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Cincinnati Bengals 2014 Season Preview

By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor

(SportsNetwork.com) - Head coach Marvin Lewis has been around the Cincinnati Bengals for a long time now and he knows what is expected out of his club this season.

He also knows it won't be easy.

"I'd call this season the most challenging one in my 12 years here," Lewis said. "Our team is as talented as any we've had here, and expectations have never been higher. But we have a tough schedule, and we can take nothing for granted. We don't get to start where we left off, as division champions. We've got to earn it all again before we can take those next steps."

The next step, logically, would be winning a playoff game, something the Bengals have not done since 1990. They are 0-5 in the postseason under Lewis, making three straight first-round exits.

Despite that lack of playoff success, Cincinnati remains on the upswing. It is coming off its first division title since 2009 and is loaded with young talent on offense.

The defense is getting there in terms of budding stars, but that is where Lewis' established veterans can carry the slack.

Hey, the Bengals must be doing something right as both their offensive and defensive coordinators from last season -- Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer -- enter 2014 as head coaches in the NFL.

Cincinnati wasn't super active in free agency, instead adding key pieces to its foundation through the draft. But president Mike Brown also avoided a massive season-long distraction by signing quarterback Andy Dalton to a big- time contract extension prior to the start of the season.

"I like him on the field; he's steady Eddie," Brown said of Dalton. "He competes. He doesn't do stupid things. He keeps us focused. He makes us a winning team. He's won nine games, then 10, then 11. That's pretty good. Everybody knows we didn't win in the playoffs, and we have to get over that hump. And we are counting on Andy to get us to that point."

Another early playoff exit may have Brown regretting his investment of a reported $115 million over six years, but the club has assembled the necessary talent to make it work in Cincinnati.

2013 RECORD: 11-5 (1st, AFC North)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2013, lost to San Diego Chargers in wild-card round

HEAD COACH (RECORD): Marvin Lewis (90-85-1 in 11 seasons)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Hue Jackson (third season with Bengals, first as OC)

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Paul Guenther (10th season with Bengals, first as DC)

KEY ADDITIONS: QB Jason Campbell (from Browns), RB Jeremy Hill (2nd round, LSU), C Russell Bodine (4th round, North Carolina), T Marshall Newhouse (from Packers), T Will Svitek (from Patriots), DE Will Clarke (3rd round, West Virginia), LB Dontay Moch (from Cardinals), LB Sam Montgomery (from Texans), CB Darqueze Dennard (1st round, Michigan State), DB R.J. Stanford (from Dolphins), SS Danieal Manning (from Texans)

KEY DEPARTURES: QB Josh Johnson (to 49ers), FB Chris Pressley (to Browns), WR Andrew Hawkins (to Browns), C Kyle Cook (free agent), G Otis Hudson (to Chiefs), G Mike Pollak (free agent), T Anthony Collins (to Buccaneers), T Dennis Roland (free agent), DE Michael Johnson (to Buccaneers), LB Michael Boley (free agent), LB James Harrison (free agent), DB Brandon Ghee (to Chargers), DB Chris Crocker (free agent), P Zoltan Mesko (free agent)

QB: The stats showed that Dalton deserved to be paid despite still having one year left on his rookie contract.

Had Cincinnati not opted to pay the 26-year-old, his status would have no doubt been discussed week in and week out, especially if the fourth-year pro struggled.

Not helping was the Bengals drafting high-profile Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron in the fifth round, but the Bengals put any issues to bed by opening the bank for Dalton.

The TCU product continued his upward trend in 2013, setting franchise records with 4,293 passing yards and 33 touchdown passes. He did get picked off 20 times, but there is no doubt that the Bengals feel okay with putting the franchise in his hands.

And to his credit, Dalton is aware of what needs to be done.

"I know how it works," noted Dalton. "You're not at the top among quarterbacks until you've won in the playoffs."

Cincinnati doesn't appear as if it is ready to rush McCarron into a backup role despite his two national titles and 36-4 record as a starter with the Crimson Tide.

Instead, the No. 2 job appears to be Jason Campbell's to lose. Campbell made eight starts last year with Cleveland and is a veteran of 79 NFL starts.

GRADE: B+

RB: New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson wants to see the Bengals better establish a running game after the club finished 18th on the ground a season ago, and he'll have plenty of options.

