NFL Cincinnati Bengals

Five Players Who Will Define 2013 For Cincinnati Bengals

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AJ Green Sits After Playoff Loss

Green After Loss
Brett Davis - US Presswire

The 2012 season ended in heartbreak for the players of the Cincinnati Bengals and their fans. Even with a young team, after a season of inconsistency, expectations were high and a first-round exit left a bad taste in the mouths of everyone, especially losing to a Houston Texans team that wasn't playing particularly well and who also knocked Cincinnati out of the playoffs the season before. The letdown was further compounded by the lackluster performance by the team in that game, particularly the offense. A missed opportunity by Andy Dalton on a throw to AJ Green at the end of the game was devastating and a blowout loss might have been preferable to some.

Fans now look to the 2013 season and hope that the breakthrough will finally come, bringing a playoff victory for the first time in more than two decades. If that is to happen, everyone will have to step up their game. Football is the ultimate team sport, and even the least-likely of players can alter a game or even a season. Everyone is important to team success, but certain players are more likely to be key to winning in the coming year. The Bengals will need maximum effort from their entire roster, but the five guys listed here are the ones who, for various reasons, will probably determine just how good the team can be and how far they could advance in the postseason. These players, who were already good, must be even better if the Bengals want a shot at satisfaction and the ultimate reward. They will be the key to delivering a championship to the city of Cincinnati.

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5. Andrew Whitworth Must Protect Blind Side

Whitworth Blocks
John Rieger - US Presswire

A good left tackle is one of the most important positions on the field. He protects the quarterbacks blind side and goes a long way in keeping him feeling comfortable in the pocket and confident in his throws. In 2012, Andrew Whitworth did a solid job blocking opposing pass rushers, but didn't always seem to be at his best. After the season, he had surgery to remove scar tissue in his knee, and said he had been playing in pain. This might explain the intermittent lack of quickness that allowed speed rushers to beat him into the backfield. A healthy Whitworth is one of the league's best, and his ability to keep Dalton upright and comfortable will be a big factor in the improvement of the offense.

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4. Vontaze Burfict Must Lead Linebackers

Burfict Tackle
David Kohl - US Presswire

The Bengals defense was extraordinary in 2012, as it was the previous season. This was led by a strong pass rush and an improving secondary. If there was an area in need of improvement, however, it would be the linebacker corps. A unit that struggled at times last season could see a lot of turnover this off-season, with free agency and some young players ready to take larger roles. One of the latter players is Vontaze Burfict. Burfict came in as an undrafted rookie, written off by most of the league. Marvin Lewis took a chance on him and was rewarded handsomely, as Burfict stepped into the lineup and never looked back. He showed a nose for the football and an ability to make tackles, while avoiding mistakes that marred his final college season. There's a possibility he moves into the middle linebacker position in 2013, where he will need to be at the top of his game. Whether in the middle, or back outside, Burfict will be huge, especially if he works hard to improve even further.

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3. Carlos Dunlap Must Stay Healthy

Dunlap Sacks
Frank Victores - US Presswire

The Bengals finished the 2012 season ranked 3rd in the NFL in sacks with 51. This was led by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who had 12 1/2. Michael Johnson added 11 1/2 while several others added lower amounts. One of those players is defensive end Carlos Dunlap. Dunlap had six sacks last season, and often forced opposing QBs into sacks by other players, but also continued to have injury issues. When healthy, Dunlap is a force to be reckoned with, using speed and power to push into the backfield and create havoc for other teams. His presence opens things up for the other pass rushers and is important to success. With Atkins commanding a double-team on most plays, Dunlap will get chances to make big plays, something he needs to take advantage of. If he can stay on the field and get consistent pressure, the Bengals' pass rush is going to be even more frightening.

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2. Running Backs Must Create Dynamic Offense

Green-Ellis Rushes
Troy Taormina - US Pressire

In 2012, one of the areas of weakness overall was the running game. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was brought in as a free agent and played well but his lack of game-breaking speed allowed opposing defenses to avoid bringing extra defenders to stop him, and made it harder to throw the ball. Green-Ellis often exploited big holes as a result but his speed kept the gains to a minimum, while a faster player might have broken them for long touchdowns. It is widely believed that the Bengals will look to add another running back this off-season to compliment Green-Ellis and make the offense more dynamic. A running game that keeps defenses honest will go a long way toward taking heat off of the passing game and will make the Bengals a much better team, and a threat to score on every play.

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1. Andy Dalton Must Take Next Step

Dalton Standing
Andrew Weber - US Presswire

The QB position is always the most important one on the field. A team with a great one is already a step ahead of the rest of the league and a team with a bad one is in trouble. Andy Dalton came into the league with questions about size and arm strength and after 2012 those questions persist. His intelligence and determination are unimpeachable, but his accuracy, especially on the deep ball, is iffy at best. He also struggled with pressure last year, showing some indecisiveness in the pocket, and either panicking into making a bad throw or running into a sack. He must improve in these areas if the Bengals are to become a perennial contender. He has physical limitations that other QBs don't have, but he can maximize the qualities he does have and still be a great one. If the other four players on this list all improve, but Dalton can't take the next step, the Bengals could still be no more than a one-and-done team in the playoffs. If Dalton can prove doubters wrong, then fans might be celebrating in February instead of watching other teams play for a ring.