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Posted Jan 13, 2014

The best season under Marvin Lewis with top 10 NFL rankings in three phases and an undefeated regular season at home, shouldn't be vaporized from the archives.


Vontaze Burfict

No red carpet. No black tie. No cocktail hours, or after parties, or A-listers, or 5-star reservations.

In bowing to a locker room consensus that vowed this season would only be a success with a deep run in the playoffs, the Bengals.com postseason superlatives are getting sent by registered mail with no trophy-fest. But the best season under head coach Marvin Lewis, including top 10 NFL rankings in all three phases and an undefeated regular season at home, shouldn't be vaporized from the archives.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE YEAR: RB Giovani Bernard.

Take your pick.

The 35-yard-reverse-the-field-beat-everyone-in-Broward-County dash in Miami on Halloween night. It was the longest touchdown run by a Bengals running back since the 2011 opener when Cedric Benson ran through a Cleveland defense that had 11 men on the line of scrimmage in the final two minutes as Cincinnati killed the clock. This time, all 11 guys had a shot at Bernard in an amazing dry run through a waterfall.

Or, his 41-yard-catch-run against the Vikings on Dec. 22 in a 42-14 victory at Paul Brown Stadium.

As a safety valve out of the backfield, Bernard caught a ball in the right flat from scrambling quarterback Andy Dalton and four yards upfield he spun out of the first tackle and made three others miss as he ended up on the other sideline inside the Vikings 10 to set up a touchdown. It was the longest catch by a Bengals running back in five years and a week, since Benson went for 79 yards against Washington.

If Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer becomes the head coach in Minnesota, we can assume that one is going to be viewed in one of the first meetings.

LOWLIGHT OF THE YEAR: A tie between the snapshots of two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins (ACL) and senior defensive back Leon Hall (Achilles) being helped off the field in late October games with season-ending injuries. After losing arguably its two best players, the defense recovered to finish third in the NFL and Zimmer wondered aloud after the season how good the defense really could have been.  

The loss of Atkins began to take its toll as the season wore on. Without Atkins, regarded as the best inside pass rusher in the league, the Bengals front four had good pressure but not the same amount. Example? The Bengals had one sack in their wild card loss to the Chargers. A week later the Broncos, 17th in the NFL in generating sacks per pass, dumped Philip Rivers twice on the first series.

GAME OF THE YEAR: This one set the tone for the Paul Brown Stadium season; a wild, 34-30 fourth-quarter victory over the Packers on Sept. 22 that got the Bengals turned the right way at 2-1. But Dalton didn't get the comeback victory, not after the defense had to rescue the offense from four turnovers.

After head coach Marvin Lewis won a challenge that turned a Packers first down into a fourth-and-one, Bengals right end Michael Johnson forced rookie running back Jonathan Franklin to fumble and when safety Reggie Nelson picked it up and also fumbled after a few yards, cornerback Terence Newman got a hand on it and ran 58 yards for a touchdown that gave the Bengals the lead at 34-30 with 3:47 left.

The defense then stopped Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the Bengals 25 for the win. Rodgers, who came in with 10 100-plus passer rating road games in the past three seasons, ended up at 65.5.

STAT OF THE YEAR: 56.7.

The combined passer rating of Super Bowl-winning QBs Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Joe Flacco at PBS while holding them to just three touchdown passes. If Zimmer gets a head coaching job, he leaves with a Picasso.

MVP: WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict.

It has to be a defensive player with stats like that. The defense's one Pro Bowl player.

Or, stats like this:

The Bengals offense turned it over 30 times in 16 games, three for touchdowns. Of those 27 remaining drives, the Bengals forced 12 punts while allowing just five touchdowns and nine field goals, as well as a missed field goal. A total of 17 of those drives started at the Bengals 47 or closer and only three went for TDs. One TD drive started at the Bengals 11, another at the Bengals 1, and the other one, from the Bengals 36, was surrendered after the first drive of the season.

The same deal went down in the playoff game. After four turnovers, the Chargers got three field goals even though they got the ball on the Bengals 3 and Bengals 46.

