Disappointment and regret are still fresh in the minds of the Cincinnati Bengals players and hearts of their fans one week after another season ended in one-and-done fashion in the playoffs, but there was plenty of success and progress in the weeks leading up to last Sunday’s 27-10 defeat.
The Bengals set franchise records on offense and fielded one of the best defenses in the league, went undefeated at home in the regular season and won 11 games and a divison championship.
The end result, however, was the academic equivalent of bombing the final exam.
But this, of course, is not academia. It’s football. And while postseason results will be the standard by which this franchise is measured for the foreseeable future, it’s time to look back at the season and issue grades based on 17 games, not just one.
So here goes:
Rushing Offense: C-
The Bengals ranked 18th in the league in rushing offense at 109.7 yards per game and 28th in average yards per rush (3.6). After running for a career-high 1,096 yards in 2012, BenJarvus Green-Ellis fell off to 756 this year and his 3.4 average was a career low.
Green-Ellis rushed 58 fewer times than he did in 2012 due to the emergence of rookie Giovani Bernard. The second-round pick made some electric runs and finished with 695 yards on 170 carries. He also was second on the team in receptions (56) and finished with 1,209 yards from scrimmage.
A major change on the offensive line in Week 13 gave the run game a jolt, but it was short-lived. Left guard Clint Boling’s season-ending knee injury led to All-Pro tackle Andrew Whitworth sliding to guard and Anthony Collins taking over at left tackle, and the Bengals ran for 164 and 155 yards in back-to-back wins against San Diego and Indianapolis. But they averaged 83 yards over the next three weeks and posted a pedestrian 113 in the playoff loss to the Chargers.
An illustration of the run game’s inconsistency is the fact that the team’s season high (165) and season low (57) came in back-to-back games.
Passing Offense: B+
Quarterback Andy Dalton set franchise records for passing yards (4,293) and touchdowns (33), while A.J. Green (11 TDs) and Marvin Jones (10) became the first teammates in team history to catch double-digit touchdowns. Green was fifth in the league in receiving yards (1,426) and sixth in catches (98), and Jones emerged as a dynamic No. 2 receiver in his sophomore season, finishing with 51 catches for 712 yards. The tight end tandem of Jermaine Gresham and rookie Tyler Eifert combined for 85 catches, 903 yards and six TDs, so there was plenty about the pass game that worked. The Bengals ranked eighth in the league in passing offense, averaging 258.5 yards per game.
Dalton posted a career-high passer rating of 88.8 despite throwing a career-high 20 interceptions. Pass protection was a reason for the big leap in production, as the offensive line allowed only 29 sacks after surrendering 46 in 2012. Dalton threw for three or more TDs in six games in 2013 after recording six such games in his first two seasons combined.
Rushing Defense: A-
The Bengals ranked second in the AFC and fifth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game at 96.5, which makes what happened in the playoffs all the more puzzling.
San Diego, which managed 91 rushing yards against Cincinnati in the Dec. 1 regular-season meeting, rolled up 196 yards in its 27-10 wild-card victory. That was the most the Bengals had allowed all season. In fact, there were eight times where Mike Zimmer’s troops didn’t allow that many yards in successive games.
Vontaze Burfict continued to emerge as one of the top linebackers in the game in just his second season. He led the league in tackles and earned a Pro Bowl nod. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga also showed great improvement from a shaky 2012 season and turned in arguably his most solid season as a pro. Domata Peko was his usual run-plugging self in the middle of the defensive line, and second-year safety George Iloka was one of the surprises of the season after winning the job in the spring and going on to be one of only four players who started every game on defense. He excelled in coverage as well as in run support.
The Bengals allowed only six rushing TDs all year, and they faced 1,000-yard backs from the 2012 season five times in 2013 and didn’t allow any of them to top 100 yards. They also faced five backs who had 1,000-yard seasons this year, and none of them topped 100 yards either.
Passing Defense: A-
The Bengals finished third in the AFC and fifth in the NFL is passing yards allowed per game even after losing top cornerback Leon Hall to a season-ending Achilles injury and two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins to a season-ending knee injury by the midpoint of the season. Another big blow was losing Taylor Mays, a safety who converted to a cover linebacker and really seemed to have found his spot before going down with a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 8.
At full strength early in the year, the Bengals shut down some of the top quarterbacks in the league, beating Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady in a four-week span. But even after the rash of injuries, they continued to make things tough on opposing signal callers. The Bengals had 22 sacks through the first eight games with Atkins, and they still recorded 21 more in the final eight games after losing the best pass-rushing tackles in the game. The team finished with 20 interceptions, which was its highest total since picking 20 in 2004. And the Bengals scored a franchise-record six defensive touchdowns, all of which came on pass plays. But perhaps the most impressive stat of average yards allowed per attempt, which at 5.1 was the franchise’s lowest since 1976.
Special Teams: C+
There was one disastrous play in Pittsburgh – the Antonio Brown punt return that made the score 21-0 in the first quarter and ended punter Kevin Huber’s season – one spectacular play against Cleveland – Jayson DiManche’s blocked punt that Tony Dye returned for a touchdown. The rest was rather average for Darrin Simmons squads, who were fairly solid and dependable in every phase.
Kicker Mike Nugent was a reliable 18 of 22 on field goals, with walkoff game-winners in back-to-back weeks at Buffalo and Detroit. Huber fell off a bit from his record-breaking 2012, but he still was one of the top performers in the league 24 punts inside the 20 and only four touchbacks before suffering a season-ending jaw and neck injury on what should have been flagged as an illegal hit in Game 14 at Pittsburgh. The return units were middling, with Brandon Tate averaging 25.1 yards on kickoffs and 9.3 on punts. Adam Jones only got a chance to return 11 punts and averaged 8.0 yards on those efforts. The Bengals ranked 21st in the league in punt return yardage allowed and 18th against kickoff returns.
Marvin Lewis outlined his plan as soon as the 2012 season ended and stuck to it. The Bengals were going to sign as many of their own free agents as they could to ensure continuity and depth, and it certainly paid off as they were able to fight through a rash of injuries by simply plugging in the next player on the depth chart.
As disappointing as the playoff loss was, winning 11 games (tied for second-most in franchise history) and the AFC North title can’t be seen as anything but a huge success. In addition to overcoming the many season-ending injuries to starters, the staff continued to develop young talent such as Vontze Burfict, Giovani Bernard, Marvin Jones and George Iloka.
Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer was brilliant with his gameplans all season, guiding the Bengals to the league’s No. 3 ranking in total defense and No. 1 in the AFC. The biggest issue was on the offensive side of the ball, with coordinator Jay Gruden struggling to find an identity. The Bengals seemed to morph back and forth from a high-powered air attack to a ground-and-pound run-oriented unit. In the end, though, the 430 points were the third most in franchise history, and the 5,894 net yards were sixth most.