Jackson should look to get the ball into second-year pro Giovani Bernard's hands often. Bernard amassed 1,209 yards from scrimmage a year ago and he set a franchise record for catches by a running back with 56.

Bernard, a former second-round pick, has the ability to break off big plays at any moment, but gives up size at just 5-foot-9.

That is where the returning BenJarvus Green-Ellis and 2014 second-round pick Jeremy Hill come in. Both top 220 pounds and offer power straight ahead, though Hill was able to break off a number of long runs at LSU.

When Jackson opts to put a fullback on the field, the duties will likely fall to college free agent Nikita Whitlock.

GRADE: B+

WR: Few can blame the Bengals for their tendency to throw the ball last season given the presence of A.J. Green, who has quickly emerged as one of the top wideouts in all of football.

The fourth overall pick of the 2011 draft, Green has already recorded the most catches (260) and second-most yards (3,833) of any receiver in NFL history over his first three seasons. He has 11 touchdown catches in back-to-back seasons and his 1,426 receiving yards last year fell just 14 shy of matching Chad Johnson's 2007 franchise record.

Even more important for the Bengals, Green appears ready to be more of a vocal leader in the locker room.

"Be more vocal with teammates, get more involved and step out of your box a little bit," Green said of his goals for the season. "You have to do that in order to be great. I feel like I've done enough here to say some things. I have to be more vocal. Not selfish, but talk to people. We have a bunch of good leaders here."

Cincinnati's other big-play receiver is Marvin Jones, who took advantage of the space created by Green's presence to nab 10 touchdown passes a season ago along with 51 receptions.

Jones, who is currently sidelined with a broken foot, is the athletic counter to Mohamed Sanu, who like Jones was a 2012 draft pick. Sanu brings size at 6- foot-2, 210 pounds and should see time in the slot. However, club's will have to keep an eye on him wherever he lines up as he has run the ball in the pass and has completed a pair of NFL passes, one a 73-yard TD throw to Green.

Brandon Tate figures to have a roster spot locked down due to his ability to return kicks, but could be pushed for playing time by Dane Sanzenbacher.

GRADE: A-

TE: The decision to select Tyler Eifert in the first-round of the 2013 draft made having two tight ends on the field a must for the Bengals thanks to the presence of Jermaine Gresham.

Gresham and Eifert combined to make 88 receptions for 915 yards last year, with Gresham falling four catches shy of his fourth straight season of at least 50 receptions.

Eifert also figures to improve during his sophomore campaign, while veteran Alex Smith returns to fill a blocking role.

GRADE: A

OL: The Bengals have a nice veteran presence at tackle in Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith. Whitworth is expected to start on the left side and hopes to stick there after moving to guard in 2013 for a while due to injury. He is a veteran of 116 regular season starts, while Smith has started 36 of the last 37 games at right tackle.

Kevin Zeitler, a 2012 first-round pick, has had the right guard spot locked down since getting drafted, while Clint Boling is looking to bounce back from a major knee injury suffered on Dec. 1 of last season that halted his consecutive starts streak at 29.

Rookie Russell Bodine, a fourth-round selection figures to hold off Trevor Robinson for the starting center job.

Marshall Newhouse and Will Svitek were both signed in the offseason to add depth at tackle.

GRADE: B

DL: The Bengals have managed to put together one of the most dominant defensive lines in football over the past few seasons and have invested in the future of the unit a well.

Even with the loss of Michael Johnson in free agency, the front four still figures to have its way with opposing offensive lines. Ends Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry tied for the club lead with 7 1/2 sacks each last season, with Gilberry doing so despite just two starts. However, he'll see plenty of time on the ride side due to Johnson's departure.

Dunlap, meanwhile, is as athletic as they come, showing off his skills by blocking two field goal attempts, knocking down 10 pass attempts and forcing four fumbles, all while consistently getting to the quarterback.

Cincinnati is deep at the end spot as well. Margus Hunt, all 290 pounds of him spread out over a 6-foot-8 frame, played in 10 games last season and has excited the Bengals with his potential, while rookie Will Clarke joins the mix after getting taken in the third round out of West Virginia. He also brings size at 6-foot-6, 271 pounds.

