Skyline Surprise: Can The Bengals Pounce On The AFC North?

Aug 10, 2012; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (14) and wide receiver A.J. Green (18) walk off of the field at the end of the game against the New York Jets at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Frank Victores-US PRESSWIRE

Looking at the Bengals with SB Nation's Cincy Jungle and their chances of taking another leap forward in 2012.

Four punts, two interceptions, a field goal and a 14-point deficit are all quarterback Andy Dalton and his team had to show through the first half of a Week 4 game against the Buffalo Bills last season. The Cincinnati Bengals and their signal caller were well on the way to their worst game of the season so far. Dalton walked into the locker room 7-for-20 with a rating of 15.8, such were the struggles of a rookie quarterback in the NFL.

Something changed on their opening drive to start the second half. Dalton fed the ball to Cedric Benson, who had struggled his way to a measly 2.1 yards per carry in the first half. On his second play, he ran around the left end for 28 yards. On the next play, Dalton found his fellow rookie A.J. Green who leaped backwards for a 40-yard catch, putting the Bengals inside the 10-yard line.

Cincinnati settled for a field goal on that drive, but it was the start of a second-half comeback. A 17-yard touchdown to Jermaine Gresham, a quarterback scamper up the middle and a defensive performance that forced the Bills to punt on three of four drives resulted in a 23-20 win. It put the Bengals -- at 2-2 for the season and on the road to 9-7 finish and a trip to the playoffs -- in one of the biggest surprises of the 2011 season.

Less than three weeks from now, the Bengals start a new campaign, opening a much-anticipated followup performance on Monday night, Sep. 10, against the Baltimore Ravens.

Can the Bengals take steps forward this season, forcing themselves into the annual two-team race to the top of the AFC North? For more insight into the Cincinnati's 2012 season, we sat down with Josh Kirkendall of SB Nation's Bengals blog, Cincy Jungle.

The Bengals play in a tough division. How well positioned is Cincinnati to challenge the Baltimore/Pittsburgh stranglehold on the AFC North?

I won't say that the Bengals will beat everyone in the AFC North and claim the division title. I will say that they're going to make it a three-team race. But there is a reason that they're using the training camp tagline Destination: New Orleans. They're expecting to make an impact on this year's postseason.

Andy Dalton's preseason numbers leave a little to be desired, like a 52.2 completion percentage. Is that a warning sign or preseason noise? Explain.

It's just static. Jay Gruden's offense hasn't emphasized a particular gameplan or philosophy and there's been the consistency you expect from five offensive possessions in two games during the preseason. And it's not like a Dalton-led offense has struggled. Five possessions have resulted in two field goals, a touchdown, fumble (by Brian Leonard) and a punt. Additionally during those five drives, three have spanned nine plays or more respectively with 11 combined first downs.

What will the running back rotation look like without Cedric Benson this year? Will that be enough for the offense to be successful?

For the first time in what feels like forever, the Bengals aren't employing a bell cow to take the bulk of the team's carries, if we're to believe the coaching staff that personifies honesty (not really). We're expecting a balanced rotation between the 20s with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Bernard Scott and more Green-Ellis in the red zone. With a west coast offense, there will also be an increase with quick routes to compliment more of the rushing offense.

What will you be looking for from the team in their third preseason game on Thursday night?

Nothing significant right now. More position battles than anything. The entire wide receiver roster is set, but we're still curious about the primary No. 2 receiver, if there will even be one. Like to see a quicker start on offense -- three-and-out and fumble during first two preseason games. How well can a patched-up secondary (Adam Jones, Jason Allen, Dre Kirkpatrick are out) deal with a Green Bay Packers' passing assault? And for the love of god, Taylor Mays NOT injuring his teammates for once.

Which under-the-radar offensive player will the football world be talking about this season?

Not sure how under-the-radar he is, since we talk about him so much, but keep an eye on Andrew Hawkins. He's the guy that's showed remarkable production and effort since making the team last year, giving the team enough confidence to release Jordan Shipley. Hawkins will play the slot and participate during most special teams units, including competing as a returner. He's quick, agile and deceptively fast. Hard worker that lays it all out there. A model player that fans love.

Which under the radar defensive player will people be talking about?

Let's go with a more obvious undrafted free agent that made plenty of headlines during the predraft process. All of the maturity and character issues that labeled Vontaze Burfict, he's been a coach's player. A sponge for coaching, applies what he learns and quickly asserted himself on the team's depth chart. He's nearly a lock to make the 53-man roster and there's plenty of rumblings that he could be the Bengals eventual Rey Maualuga replacement if his progress continues. Still Burfict has to battle Roddrick Muckelroy for the backup job. Either way, the good things we've heard about Burfict in college have emerged at one point during training camp and the preseason.

Injuries have taken a toll on the defense in the preseason. How will that impact things with the regular season less than a month away?

The one major injury the team has suffered was on the offensive side of the ball with guard Travelle Wharton. The number of injuries on defense is noticeable, but they're not major. If everyone maintains rehabilitation and returns on schedule, there's a good chance none of the defensive players that's suffered injuries will miss time. The one player that's most at risk missing time during in the regular season is Carlos Dunlap, but we're talking the regular season opener at most.

The Bengals host the Green Bay Packers for their third preseason game on Thursday night. Follow all the action from that game and the others check out SB Nation's NFL hub.

For more on the Bengals, visit Cincy Jungle.

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