But he should be ready to move into the slot in a year or two. DT Pat Sims, at 310 pounds, is nothing if not a space-eater. As long as Cincy can get enough other threats on the D-line that Sims won't be doubled, he should be a starter in short order. As if preparing for life after Chad Johnson, the Bengals took another WR next, Andre Caldwell, who's one of those guys who could prove that combine numbers mean something, or that they overhype certain players. Caldwell's 40 time shot him upwards in the draft, though it's not the only reason he was drafted so high. He's great at catching the ball in traffic, was on a championship team in Florida, and in my opinion looks more like a slot receiver than Simpson. Fourth-round T Anthony Collins was a steal who will get time to develop behind a strong Bengal starting O-line - he has the size, tools, and experience against solid competition to make it as long as he has some decent coaching. The next choice was baffling. DT Jason Shirley is huge and has some talent, but only played three games last year, not due to injury, but for various suspensions. He seems a classic doesn't-learn-his-lesson glutton for trouble, and I don't know why the Bengals, needing an image clean-up, would take a chance on this guy who is described by SI's scouts as "poorly conditioned." In the sixth, they took S Corey Lynch, who comes from famous underdog Appalachian State, and who should be an excellent special-teamer. They also got a TE, Matthew Sherry, who is sized like a blocker but is actually a pass-catcher with marginal blocking skills. And with two compensatory seventh-round selections, they took pass-rushing OLB Angelo Craig and Mario Urrutia, a 6'5", 232 pounder who despite lacking speed and route-running skills is listed as a WR, not a TE. This looks like a very good draft by the Bengals, with a couple of new playmakers on defense, and some rookie receivers chosen at just the right time - they'll get reps with Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh away, but they'll have time to develop before they're expected to be starters.
Player Movement: Out with the old, out with the not-so-old, too. (C)
They lost their #1 tackler, Landon Johnson, as well as Justin Smith, who you may know as the guy who emerged as a supreme superstar all the time in Madden 04. His 2-sack 2007 left everyone but San Francisco disillusioned, and he’s gone. Smith is replaced by Antwan Odom, who emerged last year for the Titans with a great 8-sack season. They also brought in LB Darryl Blackstock and TE Ben Utecht. Utecht’s and Odom’s knowledge of the AFC South will help, since the Bengals play all four teams from that division. Also lost in free agency: S Madieu Williams, C Alex Stepanovitch, WR Tab Perry, and presumably LB Lemar Marshall, though he has yet to sign with a new team. The front office made some cuts, including the indefinitely suspended Odell Thurman and Chris Henry, Doug Gabriel (whom they had signed only forty-one days earlier), and several minor players. All in all, there’s a lot of veteran leadership on defense gone, and that’s going to hurt for a little while. The Bengals are left with a very young unit, which doesn’t look great for this year, particularly early on.
Other Considerations: Stacy's mob has got it going on.
The Bengals have made offensive line continuity a priority during Marvin Lewis' tenure - for example, their franchise player, Stacy Andrews, was listed as a backup last year. The starting offensive line will likely consist of four guys the Bengals drafted this decade, and one they acquired before the 2004 season (Bobbie Williams). Backing them up, a rookie who can play multiple positions (Collins) and a long-time starter and former regular Pro Bowler, Willie Anderson. These seven guys will continue to be the key to a consistently great offense. That's even if Chad Johnson doesn't play for them this year; I believe the Bengals can get by without him if they trade him, especially if they pick up a free agent like Tim Carter, Samie Parker, or Keenan McCardell (depending whether they want to go with a young guy or a vet). They'd just need another target to keep teams from focusing too much on T.J. The point is, Chad Johnson needs the Bengals more than they need him, which probably means he'll play this year, and maybe get traded next year after Caldwell, Simpson, and Urrutia have played a season. Jonathan Joseph, Leon Hall, and Deltha O'Neal should be a pretty good set of corners for the Bengals this year, which might help keep some opposing scores down. But the safety position looks kind of suspect, and getting beaten on big plays might continue to be their Achilles' heel. But the biggest question of all for the Bengals: yes, DT Domata Peko appears big enough to be a solid interior guy - he's listed at 319 lbs. - but how much of that is his hair?
The Grade: Can Marvin Lewis survive another C+ season?
My guess is, yes he can, and he will, particularly due to the vast improvement over the latter half of the year. If they start 2-7 but finish 5-2, I think it'll be enough to give Lewis one more year.
Other Absurd Predictions: