Heading into week one of the season, every team in the NFL has issues. Here are 10 questions that I’ve been asking this week and some of the more revealing answers that I’ve received.
Is Andy Dalton ready to take another step forward in his third year as an NFL starter?
The Bengals quarterback inherited a 4-12 team in 2011 and has taken it to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons. There has been far more good than bad in his 34 NFL starts. But after two poor playoff performances, it’s fair to ask if he has shown significant improvement in training camp and the preseason.
“He’s gotten a little bit stonger and I’d like to think he’s gotten a little bit quicker,” said Jay Gruden. “He’s more decisive, and we feel like he has more command of the offense. So I think he’s improved in a lot of areas, but I guess it’s to be determined week in and week out in year three.”
“I think the first year he was busy just trying to be the quarterback,” said Marvin Lewis. “In the second year he was trying to be the leader of the offense. Now I think everybody knows that he’s the leader of the football team. He’s embraced that and continued to grow as a player and person.”
Will the Bengals follow the Patriots lead in using a two tight end offense?
With a 25-year-old, two-time Pro Bowl tight end on the roster in Jermaine Gresham, many people were surprised that the Bengals used their number one draft pick on Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert. The question is, how often should we expect to see the two of them on the field at the same time?
“It should be a lot,” said Gruden. “I think it’s our best personnel group when those guys are on the field together. Obviously on third down and long, we might want to take out a tight end and bring in another skilled guy like Marv or Mo, but I think those two together is a good group to have because you can run and throw the ball equally. If a team wants to match-up in nickel, then you have a mismatch in the running game. If they want to stay in their base, then we can spread them out and get Gresham or Eifert on a linebacker or safety and we feel like we can win that match-up. If they want to play single high (safety) to stop the running game, we also have #18 (A.J. Green) out there who is a pretty good weapon. So we feel pretty good about the weapons that we have and the choices that Andy has – it’s just a matter of keeping everybody happy. Hopefully that won’t be an issue.”
After finishing 22nd in the NFL in total offense last season, will the Bengals take a significant step forward this year?
The Bengals added the first tight end selected in the draft in Eifert and the first running back selected in Giovani Bernard. They get Mohamed Sanu back from injury after catching four TD passes in the last three games he played in last year. Clearly Andy Dalton has more weapons to work with than ever before.
“I think this is an offense quite frankly that is going to look to be more explosive in the pass game and maybe alter the run-pass ratio a little bit,” said Greg Cosell of NFL Films on this podcast. “They’re not going to become pass, pass, pass – I’m not suggesting that it’s going to be shotgun and throw it on every play – but I think they feel that they can expand their pass game now. Andy Dalton is ready for that, they’ve increased the weapons, and everybody has been in the system for a few years. Obviously they have two rookies in Eifert and Bernard, but those guys are really effective in the pass game.
How much will Giovani Bernard play?
BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for 1094 yards last year, including 607 yards in the second half of the season (despite resting in the regular season finale). Bernard certainly gives the Bengals more of a big-play threat, the question is, how evenly will their playing time be split?
“I think it will be close,” said Gruden. “We’ll see how the game goes. As a running back, there’s so much feel involved – if Benny has a hot hand and rushes for 50 or 60 yards in the first couple of drives, then he’ll probably stay in there. But Giovani has shown that he can not only run outside and in space, but also between the tackles. I think the more that we get him the ball the better off BenJarvus will be.”
What about Whit?
After having knee surgery in the off-season, Andrew Whitworth did not take a snap in a preseason game. All signs point toward him missing the season opener in Chicago. Was there a setback at some point during training camp?
“There have been things that I’m not really at liberty to discuss – that’s more for Marvin to discuss,” said Whitworth. “I continue to stay on the progress that I went to be on in order to play effectively. That’s what I’ve continued to do every day and it’s the only thing I’ve focused on.
“It’s frustrating. I’m a guy that’s always been on the field and hasn’t missed anything. This is a critical game and if I do have to miss it, this will be the first one that I’ve had to miss in my career in a critical situation. It’s tough, but you deal with it and move forward and realize that it’s a process.”
Can Anthony Collins handle Julius Peppers?
If Whitworth can’t play, Anthony Collins will take his place at left tackle and line up against one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. Collins hasn’t started a game at left tackle since 2008, but did perform well in Whitworth’s place during the preseason.
“I’m just at one position now – the left side,” said Collins. “Probably later in the season they might need me on the right, but when you stick to one side, your whole body structure changes and it gets used to one side. So it helps a whole lot when you can stick to one side.”
“He’s been amazing,” said Whitworth. “He’s a guy that has always stepped in when he’s been needed, and I’ve always been a big advocate of his and pushed that he should be starting in this league somewhere if not here. He continues to be solid and does all that he’s asked to do on the football field. He’s a guy that makes you proud.”
Can Kyle Long handle Geno Atkins?
The Bears used their number one draft pick (20th overall) on offensive lineman Kyle Long – the son of Hall of Famer Howie Long. After beginning his college career as a defensive lineman (like his dad), he’s only been playing on the offensive line for a couple of years. He’ll get a “Welcome to the NFL” experience on Sunday when he squares off against Geno Atkins.
“He’s a good prospect,” said Marvin Lewis. “Kyle is a good athlete and we were very high on him. They drafted him in the first round and they have him right in there playing.”
What will the Bears do on offense under new head coach Marc Trestman?
Trestman has a long history as an NFL quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, but it’s relatively ancient history – his last NFL job was in 2004 with the Dolphins. Since then, the Bears head coach spent two years as the offensive coordinator at NC State and the last five years as head coach of the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes. Andrew Hawkins spent two seasons playing for Trestman in Canada and provides a scouting report.
“His philosophy is that you can’t go broke taking a profit,” said Hawkins. “So it’s check-downs and little dink-and-dunk passes to set up bigger plays and to inch your way down the field. Everything in his offense is called for getting a first down. He’s just looking for first downs. That’s his philosophy and I can’t imagine it’s going to be anything different.”
That’s not what we’re used to seeing from the Bears rifle-armed quarterback Jay Cutler.
“No, that’s not Jay Cutler so it’s going to be an adjustment,” said Hawkins. “Jay will have to buy into what he does because that’s who he is and I can’t imagine it changing.”
Can Taylor Mays fill Emmanuel Lamur’s role in the nickel defense?
Lamur was Cincinnati’s best linebacker in pass coverage, and his season-ending shoulder injury leaves the Bengals (at least for now) without an obvious replacement in the nickel defense. Safety Taylor Mays, who is nearly as big as Lamur, has begun training under linebackers coach Paul Guenther to potentially assume a similar role.
“It’s definitely exciting,” said Mays. “I think maybe naturally for me it’s a little better (fit) because I’m more in the box and that could be a better position for me. I feel good about it and I like the kind of plays that linebackers get to make. I think maybe with my skill-set it fits me well.”
Do the Bengals know who will start at safety opposite Reggie Nelson this year?
Last year in the first three weeks of the season, the Bengals started Mays, Jeromy Miles, and Nate Clements in that spot before bringing Chris Crocker off of his couch in week four. George Iloka is listed as the starter for Sunday’s game in Chicago, despite breaking his right hand when he punched a teammate’s helmet a little more than two weeks ago.
“Well I hope we don’t have three different starters in the first three weeks,” said Mike Zimmer. “I think George has a chance to do the things that I’m asking him to do. He’s athletic back there, and has good acceleration and coverage ability. He has to understand his role in the defense and that’s about keeping everybody on the same page. Let’s do everything right, let’s not make a bunch of mistakes, and I think we’ll be fine.”
So those are 10 questions that I’ve been asking. We’ll begin getting the real answers on Sunday in Chicago.
I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net
If you Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard
And I’m on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dan.hoard.1