Can the Bengals make the playoffs this season?

Joe Burrow leads an improved Cincinnati Bengals roster

By: Will Baptist

The Cincinnati Bengals finally have hope going into the season for the first time in a long time. The city is starved for a winner, and they may finally have the personnel and coaching staff to end the 31-year drought of not winning a playoff game.

First and foremost, the Bengals need to make the playoffs. That is a daunting task in the AFC North, which is arguably the toughest division in the NFL. The other three teams in the division all won at least 11 games and made the playoffs last season. The Bengals were 1-5 in the division last year, with their lone win coming against the Steelers in week 15 with Ryan Finley under center.

Joe Burrow was 0-4 in the division before suffering his season-ending knee injury last year, but he showed why he was the number one overall pick despite the losses. He struggled against the Steelers and Ravens, but he was outstanding against the Browns. In the two games against the Browns he completed 72 of 108 passes, 722 yards, six touchdowns and just one interception. Both of those games were a shootout, and showed the potential of the Bengals offense when they are fully healthy.

If the Bengals want to make a playoff push, being more competitive in the division is imperative. They have to win at least three games, or their division alone could knock them out of playoff contention. With how well Burrow played against the Browns last year, coupled with the question marks surrounding the Steelers, the Bengals have a legitimate chance to win at least three games in the AFC North.

They have made dramatic improvements to their roster on both sides of the ball, and with the development of their young budding stars: Burrow, Jessie Bates and Tee Higgins, they are poised to make a massive leap this year.

Defensive improvements

The Bengals defense was a major concern last year, and was a bottom-10 defense in rush yards allowed per game and total yards allowed per game. They showed signs of improvement as the season went on, but the new players in the building should have a major impact and will have to contribute immediately for the Bengals to make the playoffs.

D.J. Reader and Trae Waynes are two of the Bengals best players on defense but injuries derailed their first year in Cincinnati. Those two will act as additional free agent signings this year since Waynes didn’t play a single snap, and Reader had his season cut short in week 5 last year. Reader recorded a PFF grade of 69.6 in his limited snaps in 2020, but the Bengals expect him to play like the 2019 version of himself, when he recorded a PFF grade of 86.7, and was dominant in the middle of the defensive line.

Waynes will be the top corner on the roster with the departure of William Jackson, and he will have two new faces alongside him to secure the cornerback position. Mike Hilton and Chidobe Awuzie are massive upgrades over Mackensie Alexander and LeShaun Sims. They still have Darius Phillips, and signed Eli Apple for additional depth. With Vonn Bell coming off a strong first season in Cincinnati, and Bates emerging as one of the best safeties in football, the Bengals secondary could be one of the best in the AFC.

Trey Hendrickson was the biggest offseason addition for the defense, and replacing Carl Lawson will be a challenge. Letting Lawson go to bring in Hendrickson was a questionable decision, and it remains to be seen how that will play out. Nonetheless, Hendrickson is the best pass rusher on the roster, and his 13.5 sacks last year were tied for second in the NFL with Aaron Donald. That is elite company to be in, and Hendrickson will have to prove why he was worth the $60-million-dollar contract that he signed from day one.

The Bengals linebackers are all young, but extremely talented. Logan Wilson seems primed to be the leader and standout of the group. Overall, the Bengals defense looks completely different, and they are much more talented than the lackluster defense they had last season. They could be a borderline top-10 defense if the new faces they signed can produce up to their abilities.

Offensive improvements

The Bengals offense was decimated by injuries in 2020. Burrow, Joe Mixon, A.J. Green, Jonah Williams and C.J. Uzomah all missed multiple games last season, which led to their offense looking like a shell of what it could have been.

With a clean slate and clean bill of health coming in 2021, the Bengals offense will almost be unrecognizable. Mixon and Burrow are the leaders of the offense and they are on track to play week 1, and they should be much improved as they have another offseason to learn Taylor’s offense.

The offensive line has been the biggest concern for this franchise since week 11 of last season when Burrow got injured. There seems to be a misconception with how much they improved this group in the offseason.

The addition of OL coach Frank Pollack will do wonders for the line, Mixon and Burrow. Getting rid of former OL coach Jim Turner is probably the most important move of the entire offseason. He did not put the players in position to succeed, and that is the main focus of what a position coach is supposed to do. He made the line look much worse than it actually was, and he is now out of the NFL and is the OL coach at Texas State.

The Bengals also brought in veteran Riley Reiff to shore up their RT position. Last season, their worst offensive lineman was RT Bobby Hart. In his 3-year career with the Bengals he committed 22 penalties and allowed 20 sacks, and was a momentum killer for this offense. Second round pick Jackson Carman is set to become the starting RG next season, and could potentially be the starting RT of the future. Those two players, along with better coaching, will make the line formidable enough to show the potential of this offense.

Last but certainly not least, Ja’Marr Chase is a Cincinnati Bengal. There was a lot of criticism thrown the Bengals way after passing on Penei Sewell, and selecting a WR. Despite the Bengals needing a lineman, adding a WR was just as critical. Burrow was among the worst QBs at completing the deep ball, and Chase excels in this area. Chase and Burrow connected on 20 touchdowns in 2019 at LSU, and Chase averaged 21.2 yards per reception. The Bengals have one of the most talented and young WR corps in the league, led by Tyler Boyd, Higgins and Chase.

All signs point to the Bengals offense firing on all cylinders, as long as Burrow can remain healthy. They have all of the pieces in place to make a playoff push, and the coaching staff will be on the hot seat if they do not perform.

Almost every player from the Marvin Lewis regime is gone, which means Zac Taylor has no more excuses if the team plays poorly. These are the players and coaches that Taylor hand-picked, and the expectation to win games begins this season while Burrow is still on his rookie contract.

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