Or, stats like this:

The defense scored six TDs at PBS.

Burfict scored one of them, a 13-yard fumble return after one of his league-leading 204 tackles, a hellacious shot on Browns running Chris Ogbonnaya on the checkdown pass from hell. It was a microcosm of the unbridled passion Burfict brings to the game and has shot through the rest of the defense. He relays the signals from the bench. He sets the huddle. His teammates say his take-no-prisoners attitude is contagious. His position coach estimates he played more than 93 percent of the snaps. The only time he comes off the field is when he's hurt.

And not even then. Burfict sprained his ankle right before the trip to San Diego, flew cross country in a boot, convinced Lewis to take him off the inactive list a few hours before the game, and ended up making 13 tackles.

"I've got to beg him to get off the field if he's hurt," says linebackers coach Paul Guenther, who is in the press box. "Against Minnesota we had a pretty good lead late and he wouldn't come out. I told him, 'Don't make me come down there and pull you out of there,' and he finally got out. But that's the kind of relationship we have."

Burfict was fined more than $50,000 this season for some enthusiastic hits and while the Bengals would like him to take it down a notch at times, Lewis almost always defends him publicly and vehemently. In the end, Burfict gives the Bengals what this defense has lacked, it seems, forever: a never-back-down swagger. A must in the AFC North.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: WR A.J. Green

It could be quarterback Andy Dalton with his club-record 33 TD passes. It could be Andrew Whitworth, who started the season as a Pro Bowl left tackle, gutted through a knee injury that never really got right all year, and ended up as a left guard that showed Pro Bowl flashes despite not playing inside in five years. It could be Anthony Collins, the man that replaced Whitworth at left tackle and was brilliant. According to Pro Football Focus he was the only tackle in the NFL that didn't allow the quarterback to get hit or sacked all year in nearly 600 snaps despite playing some high-end talent like Defensive Player of the Year candidate Robert Mathis, one of the active career sack leaders in Chicago's Julius Peppers, and double-digit Dolphins sack man Olivier Vernon.

But it has to be Green. For one thing, he's the offense's only Pro Bowler. For another, he set club records with five straight 100-yard games and six overall in a season. And finally, he came within 17 yards of Chad Johnson's single-season receiving yards record while racking up the second-most yards of anyone in NFL history in their first three seasons.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Bernard

He's already attacking the record book and being mentioned in the same breath as Corey Dillon and James Brooks, the top two rushers in Bengals history. Bernard racked up 1,209 scrimmage yards, most by a Bengals rookie since Dillon and caught 56 balls, breaking Brooks's record for a back. His 4.1-yards per carry average on 170 carries (10 carries per game) looks like it is going to translate into a bigger workload for Bernard under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. In 2011 when Jackson was the head coach of the Raiders, his top two rushers, Michael Bush and Darren McFadden, each averaged 16 carries per game.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER: WR Marvin Jones

After an injury-plagued rookie season in 2012 in which he had 18 catches for 201 yards and a touchdown in 11 games, Jones went off in his sophomore year and became one of the most dynamic receivers in the NFL. He not only became the first NFL player to score four touchdowns in a game in six years when he caught four of them against the Jets, he teamed up with Green to form the first Bengals tandem in history to each catch at least 10 TDs. His 10 TDs on 51 catches went along with a playoff-record 130 yards against the Chargers, breaking Cris Collinsworth's 30-year-old record.

For all the talk about red-zone targets (Green, tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, wide receiver Mohamed Sanu), what about Jones? Jones had nine TDs in the red zone while Green, Gresham, Eifert and Sanu combined for 10. It was a good enough mix that the Bengals were second in the NFL in red-zone TD percentage.

SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE YEAR: P Kevin Huber

A nod here to returner Brandon Tate. He finished sixth in the AFC in kick and punt returns and had a big December with an average of 18.3 yards on four punts against the Colts and four kick returns for a nearly 33 yards kept the Bengals in it in Pittsburgh the next week.

