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Bengals doomed by Oh-no-line
The Cincinnati Bengals knew it would be difficult to replace tackle Andrew Whitworth and guard Kevin Zeitler, but offensive line struggles plagued the team all season resulting in an inconsistent running game and inability to protect quarterback Andy Dalton, who was sacked 39 times. Dalton passed for more than 3,300 yards and 25 touchdowns, but he also had 12 interceptions and an 86.6 rating for the season.
Rookie running back Joe Mixon became a starter in Week 8 and led the team with 626 yards and four touchdowns. Wide receiver John Ross, the Bengals' first-round pick, barely saw the field before being placed on injured reserve, one of several key injuries that plagued the Bengals throughout the season. Dalton had a subpar season, with 3,320 yards, 25 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and an 86.6 rating. But, another draft choice, fourth-round linebacker Carl Lawson, led all rookies in sacks.
The Bengals (7-9) had a 17-0 lead in the first half against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football on December 4 looking to establish themselves in the playoff race. They lost that game, then the next two by a combined 67-14, effectively knocking them out of the postseason for the second straight year. The season hit rock bottom with a dismal 34-7 loss at Minnesota, before which reports surfaced that head coach Marvin Lewis would step down after the season, something he vehemently denied. He then signed a two-year contract extension two days after the season finale. The Bengals have had two straight losing seasons.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: Rookie running back Joe Mixon was as advertised. Despite missing two games late in the season with a concussion and not becoming the starter until Week 8, Mixon rushed for 626 yards and four touchdowns to lead the team. Nick Vigil, in his first season as a full-time starter, was leading the team in tackles until an injury cost him the last four games. Rookie linebacker Carl Lawson was second on the team with 8.5 sacks, leading all NFL rookies.
WHAT WENT WRONG: The offensive line, without Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler who left as free agents last offseason, struggled throughout the season, resulting in an inconsistent rushing attack and 39 sacks of Andy Dalton, who finished with an 86.6 rating with 12 interceptions. Top draft choice John Ross only appeared in three games before being placed on injured reserve in Week 13. It was one of several key injuries that plagued the Bengals throughout the season.
MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER: Speedy wide receiver John Ross was picked ninth overall to give the Bengals an added dimension in the passing game, helping Andy Dalton stretch defenses. Ross who had a known shoulder injury when he finally arrived at camp, battled injury all season before being placed on injured reserve for the final three weeks. Ross did not have a catch in the three games he played. He did have a 12-yard run vs. the Houston Texans, but fumbled.
MOST SURPRISING PLAYER: There are many people around the league who aren't surprised by what rookie linebacker Carl Lawson accomplished this season. But, his stats aren't indicative of a player drafted in the fourth round, 116th overall. Lawson finished second on the team with 8.5 sacks. He led all NFL rookies in sacks.
ASSISTANT COACH ON THE RISE: Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther was in the final year of his contract, making him free to leave. He did just that, joining Jon Gruden's staff in Oakland as defensive coordinator. Guenther's defenses have been among the NFL's top-10 scoring defenses twice and in the top 15 in three of his four seasons.
The more things stay the same for the Bengals, the more they will change, according to head coach Marvin Lewis who despite two straight losing seasons and an 0-7 mark in the playoffs, was granted a two-year contract extension on Tuesday.
"We have to build better," Lewis said, while addressing the media on Wednesday at Paul Brown Stadium. "We have to be better than I've been. Obviously, the way our season finished this year is not what we wanted. We have to get back at it."
Lewis, 59, is the winningest coach in Bengals history with 125 career victories, ranking 26th all-time in NFL history and fourth among active coaches.
But, many felt the time for a change was now. The Bengals won their final two games to finish 7-9, but a dismal three-game losing skid in which they blew a 17-point lead to the Steelers and then were outscored 67-14 in losses to the Bears and Vikings, appeared to have sewn Lewis' fate. Instead, he will extend his franchise-long head coaching tenure to 16 seasons, twice that of Paul Brown and Sam Wyche.
"You have to start from scratch, regardless," Lewis said. "Might as well start from scratch with someone you understand and know."
There will be other changes to the coaching staff.
The Bengals announced on Wednesday that offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and special teams coach Darrin Simmons would be back, but offensive line coach Paul Alexander is leaving.
Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is headed to the Raiders.
"We spent the past two days, spending time, three or four times, talking about what where we needed to get better," Lewis said. "We have to build a better football team. First off, it's to get back to the top of this division, and go from there."
Lewis has led the Bengals to the postseason seven times, including five straight years from 2011 to 2015, but the team has not won a playoff game since 1991. Cincinnati won AFC North titles under Lewis in 2005, 2013 and 2015.
The contract negotiations with team owner Mike Brown were collaborative, according to Lewis, who said Brown asked him if he still was "driven" to continue coaching.
"This is a partnership, and I was entrusted to do a job," Lewis said. "I didn't go into it thinking I was going to win anything."
It was clear that strengthening the team via free agency was part of his discussions with Brown. "We're going to have to do a better job of adding some guys from other clubs," said Lewis.
Lazor was promoted from quarterbacks coach to coordinator when Ken Zampese was fired after two games. The Bengals finished the season ranked 32nd in total offense and 26th in scoring offense. The offensive line was a puzzle that never came together. Dalton was sacked 39 times and the rushing attack never got going, despite a solid rookie campaign by Joe Mixon.
"We have a lot of talent on this roster and I am excited for the opportunity to build the high-powered offense we have the potential to be," Lazor said. "This offseason will give us the chance to continue the success we had at the end of the year as we develop into a dynamic offense in 2018."