How The 2021 Cincinnati Bengals Followed The 2011 Blueprint And Have Successfully Rebuilt

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How The 2021 Cincinnati Bengals Followed The 2011 Blueprint And Have Successfully Rebuilt


How The 2021 Cincinnati Bengals Followed The 2011 Blueprint And Have Successfully Rebuilt


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Last-minute field goals to secure a win, sweeping their division rivals in the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, going toe-to-toe with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, and a 34-31 win over the Kansas City Chiefs for the Bengals to win the AFC North. This type of success for the Bengals hasn’t happened since 2015 when they finished with a 12-4 record. After 2015 they had records of 6-9-1, 7-9, 6-10, 2-14, and 4-11-1. So how did they go from five years in a row of playoffs to five years of drought to now success again? Let’s take a dive back into history and see how the Bengals have successfully rebuilt. 

Following the 2010 season where the Bengals went 4-12 with quarterback Carson Palmer, Palmer moved on to play for the Oakland Raiders, and star wide receiver Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson was traded to the New England Patriots. So, the team with two glaring needs drafted new quarterback Andy Dalton from TCU in the second round to pair him with the wide receiver they took in the first round, A.J. Green, from Georgia. Similar to how 2021 started, the media tagged this team as one that would not go far, yet this 2011 team ended up going 9-7 after a 1-2 start and made it to the Wildcard round of the playoffs. Although that’s as far as they would go after losing to the Houston Texans, they showed everyone that they were capable of turning things around quickly and exceeding expectations. The Dalton to Green connection started strong that year, Dalton had 300 completions, 3,398 yards, and 20 touchdowns, out of those Green had 65 receptions for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns. It wasn’t just this offensive duo that led to this successful turnaround, it was the defense as well.

This defense was the ninth-best in the NFL allowing only 3,385 passing yards, 1,675 rushing yards, had 45 sacks, and had 22 turnovers. To go from 24th to ninth was due to the free agency haul they did on defense, they signed Manny Lawson, Thomas Howard, Nate Clements, Kelly Jennings, and Gibril Wilson. In addition to the signings was the emergence of second-year players Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap who would both go on to have 18 quarterback hits, and a combined 12 sacks between the both of them. 

The 2011 season was the beginning of the team hitting its stride going 10-6, 11-5, and 10-5-1 over the 2012-2014 seasons. Once 2015 came it seemed as if everything fell into place. Both the offense and defense were playing at new heights, the Bengals would start the season 8-0, a new franchise record for the most consecutive wins. The defense reached a new high of having the second-fewest points allowed in the NFL, their run defense was the seventh-best, and while the passing defense was ranked 20th in yards allowed they still got the job done. Offensively they were ranked 15th overall which was an increase from 2011 when they were 20th, and even 2008 when they were last in the league. In terms of offensive points, they were putting up the seventh most. They would finish the year with a 12-5 record and make it to the playoffs again. 

After the 2015 season where they were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs yet again, the team regressed after losing key players that were hard to replace. The 2017 year showcased this with an offense that had been one of the best severely regressed, and Dalton had his passer rating drop from 106.3 to 91.8. In addition, after letting left tackle Andrew Whitworth and guard Kevin Zeitler go to free agency, the offensive line was not the same. In the opening game of the 2017 season they faced the Baltimore Ravens and lost 20-0, it would end up being the first time in over a decade the Bengals would be shut out to start the season. The offensive line in this game would allow five sacks, and with the pressure the Ravens got on Dalton he was making mistakes that led to four interceptions and a fumble. 

In terms of total offensive yards the 2017 offense would be ranked last in the NFL, the defense had also faced a bit of regression as well compared to what they were in 2015. The defense that was the seventh-best in stopping the run allowing only 92.3 rush yards per game was now allowing the third-most with 127.9 but their pass defense evened it out being the eighth-best with only allowing 211.2 per game. The season wasn’t the worst ever for the Bengals, but it exposed areas of weakness, and compared to what the team was just two years before it was significantly different from what fans had been accustomed to. 

Over the 2016, 2017, 2018 seasons the Bengals would have below .500 records, some of the losses would be in unfortunate ways like missing field goals, a possible game-winning drive resulting in an interception or drop, or the defense giving up a big play in the final moments. Bengals fans had almost become accustomed to heartbreaking finishes. On top of never getting past the first round in the playoffs, the consecutive losing seasons, and the 2018 season where the Bengals finished last in the division for the first time since 2010 it would lead to the mutual release of head coach Marvin Lewis and the start of the Zac Taylor era. 

Taylor walked into a rough situation, this team was Marvin Lewis’s from 2003-2018, and all the players respected him heavily, while some were willing to accept the change other players were not adjusting to the new coaching regime. Not to mention he was tasked with turning around an offense that was ranked as the sixth-worst, and the worst defense in the NFL. The record reflected it in Taylor’s first year as they went 2-14 (their worst record since 2002) with the offense still staying the same, the defense showed slight improvement up to No. 29 instead of last. There was also Dalton who was still working his way back from the season-ending thumb injury he suffered in 2018. Dalton would go on to only have one game that season where he completed 70% of his passes, and his go-to target in Green was out for the entire 2019 season with an ankle injury he suffered in training camp. With new defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, the design he was trying to install with the players at the time did not work as the defense could not find a consistent groove either allowing the fourth-most yards with 6,299.

