I think all Bengals fans – and most NFL fans – would consider the Bengals 2016 season a disaster. After a 12-4 campaign in 2015, the Bengals entered 2016 as legitimate AFC contenders, but with a suddenly porous offensive line, a deluge of injuries to key players and more kicking woes than a one-legged karate team, the 2016 season went to hell fast. Call me unreasonably optimistic – and many have – but I believe 2016 was a perfect storm (in the reverse direction) and the Bengals will bounce back in a huge way in 2017. Today we start looking at the 10 reasons I believe the Bengals return to the postseason in 2017 and reclaim their spot atop the AFC North.
Reason No. 10: Improved Defensive Line Depth
2016 was not kind to the Bengals star players in terms of injuries – A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Vontaze Burfict, Giovani Bernard, William Jackson III, etc. (more on these injuries later) – but the injury bug wasn’t restricted to star players only. Some of the most damning injuries occurred before the season even began – most of which hit the defensive line – but since those injuries were to relatively unknown players, they went mostly under-the-radar by Bengals fans and non-Bengals fans alike. However, those injuries had a massive impact on the lost 2016.
Before the first snap of the season, the defensive line suffered a rash of injuries, all of which were season ending in nature – Andrew Billings (knee), Brandon Thompson (knee) and Marcus Hardison (shoulder). The result was a defensive line depth chart depleted of youth, talent and speed, which prevented the Bengals from being able to rotate capable NFL players and keep their line fresh. Because of the aforementioned injuries, the Bengals were forced to not only keep players like Margus Hunt, Will Clarke and DeShawn Williams, but also rely on them for valuable snaps. They also had to play guys like Michael Johnson and Domata Peko far more than the team would have liked and far more than their production warranted. What looked to be a position of strength coming into the 2016 campaign, quickly became a liability, so much so that the Bengals lured Wallace Gilberry off his couch midseason to try and sure up the defensive line rotation.
Sure, Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins were healthy all season, but the strength of this line has always been their ability to keep the line fresh by rotating players all game long with little drop in production. As a result of the injuries to the backend of the roster, guys like Dunlap and Atkins had to play more snaps, weren’t as fresh and the team suffered a bigger drop off when those guys came off the field than in year’s past. In my mind, the biggest injury was the season ending injury to fourth round selection Andrew Billings, which, combined with the Thompson injury, was a double/triple whammy. Going into the draft, many – myself included – had Billings pegged as a late first round pick. In fact, in many of my mock drafts leading up to the 2016 draft, I had the Bengals taking him in the first. The reason I like Billings and was so excited with the selection, is because he is the big run-stuffing tackle the Bengals have never had next to Atkins. For the first time, the Bengals were going to have a true run-stuffing tackle who could command a double team, clog running lanes and free up Atkins to go against one blocker instead of two – and I will take Atkins one-on-one against any guard/center in the league. The injury to Thompson compounded the problem as Thompson is also a run stuffer, thereby leaving the Bengals down their two best run stuffing tackles, forcing the team to rely on Peko to stuff the run – something all Bengals fans know he has been incapable of doing since he arrived. While most around the country want to blame Andy Dalton for the team’s postseason failures – because it is the easy (and lazy) story to write – the real issues with the Bengals failures in the postseason have been the defense , and specifically, the run defense which was anchored by Peko. In Peko’s 11 year career with the Bengals, the team made the playoffs six times, going 0-6 and giving up a whopping 165.7 rushing yards per game to rushing attacks lead by the Canton bound likes of Ronnie Brown, Dan Herron, Zurlon Tipton, Jordan Todman and Fitzgerald Toussaint, just to name a few. In fact, the Peko lead run defense never held a team under 114 yards rushing in the playoffs and not having Billings or Thompson in 2016 was a large reason the Bengals run defense ranked 21st in yards per game (113.3).
The Hardison injury was probably the least talked about injury around Bengaldom, but had a very visible impact on the roster. Many thought the Margus Hunt experiment was over after 2015, and it probably would have been, if not for the Hardison injury. Hardison is a versatile lineman who can play end and also rush the passer from inside on passing downs. A healthy Hardison would have likely cost Hunt his roster spot and taken playing time away from the underperforming Will Clarke and Michael Johnson. The return of Hardison and the drafting of young speed rushers Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson will likely mean the end of Clarke’s underwhelming Bengals career and less playing time and more situational snaps for Johnson – all of which make the Bengals a better team in 2017.