The last time Cincinnati opened on a Monday night was 2007, and this blogger was at Paul Brown Stadium to watch the Bengals upend the same Baltimore Ravens 27-20. Cincinnati would lose its next four contests that season before finishing a disappointing 7-9.
The 9-7 campaign of 2011 with a rookie quarterback at the helm gives the team hope for this season, especially with all the key players (and coaches) from that campaign returning for 2012.
1. Getting to .500 in close games: It may surprise many of you to find that the Bengals finished below .500 in games decided by eight points or less last season. Their 5-6 mark was worlds better than the depressing 2-8 number from 2010, but still a far cry from where this team needs to be to take the next step. The Packers could easily have been 12-4 instead of 15-1 had their 4-1 mark in close games been reversed. Indianapolis’ two-win season could have easily been five or six with better luck in their six close contests, of which they won one. Improvement in close games will likely be the difference between a return to the playoffs and a step back this season. Just look at the ’09 Cardiac Cats, who looked awful for long stretches of games, but won six of nine tight contests to secure a 10-win season and playoff berth.
2. O-line play: Two of the projected starters on the offensive line – Travelle Wharton and Kyle Cook — are expected to miss most, if not all of the season. This leaves us with three new (or new-ish) faces starting inside of Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith on the o-line. Kevin Zeitler, the rookie mauler from Wisconsin, and second-year man Clint Boling will be holding down the guard spots while 10-year veteran Jeff Faine, a regular with the Browns, Saints and Buccaneers, comes in to anchor the line at center. How well they organize, and stay healthy, will factor largely into Andy Dalton’s ability to develop in year two.3. Unknowns becoming knowns: Bengals fans are familiar with Brandon Tate, Andrew Hawkins, Bernard Scott and Jermaine Gresham, but none of these players are household names. With no proven No. 2 receiver and a new running back in BenJarvus Green-Ellis, these role players will need to step up and become difference makers. Gresham has been close and Scott looked like he had all the potential in the world, but this is the year they need to take their games to the next level and become difference-makers in the Bengals attack. Hawkins, who showed flashes of brilliance on third down last year, and Tate will need to team up with rookies Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones to help Cincinnati move the chains when defenses focus all of their energies on A.J. Green.
4. Big play avoidance: The Bengals allowed 47 pass plays and 10 rushing plays of 20+ yards in 2011. Injury concerns with cornerbacks Leon Hall and Dre Kirkpatrick, combined with a new staring safety in Taylor Mays, make us susceptible to big, momentum-shifting plays that often decide tight contests. With Carlos Dunlap getting closer to full health, the Bengals’ d-line rotation is getting back intact, making long, sustained drives seem less worrisome. This defense, with Mike Zimmer still at the controls, will make stops and force turnovers. They just need to avoid the brain cramps that allow chunks of yards and cost the team both momentum and field position.
5. Starting fast: This one seems pretty obvious but with Cincinnati’s late-season struggles, this may be more important to this team than any other. In each of the three playoff seasons in the Marvin Lewis era, the Bengals have won six of their first eight contests. This season’s schedule sets up for similar success with Cincinnati facing just two teams (Baltimore and Pittsburgh) that finished better than .500 a year ago in its first eight games this season. After the opener in Baltimore, Cincinnati faces four rookie quarterbacks (Brandon Weeden twice, Robert Griffin III and Ryan Tannehill) in its next five games with a contest in Jacksonville against sophomore signal-caller Blaine Gabbert coming in Week 4.
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