As the summer winds to its finish, gridiron die-hards are undoubtedly licking their lips at the prospect of a new NFL season. Now in August, training camps for all 32 NFL teams are underway, and on the heels of another fantastic season, this upcoming year of football already has many questions surrounding it. Can the New Orleans Saints become the fourth team in the last two decades to repeat as Superbowl champions? Which rookies will have impacts for their teams? Who is primed for a breakout season? Will Brett Favre be donning purple one more time?
In an attempt to ready fans for Kickoff Weekend (which begins with a rematch of the dramatic Saints-Vikings NFC Championship on Thursday September 9), I will be posting a team-by-team breakdown, armed with predictions, as well as players and rookies to look out for. ‘NFL At A Glance’ continues today in the AFC North with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Offence: Is it Chad Ochocinco or Chad Hachi Go (85 in Japanese, as the receiver said he’d re-name himself this season)? Regardless, Cincinnati’s resident big-mouth, big-play receiver has two new partners in crime: Terrell Owens and Antonio Bryant. Since the departure of TJ Houshmandzadeh to Seattle a few years ago, the Bengals have lacked a wideout to balance the field for ‘the Receiver Formerly Called Johnson’ (1,047 yards, 9 touchdowns in 2009). Now, the two talented receivers can call Cincy home, and Carson Palmer has more offensive weapons to help aid his return to football relevance. Bryant and Owens each experienced drops in their production last season, Bryant going for 600 yards and 4 touchdowns in Tampa, with Owens receiving 829 yards and 5 touchdowns as a Bill.
Cedric Benson came out of nowhere last year to lead the Bengals to their first playoff spot and AFC North title since 2005. The former Bear draft-dud ran for 1,251 yards and scored 6 touchdowns on the ground, as Benson showed for the first time in his five year career that he can justify his fourth overall selection in 2005. Last year, the Bengals took everyone by surprise. This year, the offence is bigger and badder, and opposing secondaries will definitely have their hands full with deep ball and middle-of-the-field threats like Ochocinco an Owens, contrasted by Cedric Benson’s chip-on-my-shoulder running.
Defence: Cincinnati will enter 2010 with one of the best cornerback tandems in the NFL in Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph. Joseph (6 picks, 1 forced fumble, 1 touchdown in 2009) and Hall (6 picks, 2 forced fumbles in 2009) will look to build on their impressive 2009 campaigns as the clear stars of the Cincinnati defence. The other bright spot on the Bengals defence is rising sophomore linebacker Rey Maualuga. The University of Southern California product had 63 tackles, 3 forced fumbles and a sack in his rookie season.
Other names boasted on this defensive squad include linebackers Dhani Jones and Keith Rivers, defensive tackle Domata Peko, ends Robert Geathers and Antwan Odom (8 sacks in 6 games in 2009, including 5 in a week 3 victory at Green Bay) and safeties Roy Williams and Chris Crocker. This Bengals squad is a very gritty group who enjoy hitting hard, and is largely the same defence that ranked 4th in the NFL in total defence in 2009, surrendering 301.4 totalyards per game (203.1 passing, 98.3 rushing).
Who Dey? The Bungles: This is where Cincinnati has their work cut out for them. Yet, for a team with such a shoddy offensive line, 2009 worked out remarkably well, as the Bengals were 9th in the NFL in sacks against, registering 29. A group featuring the likes of Andrew Whitworth, Dennis Roland, Bobbie Williams, Kyle Cook and Nate Livings, teams will undoubtedly look to bring the heat early and often. Last year, the Bengals looked to remedy their perennial offensive line woes with the drafting of Andre Smith (6th overall, out of Alabama). Smith was said to be one of the strongest run blockers in Southeastern Conference (SEC) history, and is currently easing his path to ultimately protecting Palmer’s blind side by learning to play right tackle.
The Kids are Alright: The Bengals 2010 draft was geared towards loading up on offence, as the team added receivers Jordan Shipley (Texas) and Dezmon Briscoe (Kansas) and prized first round tight end Jermaine Gresham (Oklahoma). On defence, the front office nabbed cornerback Brandon Ghee (Wake Forest) and defensive end Carlos Dunlap (Florida). All figure to play into Cincinnati’s long term plans, with Dunlap and Gresham as the more immediate impact rookies. Ghee will be battling for the nickel corner spot, while Briscoe and Shipley battle for the fourth receiver spot. Gresham will likely be the starting tight end out of camp, and his versatility, size and speed will make him a matchup nightmare in time. Carlos Dunlap will be starting behind Geathers and Odom, but will also get his share of reps as he slows into his role.
Impact Forecast: The Bengals are loaded with offensive weapons and will almost positively employ an offensive attack that is pass-heavy. Ochocinco and Owens are no longer drinking from the fountain of youth, which points in the direction of a production drop. Look for Ochocinco to hover around 900-950 yards with 6-7 touchdowns, with Owens compiling 700 yards and 5 touchdowns.
The main sticking point for this offence will be how Palmer integrates Benson. Will there be enough plays for Benson to stretch the defence and provide Cincy with a stout run game? The addition of Owens and Bryant provide the offence with more of an unpredictability factor, meaning Benson’s numbers could indeed improve. While not necessarily considered a speedy back, Benson runs hard and could be trucking towards a better season. Look for Benson to nab somewhere around 1200 yards on the ground with 7 or 8 touchdowns.
Finally, will Carson Palmer’s re-emergence continue to succeed? This is one player whose production and consistency I can hope to rely on. Regardless of what people say, Palmer only had one really subpar season in his 6 year career, and that was due to injury. Palmer has always been the brightest spot on this team, and after his 3,094, 21 touchdown, 13 interception season last year, I expect him to continue his march back towards the top. 3,500 yards, 25 touchdowns isn’t necessarily out of reach, but of Philly wasn’t big enough for Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens, can Cincinnati handle Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco?
Schedule Outlook: The Bengals begin their season on Sunday September 12 against the New England Patriots. Outside of their six divisional games, Marvin Lewis’ boys will face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills, New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers at home, and the New England Patriots, Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons, Indianapolis Colts and New York Jets on the road. The combined 2009 records of their opponents 138-118-0, giving them the 4th toughest schedule in the NFL in 2010.
Prediction: Cincinnati can’t hold on to that AFC North crown due to the upstart Ravens and get bounced from the playoff picture with an 8-8 finish. Carson Palmer throws for 3400 yards, 24 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Ochocinco finishes with 950 yards and 7 touchdowns, Owens accumulates 850 yards and 5 touchdowns and Bryant gains 800 yards with 5 scores. Jermaine Gresham has a productive rookie season with 550 yards and 3 touchdowns, while Cedric Benson gains 1250 yards and hits pay dirt seven times. Palmer joins the AFC Pro-Bowl team once again as a consolation for the Bengals postseason rejection.
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