The Bengals also will get a boost with the return of defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who missed the final seven games of last season due to a torn ACL. He still managed six sacks in 2013 after posting 12 1/2 the previous year.

"Geno is one of the best defensive tackles in the game," declared nose tackle Domata Peko. "It's going to uplift everybody. We're excited to have him back. I'm sure the entire city is glad he's back. Not only is he a hell of a pass rusher, one of the best inside pass rushers in the game, but he's a hell of a run stopper, too."

Peko isn't too bad himself, having started every game the past four years.

Veteran defensive end Robert Geathers is returning from an elbow injury that limited him to just a pair of games last year, while Brandon Thompson slides back into a reserve role after filling in for the injured Atkins. Tackle Devon Still, a former second-round pick in 2012, is also looking to bounce back from injury.

GRADE: A

LB: A number of Cincinnati's linebackers have had a lot to prove since entering the NFL and have done just that, including emerging star Vontaze Burfict.

Burfict has gone from undrafted out of Arizona State to a Pro Bowler, having shaken the stigma of being undisciplined and out of shape.

Cincinnati should see another undrafted starter in Emmanuel Lamur, who is penciled in at the strong side. Lamur brings a ton of athleticism and should be hungry after missing all of last year due to a shoulder injury suffered in the preseason.

"When he got hurt, I almost fainted," said defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, who served as Cincinnati's linebackers coach the previous two years before getting promoted.

"He's a young guy with things still to prove, but he had a real chance to expand his role last year, and it's the same situation this year. There's a lot of things you can do with him. He's very fast and agile for a 6-foot-4, 240-pound guy. He can play safety, he can cover tight ends."

Vincent Rey is another undrafted fixture in the lineup and should spell starter Rey Maualuga at times at middle linebacker.

Outside linebacker Jayson DiManche played every game last season after cracking the roster as a college free agent and is a key special teams contributor.

GRADE: B

DB: The Bengals did a great job of balancing their desire to win now and stay competitive down the road, standing pat at No. 24 in the recent draft and selecting Michigan State product Darqueze Dennard, believed by some to be the best corner available in the draft.

Dennard will make his money as a man-coverage corner who isn't afraid to get physical at the line of scrimmage. He'll be eased into the rotation behind backups Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones.

Cincinnati needed to upgrade at defensive back because Leon Hall is coming off his second career Achilles tear. He suffered an injury to his left Achilles in 2011, then tore the right one in Game 7 of last season.

Fellow starter Terence Newman, meanwhile, will be 36 this season and missed time last year with a knee injury.

Reggie Nelson returns at free safety, a spot he has held since late in 2010, and will continue to try and make the big hits, while George Iloka took over starting duties at strong safety late last season.

Taylor Mays and Shawn Williams are expected to back up, while Danieal Manning signed for added depth after missing time with Houston last season because of a knee injury.

GRADE: B-

SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Mike Nugent returns for his 10th season and fifth with the Bengals, while punter Kevin Huber is back in the mix after missing the last two games of the regular season and the Wild Card game due to an injury. He holds club records for gross punting average (44.2) and net average (39.1).

Both have been productive during their time with the Bengals along with long snapper Clark Harris.

Tate is the incumbent at returner, ranking sixth in the AFC last season in kickoff return average (26.1) and second in punt return average (9.3).

Manning, Adam Jones and Sanzenbacher can all contribute to the return game as well.

GRADE: B+

COACHING: Entering his 12th season, Lewis is the longest-tenured coach in team history and only New England's Bill Belichick has been with his team longer among active coaches.

Lewis is 90-85-1 in the regular season, but is still chasing that elusive playoff victory. Still, the franchise signed him to a one-year extension through 2015.

Jackson, a former head coach for Oakland in 2011, enters his third straight year on the Bengals coaching staff, while Guenther is in his 10th and is a Zimmer protege.

GRADE: B+

THE SKINNY: No more excuses for the Bengals, the time is now to win a playoff game.

That is the message that should be sent throughout the organization and things will get hot for Lewis should Cincinnati exit the postseason quickly once again.

The franchise also showed a lot of faith in Dalton despite his lack of postseason success, but expect 2014 to be the season that Cincinnati's young group breaks free of its learning curve and makes some noise in the playoffs.

08/25 14:00:00 ET

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