One man's list of the five most intriguing Bengals offseason questions as they gun for their fourth straight playoff berth. (BTW, only Cincinnati, New England and Denver have made the AFC postseason in each of the past three years.)
With all but two starters under contract, right end Michael Johnson and left tackle Anthony Collins, some of the bigger questions concern injuries and the impact of the new coordinators.
1. Can two-time defensive tackle Geno Atkins and elite cornerback Leon Hall avoid the PUP list as they come back from major injuries?
After watching Seattle's No. 1 defense take apart Denver's No. 1 offense in last Sunday night's Super Bowl, Sirius Radio's Jim Miller wondered how good the Bengals No. 3 defense would have been if Hall, the team's best cover player, didn't lose the last nine games with a torn Achilles on Oct. 20 and Atkins, the club's best pass rusher, didn't lose the last seven with a torn ACL on Oct. 31.
So far, so good on the rehabbing front. Word is that there have been no setbacks for either player. It's also early as fingers cross.
Hall has a 24-day head start on his other Achilles injury, which occurred on Nov. 13, 2011, and his remarkable return to training camp on the first day of 2012 was once described by trainer Paul Sparling as so improbable that it was a lightning strike. Can lightning strike twice?
The 300-pound Atkins is coming back from major surgery for the first time, so there is some unknown. But his voracious commitment to the gym should get him through.
The worst case is PUP, the physically unable to perform list that ices players for the first six weeks of the regular season. That's the last thing the Bengals need as they transition to a new defensive coordinator. Right now PUP seems a distant option since a player can't practice in training camp to be eligible and it sounds like both are on track to work at some point in camp.
But that's why fingers are crossed.
2. What will the offensive line look like as far as style and personnel heading into the May camps?
The Andrew Whitworth Debate has yet to commence but it would seem the violent physicality the Pro Bowl left tackle enjoys bringing to the left guard position fits nicely with new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's desire to pound people a la Seattle, particularly in the running game.
With left guard Clint Boling (ACL) most likely sidelined before the Bengals make a decision on him for training camp, a key player in the equation is fifth-round pick Tanner Hawkinson whether or not Whitworth is moved. The Bengals liked what the 6-5, 300-pound Hawkinson did at both left guard and left tackle last preseason. If they lose Collins in free agency, the Bengals have Hawkinson as well as a relatively deep tackle draft. But, they'd like to keep Collins, which may or may not indicate how they'd like the line to set up.
And how is the lineup going to be impacted by Jackson's promotion from running backs coach? Will he be looking to employ a more downhill approach and therefore opt for the maulers?
According to Pro Football Focus, the Bengals have those maulers at guard, where Whitworth (eighth), and right guards Kevin Zeitler (21) and Mike Pollak (31) were rated highly in the running game out of 81 guards. Plus, right tackle Andre Smith rated in the upper third among tackles in the run game.
PFF had Kyle Cook rated 24th out of 35 centers in the running game, but he finished the season dinged and manned up playing hurt.
3. How will Jackson help quarterback Andy Dalton?
Will we see fewer passes? And will they be easier?
There's a belief in some pockets of Paul Brown Stadium that the Bengals are built pretty much like the newly-crowned Super Bowl champion Seahawks. Not only do the Bengals have a top-five defense and a game-changer at running back as well as a young, smallish quarterback who has an impressive winning percentage, but they have more weapons at receiver than the Super Bowl champs.
The problem is the interceptions. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson won a title averaging 25.4 passes in the regular season and then didn't throw more than 25 in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Dalton suffered 20 interceptions averaging 37 passes per game and two more in the wild card game when he threw 51 passes even though the defense had the Bengals in every game.
Jackson sounds like he is out of the less is more school and he's talking like he's not going to put as much pressure on Dalton to win games with his arm.
Maybe the bigger question is what kind of throws Jackson is going to ask Dalton to make. Washington head coach Jay Gruden, the only NFL coordinator Dalton has had, liked to work outside the numbers and down the sidelines. That makes for longer throws for a guy known as accurate with superb rhythm with a strong but not laser arm.
Are those the best throws for Dalton? Could it mean easier throws? More slants, crossing routes, pick plays and seam balls? Wilson was marvelous converting his first four third-down passes Sunday. Three came on slant-ins and quick-hitters over the middle, and the fourth came as the result of a mini-crossing pattern.
Jackson's main task is to restore Dalton's confidence. It will be interesting to see how he uses a Pro Bowl receiver, a 10-TD No. 2 receiver, a Rookie of the Year finalist at running back, two first-round tight ends, and a No. 3 defense to help ease the burden of his embattled QB.
4. How does the Bengals secondary react to the loss of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, the new Vikings head coach?
At heart, Zimmer is a secondary coach. That was his job his first six seasons in the NFL and his specialty. While leading the Bengals defense to four top 10 finishes, the secondary survived the loss of a future Pro Bowl cornerback in Johnathan Joseph and the departure of longtime secondary coaches Kevin Coyle and Louie Cioffi.
The common denominator was Zimmer. But Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther fired an impressive pre-emptive strike when the Bengals signed former Texans secondary coach Vance Joseph to team with third-year coach Mark Carrier in the defensive backfield.
Joseph is seen as an up-and-coming defensive mind and potential future NFL coordinator and Guenther emerged from a phone call with Johnathan Joseph extremely impressed with an enthusiastic recommendation of Vance Joseph, his position coach with the Texans.
And there will be plenty of Zimmer guys carrying around his hardnosed mindset. He recruited his former Pro Bowl cornerback in Dallas, Terence Newman, and another of Zimmer's Pro Bowl Cowboys corners, Deion Sanders, convinced him to give Adam Jones a shot. Newman and Jones remain the starters as Hall rehabs.
5. How will the offense adjust to Jackson's up-tempo style on the practice field and with Xs and Os?
Jackson and Gruden share fertile offensive minds and the ability to put up top 10 numbers. But they also have decidedly different personalities and there figures to be a culture change for a unit where all but one skill player (tight end Jermaine Gresham) has played only for Gruden in the NFL.
During his days as the OC in Washington, Atlanta and Oakland, Jackson was known to go off when things didn't go right. There'll be more than a few "we're going to do it until we do it right" screaming snaps. Jackson was known to get his guys in and out of the huddle quickly whether it was in practice or a game and if he didn't like the tempo he'd jump in there himself.
Gruden has a quiet intensity, although he could snap pretty hard and fast when pushed. But Jackson wears his noisy intensity on his sleeve. For the past six years here on the practice field, that guy has been Zimmer. Now it's Jackson and now the offense has to adjust.