The Shutdown Countdown: Cincinnati Bengals look strong, but the time is now for Andy Dalton

It’s been an up-and-down decade for Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, who has had as many four-win seasons as 10-win seasons (two each) in the last half-decade. The formerly cheapskate franchise recently made a new commitment to scouting and assistant coach retention, which has allowed Lewis’ guys to draft more sensibly and develop players with better clarity. As a result, the Bengals are loaded with talent on both sides of the ball. They’ve been in the playoffs each of the last two seasons, but have been eliminated decisively each time by the Houston Texans in the first round.

In those two games, second-year quarterback Andy Dalton’s stats: 41 completions in 72 attempts for 384 yards, no touchdowns, and four interceptions. Dalton looked overwhelmed in both games, and in one consistent fashion – though he can handle a game at the NFL level, he’s not a consistently great thrower under pressure, he will fire errantly at times, and his deep ball leaves a lot to be desired.

ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski recently outlined some of Dalton’s attributes and liabilities in his “QB Countdown” (produced by our good friend Greg Cosell), and it’s a fair assessment.

Dalton’s red zone numbers in his two seasons as the Bengals starter are phenomenal: 30 touchdown passes and zero interceptions. Yet overall, I felt there was a hesitancy to his play in the last half of the 2012 season. There were too many times he didn’t pull the trigger and too many poor reads for a quarterback whose arm strength limitations demand precise execution.

This will be a critical year for Dalton. He’s a rock-solid NFL starting quarterback, but there’s too much inconsistency in his overall play. Both he and the Bengals’ offense must improve on third down. Those are the tougher situations when the defense more often than not has the tactical advantage.

I see a lot to like about Andy Dalton. At his best, he throws with great anticipation and accuracy. But I always have the concern about his arm strength. It’s not where you’d like it to be to be a top 10 quarterback.

The Bengals have surrounded Dalton with talent, and the AFC North is ripe for the picking. However, this franchise is in the uncomfortable position of going exactly as far as their inconsistent quarterback will take them.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same? About the same, with one very important addition on offense in the person of first-round tight end Tyler Eifert. A.J. Green may be the best receiver in football not named Calvin Johnson, but it will help Dalton a lot to have Eifert as a true secondary target. Eifert has some elements of Rob Gronkowski in his receiving game.

Best offseason acquisition: The Bengals made a two-year commitment to former Pittsburgh Steelers edge-rusher James Harrison. Harrison isn’t what he used to be, but under the tutelage of the excellent defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, he could thrive in a front seven that is already frighteningly stacked.

[Related: Bengals' Geno Atkins has earned an extension]

Biggest hole on the roster:Safety. The Bengals are expected to give Taylor Mays, an athletically gifted but football-inexperienced player, a shot at the strong safety position this year, replacing Nate Clements and Chris Crocker. Based on initial reports, though, Mays may lose that opportunity to third-round rookie Shawn Williams. Reggie Nelson is reasonably reliable at the free safety position, but

Position in flux:It was the only position along the Bengals’ offensive line where one player didn’t start every game. Veteran Jeff Faine as waived in December, and veteran Kyle Cook will receive competition from second-year man Trevor Robinson.

Player you might not have heard of yet, but will soon:Defensive end Carlos Dunlap. It’s great that the world finally understands just how awesome defensive tackle Geno Atkins is, and Dunlap is the next arrow in Zimmer’s quiver due for some national attention. In 2012, the third-year man put up six sacks, seven quarterback hits, and 13 quarterback hurries, and received a $40 million contract extension in June as a reward. Not bad for a guy who has started just two games in his NFL career, but the Bengals clearly see Dunlap as their main starting pass-rushing end.

Stat fact: 16. That’s the number of starts the Bengals got in the 2012 season from right tackle Andre Smith. However, Smith missed OTAs this year with some personal issues, and this was after the team signed him to a new three-year, $18 million contract. Smith showed up for training camp at a fairly reasonable weight, which isn’t always the case. The Bengals need him, because Dalton will take needless sacks at times, and per Football Outsiders’ game-charting metrics, Smith gave up a sack once every 73.1 snaps, which was best among all NFL right tackles last season.

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2013 season: Dalton takes whatever next step his talent allows him to, Green and Eifert combine to create the NFL’s next great receiving duo, the defense defines the franchise even more than it did last year, and the Ravens and Steelers slide out of the way for the Bengals to take the division. Fortunately for Bengals fans, this is an entirely plausible plan.

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And here’s the nightmare scenario: Pass-protection issues lead to a Dalton regression, and Cincy’s secondary lets the rest of the defense down.

The player who could swing this team’s season one way or another: Certainly Dalton, but watch out for second-round running back Giovanni Bernard.Running backs coach Hue Jackson believes that Bernard can be an every-down back, and based on his college tape, we agree. Not only is the North Carolina product a powerful and shifty runner, he can also catch the ball with aplomb. Don’t be surprised to see Bernard lined up in many places along the formation, adding a new element to Jay Gruden’s offense.

TheShutdownCountdown previews you might have missed
32. Oakland Raiders
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
30. Arizona Cardinals
29. Buffalo Bills
28. Cleveland Browns
27. Tennessee Titans
26. Kansas City Chiefs
25. New York Jets
24. San Diego Chargers
23. Philadelphia Eagles
22. Miami Dolphins
21. St. Louis Rams
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
18. Dallas Cowboys
17. Detroit Lions
16. Pittsburgh Steelers
15. Indianapolis Colts
14. New Orleans Saints
13. Chicago Bears
12. New York Giants
11. Carolina Panthers
10. Washington Redskins

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