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Cincinnati Bengals Report Card: Grading the 2017 season

There were a lot of disappointments in the 2017 Cincinnati Bengals season, but it wasn’t all bad.

Despite several key players, including nine starters, suffering season-ending injuries, the 7-9 record was a slight improvement over the 6-9-1 mark posted in 2016.

Rookie first-round pick John Ross couldn’t get on the field, but rookie second-round pick Joe Mixon showed plenty of promise.

Here’s a look at the good, the bad and defining plays in the 2017 Cincinnati Bengals season report card.

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RUSH OFFENSE

The Good: Giovani Bernard averaged 4.4 yards per carry, the second highest number of his career, as he and Mixon finished strong, leading the team to a 4.7-yard average over the final six games. The trio of Jeremy Hill, Mixon and Bernard also showed solid ball security, losing just two of three fumbles (all by Mixon).

The Bad: The first 10 games, when the Bengals averaged 2.9 per carry and 68 yards per game, setting the foundation for the Bengals to finish 31st in the league in rushing and set a franchise record for fewest rushing yards in a season (1,366).

Defining Plays: Rookie first-round pick John Ross rushing for 12 yards around left end in Week 2 against Houston only to lose a fumble on what was his only touch of the season. And Mixon slipping on third and 1 at the Green Bay 27 with 4:30 to go, forcing the Bengals to settle for a field goal that kept it a one-possession game and allowed Aaron Rodgers and the Packers to tie it at the end of regulation and win it in overtime.

Grade: D

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PASS OFFENSE

The Good: Tight end Tyler Kroft took over the injured Tyler Eifert and set career highs in receptions (42), receiving yards (404) and touchdowns (seven), the latter of which was one shy of A.J. Green’s team-leading total. Green topped 1,000 yards (1,078) for the sixth time seven seasons and Andy Dalton had a better than 2:1 ratio in touchdown passes (25) to interceptions (12) for the third year in a row.

The Bad: A key emphasis in camp was cutting down on sacks after giving up 41 last year, but the Bengals nearly matched it with 40 allowed this season. They converted just 33.7 percent of their third downs (29th in the league) and averaged 195.1 yards per game (27th). Dalton and the coaching staff seemed to forget about Tyler Boyd, who led the NFL in third-down receptions as a rookie in 2016. And the normally reliable Green struggled with ball security — drops and fumbles — down the stretch.

Defining plays: The game-winning 49-yard touchdown pass from Dalton to Boyd ended the season on a high note but also left everyone wondering where that sort of big play, and Boyd himself, had been all season. The negative yang to that positive ying came in the opener when Baltimore’s C.J. Mosley intercepted Dalton in the end zone as the Bengals were trying to take the lead. It was Dalton’s only red zone interception of the season but his second of four in that game, setting the tone for a season’s worth of struggles.

Grade: D+

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RUSH DEFENSE

The Good: The Bengals only allowed eight rushes of at least 20 yards, and three were scrambles by quarterbacks. Vontaze Burfict played well enough – when not injured and suspended – to be voted as a Pro Bowl alternate, and Vinny Rey was solid while filling in Burfict and ended up leading the team in tackles.

The Bad: The Bengals forced just three fumbles by running backs, recovering two and allowed at least 149 yards in seven games. They allowed an average of 127.9 rushing yards per game, which ranked 30th in the league.

Defining plays: After catching a break when Chicago’s Tarik Cohen barely stepped out of bounds on what looked like a 35-yard touchdown run, the Bengals gave up a 21-yard touchdown to Jordan Howard on the very next play. And even though it began as a pass play, Deshaun Watson’s 49-yard scramble for a tie-breaking touchdown late in the second quarter featured the missed tackles and poor angles that plagued the Bengals all season.

Grade: D+

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PASS DEFENSE

The Good: The Bengals ranked seventh in the league (211.2 yards per game). Rookie defensive end Carl Lawson had 8.5 sacks and was one of the best pass rushers in the league in terms of pressures per snap. Cornerback Will Jackson emerged as a star in his first action after a lost rookie season. Geno Atkins had a team-high 9.0 sacks while being voted a Pro Bowl alternate. Rookie SAM linebacker Jordan Evans got quality snaps and show improvement after Nick Vigil went down with an ankle injury.

The Bad: Despite finishing tied for 11th in sacks, the Bengals were not able to convert all that pressure into many turnovers on the back end with just 11 interceptions. They allowed 18 pass plays of at least 30 yards, and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick had four pass interference penalties of at least 30 yards, including three in December.

Defining Plays: Evans’ failure to push Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell out of bounds and Jackson standing and watching as Bell went by for a 35-yard touchdown reception kickstarted the Steelers comeback from a 17-0 deficit on Monday Night Football. Green Bay wide receiver Geronimo Allison’s 72-yard reception from Rodgers on third and 10 in overtime set up the game-winning field goal after the Bengals blew a 14-point lead.

Grade: B-

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SPECIAL TEAMS

The Good: Randy Bullock was 17 of 19 on field goals, including 10 for 10 in the second half of the season. He also made his last 15 extra points after a shaky stretch where he missed PATs in back-to-back games. Kevin Huber averaged 46.6 yards per punt, which was just .24 shy of his own franchise record.

The Bad: Alex Erickson’s production as a kick returner fell off after he led the AFC as a rookie. Erickson averaged 27.9 yards in 2016 but only 20.7 this season. The Bengals also allowed a blocked punt and fake punt conversion. The Bengals ranked 23rd in opponent punt return average and 26th in opponent kick return average. And they committed 22 penalties on special teams, up 69 percent from the 13 they had in 2016.

Defining Plays: Adam Jones’ 55-yard punt return for a touchdown in Cleveland was negated on an illegal block by Cethan Carter. Baltimore’s Chris Moore returned a kickoff 87 yards with eight seconds left in the first half of the season finale, turning the tide after the Bengals had taken a 17-3 lead while dominating for 29-plus minutes.

Grade: C+

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COACHING

The Good: The Bengals found a way to get the running game going late despite a rash of injuries on the offensive lines, and the back-to-back wins to close the season says a lot about Marvin Lewis’ ability to keep the players engaged and playing hard as a lost season drew to close. Lewis won his final five replay challenges to finish 5 of 7.

The Bad: The change of offensive coordinators after Week 2 only resulted in marginal improvement as the Bengals finished dead last in total offense. The inability to find a role for Boyd and Ross was puzzling. And the Bengals either blew second-half leads or let close games get away by being outscored 170 to 112 in the second half.

Grade: C-

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