If it wasn’t clear enough, it certainly is clear now. The Bengals have problems on offense. The hand wringing and hair pulling have come to a new intensity since the Vikes game.
So what is the problem?
1. Lack of a deep threat. Although this is a common complaint, I don’t see it as the problem. Although the loss of Chris Henry (a veteran receiver) hurts, he wasn’t a huge factor in the offense up until his injury (he was our #4 receiver, caught 12 balls in 8 games with 2 TDs, granted he had a gaudy 19 ypc, but take away his one 73 yard catch and his longest catch is 20 yards and his average drops to a pedestrian 13.5 ypc)—make no bones, Slim is nice to have-- but not something that makes me think his loss accounts for the offensive falloff. Moreover, there is nothing that says the guys we have at WR could not be a deep threat if we chose to use them as such. Clearly, Chad can do it, and probably the two fastest guys on the team are Andre Caldwell and Quan Cosby. So I don’t think the loss of Henry is the problem, which moves me to….
2. Bratkowski. We all know that Bratkowski loves to slug it out in the trenches and hates passing. Except for the seasons 2006-2007, when he passed all the time and never ran the ball. In other words, I am pretty confident that Brat is aware of this thing called a passing game. It seem like a lot of folks think that there is some sort of “passing game switch” which Brat just seems to refuse to flick—having a good passing game is as simple as wanting a good passing game—just throw whoever out there, have them run deep patterns, and start chucking it down field—it will eventually work. I don’t think it’s that easy. I am not arguing that Brat is the most creative OC in the world, and I agree that some play action on 1st down might make a little sense every now and again. Also finding more creative ways of getting guys open and concealing our play call would be good (that pass to Ochocinco on the fake reverse was great—more stuff like that) But the offensive problems are deeper than that. There is no conspiracy or secret play book that he is waiting to dust off in the playoffs. In my opinion, Brat is actually doing decent with what he has to work with—which leads me to…
3. Palmer. Palmer’s done right? He’s hurt, can’t make a pass, etc. Again, I don’t think so. I know he’s got a bad thumb which is a bit of problem, but Palmer looks more mobile and healthier than he has in years. Granted sometimes his passes are a little off, but I would explain that in two ways. One, his timing and chemistry with Coles and Caldwell just isn’t what it was with Housh. Two new receivers compared to one seasoned veteran that had years of experience with Palmer doesn’t add up. The other is…
4. Lack of passing options beyond our WRs. Now we’re getting warm. We all know we have no TE. At least with the moving of Coffman to IR, we can’t engage in the self torture of wondering why he isn’t on the field. What deprives us of a deep threat is that teams can play a cover 2 and match up easily with our personnel. On a running downs, it’s pretty obvious, we send in an extra lineman and pull out a WR. (Stack the box, cover two). On passing downs, we pull one lineman and the RB and put in two WRs. (Nickel package, double team Chad, blitz a LB) Talk about telegraphing your play. With a TE and RB that are pass catching threats, you can get those mismatches that are the basis of a good passing offense. When Palmer was in his prime in 2005, we had Kelly and Perry and could flood the field with guys that are bigger and/or faster than the opposition and defenses had no idea whether we were running or passing on any given down. We can’t do that right now. Which leads me to the deeper problem…
5. The offensive line. Ooh, it’s getting hot in here. For the past several years our offensive line has been in decay. It became obvious in the years 2006-2007 when our running game began breaking down and Palmer was getting sacked more. Last year it was atrocious. We seem to be on an upswing, but our line is still weak. In 2004-2005, Palmer inherited an offensive line packed with top round draft picks and that had played together for about 3 years. This offensive line is mostly 1-2 year guys, many of whom have never started before this season and are cast offs from other teams. Our one first round pick is just getting integrated into the line. Anyone who was paying attention at the beginning of year should have known that our offensive line was the source of potential problems. I will concede that Alexander has worked wonders with running game. By using jumbo and unbalanced packages, he has been able to out muscle opponents and to open up holes for a resurgent Cedric Benson. However, jumbo packages don’t work on 3rd and long. Although Dennis Roland in motion is cute on a running play, I don’t want to see him in the flat (although he may be better than Coats.) The Bengals seem okay on quick slants and curls which only require Palmer to be in the pocket for a second, however, any passing play that requires development past a couple seconds and that pocket is collapsing faster than Obama’s approval ratings.
So what is to be done? Unfortunately, many of the Bengals problems lay in the “personnel” category and therefore aren’t fixable in the immediate. The line will get better and I think Palmer will get more chemistry with his receivers, but no TE is going to magically appear and progress will be slow.
There are some things that are correctable and if attended to, will allow the Bengals a deep play-off run. I do think the Bengals have to come up with ways to conceal their play calling and mix it up a little. But I think with our personnel, there are pretty severe limits. But that’s not the real issue. First and foremost, we are a defensive team. We have a great defense, not elite just yet, but getting there. So we can win games by keeping the score low and winning the field position battle. Like it or not, we are a running team. So I say ram it down their throats—4 yards in a cloud of dust. That approach will work-- if you only have to gain 10 yards to get a first down. However, once its 1st and 15, we have a problem. The Bengals are ranked 29th in penalties, averaging a little over 7 a game. When you are trying to win with ball control and field position, false starts and penalties on kick returns will kill you. It stops the clock, almost ensures a third and long, and you end up having to drive 80 yards instead of 60. This is something which is self-inflicted and it must stop. When the Bengals only have to get ten yards for a first down, we actually do pretty well. Watching us against Minnesota was case in point. Our first few drives, our offense was moving the ball, but somehow we ended up going backwards due to penalties. On the one touchdown drive, however, we didn’t commit a single penalty. Not a coincidence. Additionally, we need to improve our turnover differential and that mostly lies at the feet of the offense. Our offense isn’t going to score beaucoup points, but one way to even things out is by making sure we don’t give the opponents any extra chances and making the most of the ones we have.
It’s been an exciting year, and I’d love to see the Bengals get a home playoff game and win one or two and make it to the Big Show. I think they can do it by improving their offensive efficiency through eliminating penalties and turnovers.