Preseason game 2 is Thursday and the Lions will host the Cincinnati Bengals in Detroit. This is a rare opportunity where two NFL cat teams meet each other, and it's pretty fine that they would meet in the preseason for some friendly competition here. After all, cats are a pretty chill group of animals, generally speaking, and I would imagine lions and tigers would prefer to hunt ungulates or something. But what do I know? Anyway, we spoke with Connor Howe of SB Nation's Bengals blog, Cincy Jungle, to give us the lowdown on this year's roster and training camp developments. You can read the questions they asked us here.
1. I thought Andy Dalton and the Bengals offense had a pretty good year right up until his injury, but now Hue Jackson's left for the opposite corner of Ohio. What does the post-Jackson offense look like? Was last year an aberration or do you think Dalton is finally turning that corner?
As of now, it's really hard to judge what new offensive coordinator Ken Zampese plans on doing with this offense, which is still loaded, by the way. I'd point to the offseason extensions of Giovani Bernard and H-back Ryan Hewitt as an indication that the Bengals are really looking to establish a dominant run game, and I think the team's 2016 "Pound the Rock" motto all but affirms my theory. As to Dalton's progress, it's hard to think he's anything short of the Bengals' franchise signal-caller. Numbers made Dalton look great last year, but what makes him stand out even more is the fact that he somehow vastly improved his arm strength, footwork and touch. What makes Dalton a great quarterback is his ability to read opposing defenses and change the playcall at the line of scrimmage. So whether the players around him play up to expectations, I fully expect Dalton to play at a top-tier level in 2016, just like he did last season.
2. The Bengals lost Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones to free agency and are seeking to replace them with Brandon LaFell and rookie Tyler Boyd. However, LaFell could be undergoing season-ending hand surgery. Where does the receiving corps stand right now and where are you expecting things to shake out for the final roster?
LaFell's hand injury is definitely a cause for concern, because whether fans liked it or not, he was the presumptive number two wide receiver on the roster. More than anything else, this simply indicates that the passing attack will be more reliant on A.J. Green, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. After all, last year was really the first year in Dalton's career in which he had a player (in Jones) consistently step up as the team's go-to number two wideout. Jones was great in spurts during 2013, and a few others before Jones had some moments to remember, but for the most part, 2015 was really the first year Green wasn't the complete focal point of the passing attack.
Who will play behind Green on the depth chart is the most difficult question to answer when it comes to the Bengals, but regardless of whomever it will be, I fully expect the Bengals offense to be successful. Boyd will have a significant role, whether in the slot or on the perimeter of the field, and if LaFell decides to undergo surgery -- a decision I don't think he'll be too quick to make, considering he's coming off a down year and is playing on a team-friendly, one-year deal -- the third spot on the depth chart is completely up for grabs. Longtime return man Brandon Tate, who has made a few flashy plays in his career but has never been trusted with a significant offensive role, currently looks like the most capable guy behind the two starters, but don't sleep on rookie Cody Core, who was the number two receiver behind Laquon Treadwell at Ole Miss last year.
3. Speaking of injuries, a few other Bengals, including top draft pick cornerback William Jackson III and nose tackle Andrew Billings, have suffered health setbacks during training camp. Now right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi has been bitten by the injury bug. How will those injuries have an effect on the way the roster looks for Week 1?
Injuries can be frustrating, but football is a violent sport, so injuries happen. Though it's very difficult to see fan favorite players sustain injuries early in their respective careers, Cincinnati is fortunate enough that the two rookies, who will most likely be out for the season, weren't expected to see a ton of -- if any -- significant snaps this year. Hopefully Ogbuehi will be healthy by Week 1, as he's currently slated to start at right tackle after the departure of the now Minnesota Viking, Andre Smith.
4. What's the game plan for the Bengals at tight end until Tyler Eifert is back?
As I previously mentioned, I think Ryan Hewitt will have a significant role in both the run game and passing attack while Eifert nurses his injury. Though it's always rough to see a premier talent like Eifert sustain an injury, it will be interesting to see how 2015 draftees Tyler Kroft and C.J. Uzomah fare in his absence. Cincinnati reportedly liked Kroft more than Maxx Williams, who was commonly believed to be the top tight end in the 2015 Draft class. Uzomah, on the other hand, did not even have a position coach at Auburn but was impressive enough in his college career to be selected by Cincinnati. Kroft has been dealing with an injury of his own (knee), so Uzomah -- who has looked like the better pass-catcher of the two -- really has a chance to prove himself. Not having Eifert will certainly hurt, but the Bengals still have two red zone playmakers in Green and Hill, so things should be alright.
5. The front seven for the Bengals has some very good potential and some real star power. In fact, top to bottom I'm really impressed with the personnel they have on defense. Where does this defense rank in the NFL right now?
It's hard to think of this defense as anything short of a top five unit. The Bengals lost nearly every single position coach on their 2015 defensive staff, yet they were able to retain defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, as well as add a couple of coaches with impressive resumes in Jim Haslett and Kevin Coyle (who previously served on the team's defensive staff coach from 2001-2011). Coyle's addition is particularly exciting, as he helped develop Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph into what many regarded as the NFL's best cornerback duo in the late 2000s. The coaching additions, as well as the playmaking personnel you previously mentioned, warrant optimism that the team's defense can be the number one unit in the NFL. Last year, only the Broncos and Seahawks allowed fewer points, and both teams lost multiple difference-making starters.
That being said, Cincinnati went through some roster turnover of its own, letting the aforementioned Hall, as well as Reggie Nelson, Emmanuel Lamur and now-Lion, Wallace Gilberry, walk in free agency. If safety Shawn Williams, who just inked a long-term deal with only two starts on his career, or 2014 first-rounder Darqueze Dennard, who will be a full-time starter for the first time in his career this season, can't step in and make an early impact, it's hard to think the defense won't regress at least slightly. That being said, Geno Atkins is looking as dominant as he's ever been, Carlos Dunlap is a playmaker, Karlos Dansby and Vontaze Burfict could form a nasty nickel linebacking duo and George Iloka seems primed to establish himself as a top-10 safety. The sky is the limit for the Bengals' 2016 defense, and I think Cincinnati will finish in the top five when it's all said and done.