Exit Interview: Scrappy Bengals on the right track for 2012

With the 2011 season in the rearview mirror for many teams, it's time for NFL.com's annual "Exit Interviews," a chance to review the ups and downs of each team's past season and spin it forward.

2011 in a Nutshell: The Bengals were the classic definition of a sixth seed: competitive, pesky, capable of playing with anyone, often losing to the someones. Cincy went 9-7, finishing third in a division with two solid teams at the top.

What Went Right: Nearly everything about Andy Dalton: his attitude, approach to his job, and eagerness to be in Cincinnati (no shots intended at anyone... OK, maybe one or two shots were intended for someone...). He fared extremely well for a rookie, with 3,398 yards passing and a nice 20-13 touchdown-interception ratio. On the flip side, his completion percentage of 58.1 was outside of the top 20 for quarterbacks; he'll have to raise that number by at least five percentage points to be truly effective. Still, Dalton turned out to be a great value for a second-round pick.

Speaking of being effective, rookie wideout A.J. Green was that and then some with 65 receptions for 1,057 yards. The offensive line was better than a lot of league observers thought, allowing only 25 sacks, tied for fourth-fewest in the league.

Defensively, coordinator Mike Zimmer's 4-3 scheme was the backbone of this playoff team for most of the season, giving up 316 yards per game, the seventh-best mark in the league. Frostee Rucker, Pat Sims and Reggie Nelson might not be huge names, but all were cogs in a defense that was solid if not spectacular.

What Went Not So Right: While the defense was viable, there's not one guy who creates matchup problems for opposing offenses, especially from a pass-rushing standpoint. Against good teams, the lack of a disruptive force reared its ugly head, as it did against the Texans in the playoffs. For an example of what the Bengals are missing, look no further than the pick-six by Houston's J.J. Watt in that playoff game. That's the kind of game-changing moment Cincinnati could have used in losses to the Steelers and Ravens.

If the Bengals fancy themselves a division contender in 2012, they had better figure out a way to stop Baltimore's Ray Rice, who ran for nearly 300 yards in two outings against them this past season.

The Bengals must also be more consistent running the football themselves. Sometimes the ground game was there, sometimes it wasn't. The club finished 19th in rushing with 111.1 yards per game, but more alarming than that was the yards-per-carry average: the team tied for 26th in the league with a measly 3.9.

Offseason Crystal Ball: Figuring out how to beat good teams -- instead of just holding their own -- has to be a priority. That starts with changing the culture, although you can also certainly make the argument that the Bengals were outcoached by the Texans.

Marvin Lewis could very well be without the popular Zimmer, who is a candidate for several jobs around the league. His absence would create a void as sizeable that left by Carson Palmer last summer. Nelson, Rucker, Sims, Adam Jones and Manny Lawson could also follow their coordinator out the door, as all are free agents.

Offensively, look for coordinator Jay Gruden to make better use of tight end Jermaine Gresham while working the fully rehabbed Jordan Shipley back into the passing game out of the slot. Who plays on the outside with Green is questionable, because it might not be the spectacularly inconsistent Jerome Simpson, himself a free agent.

Team Needs and Draft: Most Bengals fans wouldn't mind an upgrade over safety Chris Crocker, who isn't exactly a force to be reckoned with (check out this awesome attempt at tackling Arian Foster in the wild-card game). Someone who can rush the passer would also be a big lift, but that's true for nearly every team in the pass-happy NFL. No matter what, some help is needed on the defensive line.

Offensively, grabbing a running back early might be the smartest play. Cedric Benson is a free agent, and will be entering his eighth pro season in 2012. The show might soon be over for Benson. If the Bengals don't go for a running back, then grabbing a guard in the first or second round -- like Stanford's David DeCastro -- would be a solid choice.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL

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