New York Jets Opponent Spotlight: Cincinnati Bengals

David Aitken breaks down the Cincinnati Bengals. How can the New York Jets score an upset in week 1?

It’s here. 252 days after the Jets ended last season in incredible disappointment, the 2016 season begins by welcoming the Cincinnati Bengals to Metlife Stadium. A much tougher looking schedule on paper starts with a Bengals team that has made the playoffs six of the last seven seasons. Here I’ll dive into some changes the Bengals have dealt with, some talking points specific to this matchup, and Bengals overall season outlook.

Missing Bengals

Cincinnati suffered a number of losses this offseason in regards to both playing staff and coaching, and they’ll enter the season with a few more key contributors shelved. One of last year’s biggest breakout performers, tight end Tyler Eifert, will miss the first few weeks of the season recovering from an ankle injury. Eifert missing is significant because he emerged as an elite red zone option for Andy Dalton on an offense that relied on A.J. Green to be the main threat previously. Complementing those players in the passing game the last few years were Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, both of whom signed major deals in free agency. Both players over the course of the season should see their production replaced easily enough by veteran Brandon LaFell and 2nd round pick Tyler Boyd, but in the short term may have a hard time going without the additional coverage drawing power of Tyler Eifert.

The other high profile loss is linebacker Vontaze Burfict, serving the first of a three game suspension relating to a history of violent conduct that culminated in Cincinnati’s playoff game last year. Burfict has had issues with injuries so the Bengals are somewhat used to having him missing, but he is an obvious game-changer when available.

In 2015 third round pick Tyler Kroft the Bengals hope they have an adequate short-term replacement for Tyler Eifert, while 34-year-old Karlos Dansby will be the starter in place of Burfict.

The Jets last year had one of the best red zone defenses in the league, and without Eifert the Bengals become easier to defend in that respect. The loss of Burfict should allow the Jets to set the tone in the running game easier, but against the pass they are still going to be threatening in terms of turnovers. Only Kansas City and Carolina had more interceptions as a defense last year than the Bengals.

Not playing Sunday, Eifert is a red zone favorite of Andy Dalton’s. 

Suspended for this Sunday, Burfict is Cincinnati’s most active linebacker in pass coverage.

Second round pick Tyler Boyd is a possibility to debut across from A.J. Green as a starter this Sunday.

Death of the Bungals

Remember when the Bengals were a franchise that had just one playoff berth in 18 seasons, were a criminal public relations nightmare, and prior to 2012 had employed just one scout? Whether they’ve done right with unwavering loyalty in Marvin Lewis will always be a debate, but it is undeniable this franchise has had a huge turnaround since 2009. Mike Brown relinquishing general manager authority appears to have much to do with this. With a still modestly-sized player personnel department of eight employees (the Jets have over double that), the Bengals have become one of the league’s most consistently homegrown built rosters.

It is no revolutionary strategy, and one we’ve been waiting for the Jets to replicate. You have to go back to 2002 to find a draft by the Bengals where they had less than 7 draft picks. Since 2009 the Bengals have averaged 9 draft selections annually. More crucially, they’re consistently keeping their picks in rounds one through four and sometimes having multiple in the first few rounds. This has afforded them more leeway for the occasional mistake early (they released 2015 third round pick Paul Dawson for example). Most importantly, they’re hitting on day two picks in a way that is impossible to fathom from the Jets perspective. David Harris is literally the only building block the Jets have selected on day two in over ten years. The Bengals since 2009 have gotten themselves plenty of Harris-type contributors. Rey Maualuga, Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap, Andy Dalton, Mohamed Sanu, Giovanni Bernard, Jeremy Hill, and Shawn Williams have all been productive players. The Bengals’ inability to get over the playoff hump has nothing to do with how they’ve been collecting talent.

How Good is Andy Dalton?

From the poster boy of subpar quarterbacking his first few seasons to an MVP candidate in 2015, Dalton is under pressure to produce like he did last season without some familiar faces. In terms of supporting cast, he’ll have to make due without key red zone threat Tyler Eifert for the first 4-6 weeks. Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu have been replaced by veteran Brandon LaFell and second round rookie Tyler Boyd. Right tackle Andre Smith signed with the Vikings this offseason. And of course Hue Jackson, who received a lot of praise for having Dalton in the MVP conversation last year, is now the head coach of the Browns.

As an organization the Bengals have prepared well for the free agent losses. Eifert will be a tough short-term loss, but Dalton should still be well protected, and the complementary targets are solid enough players to work with in addition to having an elite receiver in A.J. Green. Losing Hue Jackson on the other hand after a season that had Dalton in the MVP conversation is going to raise questions about maintaining productivity and the perils of changing an offense. The Bengals have tried to avoid that by promoting from within. Ken Zampese, the team’s quarterbacks coach since 2003, has been promoted to offensive coordinator despite meager experience in that role. Zampese has worked under several quality ones however, including current head coaches in Jackson and Jay Gruden. Cincinnati are banking on that familiarity to keep Dalton comfortable, but it’ll fall on Dalton’s shoulders to maintain the confidence and mentality that Jackson instilled in him to maintain this high level.

Over his career Dalton has always had good stretches of play but never became a consistent performer until last season. In addition to Eifert’s emergence and playing in one of the league’s most balanced attacks, another key for Dalton’s consistency was his ability to handle pressure. He was actually better when blitzed last season then not, a real sign of a quarterback maturing.

The Bengals will still be good if Dalton regresses, they’ve made the playoffs with him every season as a starter through worse play. But if Dalton plays like last season and avoids the crippling injury, the Bengals will be favorites to do more than just finally win a playoff game.

An Early Fitz 2016 Benchmark

It’s beyond cliche normally to suggest that a Week 1 matchup can define the rest of the season, but this matchup will say a lot about the Jets and their playoff credentials for 2016. There has been a lot made of the Jets tough first six games and it is a fair point, but it’s not simply the fact that the teams on paper are a lot tougher. The Jets are a good team too, and should feel like they can win in any game they suit up for. The real key is that these teams not only are good, but they specifically cause problems in pass defense. Last season the Jets got a career year from Ryan Fitzpatrick on the back of an elite receiver tandem, but there was also the fortune of avoiding the upper echelon of opponents with great pass defenses.

In the Chiefs, Seahawks, Bengals and Cardinals, the Jets in the first six weeks will play four better defenses in terms of opponent passer rating than any team on last year’s schedule. Every opponent in the first six outside of Seattle finished in the top ten in interceptions last season. The Bengals, with the Chiefs, were in the top three. The Jets are rolling the dice with Fitzpatrick again, and the Cincinnati matchup will say a lot about whether an improved supporting cast can further elevate Fitzpatrick in the face of tougher, more opportunistic opponents.

Fourteenth Time’s a Charm

Paul Brown’s loyalty is admirable in a business as cutthroat as the NFL, but Marvin Lewis’ job security has been incredible for a coach that has not delivered a single postseason victory in his head coaching career. He has dealt with some bad luck such as Carson Palmer’s injury in 2005 as well as losing Dalton late in the season last year, but 0-7 as a playoff record is alarming no matter how it’s looked at.

Would another playoff failure force Brown’s hand? As a coach Lewis has presided over the best the Bengals have been consistently for a long time, and has had a huge hand in remodeling the Bengals into a respectable franchise. With five straight seasons of playoffs and another one likely to come this season though, the Bengals are garnering a different kind of negative reputation. There is merit in the patient strategy that things will inevitably come together, it worked for Peyton Manning and the Colts in 2006. But fans are going to find watching a good team’s window close without any playoff wins just as frustrating as watching a team struggle to win a handful of games annually in the end.

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