Cincinnati Bengals 2014 Season Review: Taking Strides in the Wrong Direction
2013 was the best season in recent memory for the Bengals, finishing 11-5 and in fist place in the AFC North.
Despite this success, there were some big changes in Cincinnati, as they entered the 2014 season with new coordinators on both sides of the ball. Hue Jackson was promoted to offensive coordinator after Jay Gruden left to coach the Redskins, and Paul Guenther was promoted to defensive coordinator after Mike Zimmer left for Minnesota.
Though they didn't make any major free agent signings, the Bengals looked to continue to build through the draft, notably adding cornerback Darqueze Dennard in the first round and running back Jeremy Hill in the second.
With these changes the Bengals managed to keep their record almost the same in 2014, finishing 10-5-1 (second in the division) and making it into the playoffs as one of the three AFC North representatives.
Let's take a look at what worked and what didn't for the Bengals in 2014.
The area in which the Bengals made the biggest strides in 2014 was, by far, their rushing offense. They finished 2013 with -0.02 Adjusted Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per play, meaning that every run play, on average, cost them 0.02 points from the drive's expected point outcome. This placed them 22nd in the league and had fans clamoring for Gio Bernard to see more touches.
In 2014, their rushing offense was on the opposite side of the spectrum, putting up an adjusted Rush NEP of 0.03, finishing seventh in the league. This was not, however, on the back of Bernard, as many expected. Bernard had a fairly pedestrian season, finishing 35th among backs with 50 or more carries with a Rushing NEP per carry of -0.04. The star in the Cincinnati backfield in 2014 was Jeremy Hill.
Hill was one of the most efficient backs in the league, finishing fourth among all running backs with a Rushing NEP of 20.63, and ninth on a per-carry basis with 0.09.
The Bengals offense benefited greatly from having a solid line up front. Not only did they pave the way for a top-10 rushing attack, but also they were excellent in pass protection. As a unit they gave up only 23 sacks, the third fewest in the league, which included some impressive individual performances.
Though Kevin Zeitler managed to play only 12 games this season, he was excellent when he was on the field, giving up only one sack and two quarterback hits. The Bengals' best lineman, and arguably the best in the league, was Andrew Whitworth. Whitworth gave up no sacks on the season while playing 1,057 snaps. He was the only tackle to play more than 400 snaps on the season and not give up a sack.
On the other side of the ball, Cincinnati once against boasted one of the best pass defenses in the league, finishing tied for fourth with an Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play of 0.00. The Bengals had four players, Dre Kirkpatrick, Reggie Nelson, George Iloka, and Adam Jones with three or more interceptions, and the Bengals finished tied for eighth as a team with 17.
Our numbers had the Bengals defense tied for 10th overall in the league in 2014, and that was carried almost exclusively by their ability to defend the pass.
At this point, you know what you're going to get with Andy Dalton. He's a mediocre quarterback who's good enough to lead a team without dooming them to failure. Brandon Gdula wrote earlier this offseason about whether or not Andy Dalton is the answer for the Bengals, and I mirror his sentiments. Dalton may not be terrible, but what he offers the franchise just may not be enough.
His efficiency in 2014 was below average, with a Passing NEP of 24.54, and a Passing NEP per drop back of 0.05. Those ranked 19th and 20th in the league, respectively. If Dalton can post another season that compares to his 2013 numbers (when his Passing NEP of 54.69 ranked 13th in the league), it might be worth holding out hope for him as the future of the franchise, but that doesn't look like the most likely outcome, and Dalton will continue to be a limiting factor in the Bengals' offensive success.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from their stout pass defense was the Bengals' ability to stop the run (or lack thereof). Cincinnati finished among the worst in the league, 26th, with an Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play of 0.04. This was a huge step backwards from 2013 when they finished in the top half of the league, 13th, at -0.03.
That step backwards is part of a worrying overall trend that stands out for Cincinnati this year -- they got worse in almost all facets of the game. The run game improved greatly, but passing offense and both the pass and run defense fell in the rankings from 2013 to 2014, as well as their overall offensive ranking (15th in 2013 to 17th in 2014) and overall defensive ranking (2nd to tied for 10th).
With the AFC North always a strong division and with the Ravens and Steelers making strides forwards (both teams improved their offensive NEP rankings, while Baltimore also improved their defensive ranking in 2014), Cincinnati needs to fix the direction they're moving in quickly if they want to continue to see themselves in the postseason.
If the Bengals run defense can look more like its 2013 iteration than it did last year and Andy Dalton can do the same, then the Bengals may find themselves positioned for a playoff run. But if the team keeps moving in the direction it is, 2015 could be a long season for Bengals fans.