With the scheme Taylor was trying to implement on offense Dalton just didn’t fit anymore, and with a locker room filled with some confusion it was time to bring in a leader, a playmaker, and a person who could bring hope back to Cincinnati. This player would be Joe Burrow, LSU’s star quarterback that led the team to a 15-0 season putting up 5,671 passing yards, 60 touchdowns, a 76.3 completion percentage, and 368 rushing yards. Burrow would lead this team to a national championship win. In addition to his leadership characteristic, he also brings a swagger with him that radiates confidence to a team, and with a Bengals team at a low point is exactly what they needed to fully initiate their rebuild. 

The 2011 season laid a blueprint on how to turn the team around, that offseason they let Palmer go and went on to draft Dalton, this 2020 team followed that as they let Dalton go and drafted Burrow as their first overall pick in the 2020 draft. Then with their second pick they decided to pair him with a receiver, just as they had paired Dalton and Green, this receiver would be Tee Higgins from Clemson. Then they would go ahead and start drafting defensive players to take huge future roles in defensive coordinator Anarumo’s defense with drafting players like linebackers Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither, and defensive end Khalid Kareem. They would also follow the blueprint in free agency and go defense-heavy signing safety Vonn Bell, cornerbacks Mackensie Alexander and Trae Waynes, and defensive tackle D.J. Reader. 

In a weird year with the pandemic the team would finish 4-11-1, the locker room presence Burrow brought in addition to the culture coach Taylor was building helped keep the team motivated yet still some players just weren’t fitting in which caused some issues. Not to mention running back Joe Mixon would suffer a season-ending foot injury in week six, and in week 11 Burrow had his season cut short with a season-ending knee injury. Before the injury, even though the record did not reflect it, Burrow was showing just how great he could be at the NFL level putting up 2,688 yards for 13 touchdowns. Yet the offensive line struggled allowing Burrow to be sacked 32 times. The defense would also show flashes of just how dominant it could be with the new safety pairing of Bell and Jessie Bates, yet they were just missing a few key pieces.

Those key pieces to unlock Anarumo’s ideal defense were added in the 2021 free agency period with players like defensive end Trey Hendrickson, cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie, Eli Apple, Mike Hilton, and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, all of which come from winning cultures and would provide a winning presence on and off the field. They would also go out and sign offensive tackle Riley Reiff to help with their offensive line, and they brought back guard Quinton Spain who had made an impact on the line when the team signed him in October of 2020. As mentioned before some players weren’t fitting into the new playstyle coach Taylor was implementing, and one of the players that didn’t fit and they decided to move on from was Green. While Burrow would still have star receivers in Tyler Boyd, C.J. Uzomah, and Tee Higgins, they would need to fill that receiver void. The team would go on to draft Burrow’s favorite target from LSU, Ja’Marr Chase to add to an already talented offense and provide Burrow with someone he was familiar with. Some other draft picks included guard Jackson Carman, edge Joseph Ossai, tackle D’Ante Smith, and kicker Evan McPherson.

Now we look at the 2021 season and how the draft picks between 2020 and 2021 are finally coming together. Their record of 10-6 reflects it, and as of January 2, 2022, they officially have reclaimed the AFC North division title. Burrow has rekindled the connection he had with Chase as Chase has 1,429 yards and 13 touchdowns. Burrow himself has thrown for 4,611 yards, 34 touchdowns, and 118 rush yards. This has led to Chase breaking the rookie record for most receiving yards in a season, formerly held by Justin Jefferson, as well as Burrow becoming the new record holder for most touchdown passes in the team’s history. With the revamped offensive line under new offensive line coach Frank Pollack, they are getting lanes open for Mixon. This has led to him having 292 rushing attempts for 1,205 yards and 13 touchdowns. Both the rushing attempts and yardage is a career-high for Mixon and there is still one more week left in the season in addition to the playoffs. As a total, their offense is scoring an average of 27.8 points per game and ranked 10th in total yards per game with 372.2.

On the defensive side of things everything is clicking, the only starters from last year include Sam Hubbard, Germaine Pratt, Vonn Bell, and Jessie Bates. Otherwise, they now have Reader, Ogunjobi, Hendrickson, Wilson, Davis-Gaither, Eli Apple, and Awuzie as starters and it has worked out well for them. The defense is currently the 17th best defensive unit(improved from twenty-sixth in 2020) in terms of yards per game allowing 349.3, and their strength is once again the run defense as it is seventh allowing only 96.1 yards per game. Just like Atkins and Dunlap broke out in their second year, in 2021 it’s Logan Wilson who has been a standout so far in his first year as a starter with 92 tackles and a team-leading four interceptions. He has shown how vital he is to the defense as showcased by the games he missed. 

Trey Hendrickson has shown he was a great addition in the trenches with 14 sacks and 42 pressures. Now for the special teams’ side of things the addition of McPherson was huge, he is a large part of why they have had the success they have had. McPherson has not just once, not twice, but has kicked a game-winning field goal three times to propel the Bengals to the record they have. He has made 84.8% of his field goals(28 total), eight being from 30-39, six from 40-49, and nine from 50 plus yards. 

Patience was a key in this rebuild, it wasn’t pretty, but with how coach Taylor has this team playing it was worth it. Burrow, Bates, Mixon the list goes on with all the leaders in that locker room that keep this team grounded, humble, and hungry. This is coach Taylor’s team now, and in his third year he is showing that the culture he has built back up in Cincinnati is paying off. Going forward there still will be rough patches for this team, but the culture that is built is one where they will overcome those times. The growth this young team has made compared to its outlook just a few years ago is optimistic. The team is well-coached, they don’t give up, and they have the team-first mentality that helps as well. The 2015 team was great and this 2021 team has the same potential to replicate that success and much more going forward. The future is bright for this Cincinnati team, and they have officially put the NFL on notice that they are here to stay. 

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