Football is here! Tomorrow! Against another NFL team and everything! The Minnesota Vikings will open their 2016 preseason schedule with a visit to Head Coach Mike Zimmer’s old stomping grounds to take on the Cincinnati Bengals. To preview the game, we asked Connor Howe of SB Nation’s Cincy Jungle a handful of questions about the team he covers and what he expects of the Bengals this season.
Daily Norseman: The Bengals finished 12-4 last season, a franchise best mark matched only by their two Super Bowl seasons. Yet for the fifth straight season, they were eliminated in their first playoff game. What are the expectations like for the 2016 Cincinnati Bengals? Is it "Playoff Win or Bust" this year? And if they don't advance in the playoffs or miss them altogether, is Marvin Lewis' job possibly in danger?
Cincy Jungle: Founded in 1995, the Jacksonville Jaguars followed up an inaugural 4-12 season with four straight playoff appearances, as well as several playoff wins. But does anyone outside of Jacksonville care about the mid-90's Jags, or even remember they were good for that matter? The Jags made it to the AFC Championship two times since the Bengals won their last playoff game, but the majority of football fans would probably say the Bengals have been the better of the two teams since 1995. Winning one playoff game doesn't matter. Unless you're hoisting the Lombardi trophy in February, good seasons will be forgotten. Expectations for the Bengals are the same for any top-level NFL franchise let alone football team in general: win the Super Bowl. If the Bengals had beaten the Steelers in January and gotten fleeced by New England the following week, the dumb prime time narratives wouldn't go away--in fact, people would re-hash the Andy Dalton vs AJ McCarron debate, which was already worn out last year. And to answer your question about Lewis, I really don't know. Ownership in Cincinnati is very loyal, which is a double-edged sword. In an optimist's eyes, Lewis deserves the job because there isn't a replacement who would be an improvement. A pessimist would argue that because Lewis has been in Cincinnati for ages and still hasn't even won a playoff game, he doesn't deserve to coach the team. Both arguments hold weight, but I'd personally prefer to see Lewis stick around.
DN: The Jeremy Hill/Giovani Bernard split running back duty is something that drives fantasy owners crazy but seems to work pretty well for the Bengals. How has each running back been looking in camp and how do you see their touches being split in 2016?
CJ: I might sound like a homer, but I believe the Bengals have the strongest running back duo of any team. Hill completely owned the fact that his heart-wrenching fumble essentially lost his team the game, which, from a fan's perspective, is always encouraging to see. (Editor’s note: Yeah, we know a little something about players owning up to heart-wrenching mistakes in playoff games.) He seems determined to step up and return to 2014 form this season. And Gio is still Gio, which is a great thing for Cincinnati. Bernard figures to play a big part in the passing game, but he'll see a ton of touches in the run game too. If Hill can stay healthy, I think he'll see a career-high in carries over the course of the season--the Bengals extended fullback Ryan Hewitt to a pretty sizable contract, which has me thinking Cincinnati will utilize a fullback much more often in the upcoming year than they did in 2015--if that's the case, I fully expect Hill to set career-highs in yards and touchdowns and re-establish himself as one of the premiere running backs in the league. At this point in the season, everything I say just comes from a hunch, as teams aren't really showing fans what they're intending on doing during the season. But the change in personnel makes me think Cincinnati will try to pound the rock this season, which just so happens to be the team's motto.
DN: Vontaze Burfict is an undoubtedly talented linebacker, yet he can't stay out of his own way at times. Burfict is suspended for the first three games of the season due to his actions in games last year, most notably the playoff meltdown against the Steelers in January. Do you think Burfict has learned from his mistakes and is poised to have a big season, or are you worried that it's only a matter of time before the next incident lands him in more trouble?
CJ: Define the word meltdown. Burfict carried the Bengals on his back, tallying six tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, an interception, a pass deflection and two run stuffs in the Bengals' playoff loss. Had Burfict not been balling out, the Bengals would've been blown out in embarrassing fashion. People can call Burfict a loose cannon all they want, but the fact of the matter is that his suspension is completely unprecedented and unjustified (my thoughts on the matter can be found here). Feel free to disagree, and hit me up on Twitter @HoweNFL if you're curious about my opinion, because I can talk about the Burfict suspension for hours. All of that being said, Burfict seems to understand the predicament he's put himself in, whether justified or not, and looks like he's committed to changing. Burfict and teammate Rey Maualuga promised each other they'd cut off their dreads (Burfict has already done so, while Maualuga has yet to cut his hair), which might not mean much but is still an interesting move to make. He's a dominant linebacker when healthy, as evidenced by the Bengals' defensive dominance, especially in the run game, when Burfict returned from injury last year. Now labeled as a "thug" by fans unaware of the fact that he initially started playing football to escape gang violence in Los Angeles, the linebacker is fighting an uphill battle to change his public perception. But I think it's possible, especially considering how dominant he is when he's on the field.
DN: With the departure of Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones in free agency over the offseason, the depth chart at wide receiver behind A.J. Green is a little unclear. Who do you anticipate picking up the slack catching passes from Andy Dalton?
CJ: I'll keep this short and simple. Brandon LaFell and rookie second-round pick Tyler Boyd are the guys who will most likely be picking up the slack. I don't think the losses are as huge as they're made out to be, as the team still has Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Bernard, and Hill, as well as a dominant offensive line. I think LaFell will surprise a ton of people this year. He might not be a dominant player, but I think the production will come, considering he's the number three or four option in the passing game. Another guy to keep an eye out for will be the sixth-rookie Cody Core who, like Marvin Jones, was the second option at wide receiver in his college offense and has nearly identical measurable and combine numbers to the veteran (Core was the number two to the Vikings' Laquon Treadwell, while Jones was the number two to the Chargers' Keenan Allen).
DN: How healthy are the Bengals heading into Friday's game? Are there any injuries that will keep significant players out or potential backups from possibly making the roster?
CJ: Tyler Eifert's foot injury is the most notable issue, and he'll likely make a return just before the regular season or within the first few weeks of the year. First-round corner William Jackson also suffered a pretty serious injury, which could potentially end his rookie season before it even started. Fortunately for Cincinnati, Jackson was the number four corner at best, which means he won't be that significant of a loss. Unfortunately, however, Darqueze Dennard has been dealing with a couple of minor injuries as well, which could mean Josh Shaw and Chris Lewis-Harris see additional snaps. Finally, defensive tackle Brandon Thompson's late-2015 ACL injury more than likely won't cost him his job -- in fact, if he starts the year on the PUP list, as many anticipate, an additional roster spot could open up for a younger defensive tackle in the Bengals' loaded position group. There are obviously more minor injuries, but unfortunately, that's the same for every team in the league at this point.
DN: Give us one player on offense and one player on defense that most non-Bengals fans don't know much about but you anticipate having a big impact on the team in 2016.
CJ: I think the Vikings' courtship of George Iloka in free agency should negate him from this exercise, but I'm going to bring him up anyways. He's right on the fringe of becoming a top-10 safety, but his lack of interceptions has prevented him from becoming a household name. If we're not talking Iloka, I think corner Dre Kirkpatrick will finally live up to his billing as a first-round pick. On offense, I think third-year center Russell Bodine, who has been a punching bag amongst Bengal fans, finally "gets it" and becomes an average-or-better player. (Not much to work with on offense when you're working with so much firepower.)
Amazing details and insight from Connor. Thanks to him and the rest of the Cincy Jungle staff for helping us learn more about Friday’s opponent.