But it's hard to ignore what Huber did before he was lost for the season in that Pittsburgh game on Dec. 15 with a broken jaw after what may have been his worst punt in a very solid season. Even before he was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week in San Diego on Dec. 1 with a 55.5-yard net, he was a huge factor with three straight late kicks that won games, starting with his 57-yard bomb into a monsoon against New England. The next week in Buffalo he pinned the Bills on their 7-yard line to set up the winning field goal and the week after that he dropped one on the 6 with 1:52 left to set up another winning field goal at the gun. And he had just four touchbacks all season.

ASSISTANT COACH OF THE YEAR: Linebackers coach Paul Guenther

Not only did Burfict come off the free-agent rolls to the Pro Bowl, but Guenther saw four players suffer season-ending injuries, two before the season began. One of them, fourth-rounder Sean Porter, was ticketed for special teams, but the plan was to ease him into a backup role at both SAM and WILL. But the other, Emmanuel Lamur, was getting ready to have a 700-snap season with Burfict in the nickel. Zimmer and Guenther were also looking at using Lamur, a big, 6-4 safetyish athlete, against some double tight end sets as well.

When Lamur (shoulder) went down in the preseason finale, Guenther requested Taylor Mays, a 6-3, 220-pound physical safety, and he responded well in Lamur's spot in the nickel until he went down with the same injury in the eighth game of the year. Guenther then turned to career special teams ace Vinny Rey, one of the five undrafted linebackers on the roster down the stretch, and he came up with the biggest stretch of his career. He had one of the six PBS defensive scores on a pick-six and he became the first Bengal in history to record three sacks and an interception in the same game when he did it in Baltimore.

"My thing with our guys is that I'd tell them why they were doing something," Guenther said. "I didn't want to just say, 'Do this because I told you so.' I think it helps them learn it if you tell them why and give them reasons."

Guenther, a close confidant of Zimmer, may end up replacing him if Zimmer gets a head coaching job. Or, as has been speculated, he could follow Zimmer.

HONORABLE MENTION: Defensive line coach Jay Hayes

Hayes also had to adapt to injuries. Not only did he lose his best player in Atkins, but he also lost his most experienced and versatile when Robert Geathers tore his triceps in the second game. Plus, nickel pass rusher Devon Still, a tackle, missed six games. Hayes had to accelerate second-round project Margus Hunt's progress while trying to juggle the middle to open the way for ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson, and the Bengals ended up moving around end Wallace Gilberry and SAM backer James Harrison in and out on the line. It was a yeoman effort. The Bengals finished in the upper half of the NFL in sacks per pass while also finishing fifth stopping the run.

HONORABLE MENTION: Special teams coach Darrin Simmons

Simmons took the brunt of the trickle-down-effect from the injuries at backer because they are his biggest cover guys and blockers. Last year, Lamur and Mays were his fourth- and sixth-leading tacklers, respectively. Plus, he lost his top two tacklers from last season, linebacker Dan Skuta to free agency, and safety Jeromy Miles to a roster crunch after the opener. Then when Mays got hurt, he had to juggle Rey's snaps after he was special teams' third-leading tackler in 2012.

And, of course, the injury to Huber the week before the Bengals closed the season against the two best punt return teams in the NFL.

But they did more than survive. No, the Bengals special teams didn't defend their 2012 title when they led the NFL in a compilation of the 10 major special teams categories. And, yes, they blew the game in Pittsburgh with a terrible 13 minutes.

But they also put up top 10 numbers, won two games on the road with field goals at the gun made possible by punts, had the longest winning kick in club history on Mike Nugent's 54-yarder, came within 1:24 of doing it again 11 days later in Miami when his go-ahead field goal was negated by the Dolphins tying drive, and tied the record for the club's longest punt as part of a lockdown effort in San Diego.

BEST HUE JACKSON STATS FOR 2014

21-3: The record for Dalton and Bengals when they rush at least 30 times in a game.

0: Playoff games Bengals have rushed at least 30 times with Dalton.

  

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