CINCINNATI, OH - NOVEMBER 13: Cortez Allen #28 of the Pittsburgh Steelers uses any means possible to tackle Andrew Hawkins #16 of the Cincinnati Bengals during play at Paul Brown Stadium on November 13, 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Steelers won 24-17. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Late last year, Cincinnati came to grips with the limits of their young offense. By the end, it seemed they had pulled all the rabbits from their hat. Now, in their second year together, Jay Gruden and Andy Dalton must widen the scope of their mutated west-coast offense.
The defense should be fine. It brings back ten starters from last year with Mike Zimmer still at the helm. It has added depth at key spots and is relying on young guys to further develop in order to truly reach the ranks of an elite defense. Therefore, it seems to me that the ability to score points early and often, especially against the weaker teams is most paramount.
The schedule is a tease this year for the Bengals. After the opener in Baltimore on Monday night, it forms into a constellation of cupcakes with Cleveland twice, Washington, Jacksonville and Miami. Yet after the stroll down easy street, the path becomes a bit more rocky and at least some losses will occur.
Such a lopsided schedule makes for more pressure to win all of the easier games early on. That way, when in the weeds, Cincinnati still would have that five-game win streak in its pocket. A stretch like that can make up for a rough patch later on and still get a team into the wild-card round (see: Bengals, 2011). So win or lose (hopefully win) after that Monday Night game, Dalton and his mates are going to have to cruise and win at least four of the next five games.
Bad teams like playing ugly football. Sometimes low-scoring games are unavoidable, the NFL is a competitive league, and the Bengals were kind of built for those kinds of games last year. But this offense has the tools to be a Patriots Jr. type of group and should see more point production in 2012.
One of the big problems early on last year was converting third downs, hitting the home run play and getting touchdowns in the red zone. After AJ Green established himself as one of the better receivers in the league despite his rookie status, the big plays, and then third-down conversions began to trickle in and so did the wins. Now that Dalton, Green and Gruden are no longer rookies, those growing pains should be a thing of the past. The trust-level should increase between coordinator and quarterback, and the ability to attack the opposing defense rather than just settle for field position should be evident early on against potentially vulnerable teams. Four of the five games mentioned feature likely rookie starting quarterbacks, and the fifth guy is Blaine Gabbert. The idea is to force young signal-callers into comeback mode, a mode often laden with mistakes and 'learning opportunities'.
This training camp should emphasize quick-strike plays that put defenses on their heels right away. The first fifteen plays should be scripted around getting points now and worrying about field position and time-management later. With the change of personnel, especially the departure of Cedric Benson, the time is ripe for a noticeable switch in philosophy.
Obviously, the comparisons and parallels of the Bengals offense with that of the Patriots begin with the arrival of BenJarvus Green-Ellis. He was the main cog in New England's rushing attack but never did the Pats allow him to carry the heavy load. Instead they broke it up between multiple backs, an approach the Bengals only toyed with at times, but appear to taking much more seriously this season. Green-Ellis will have a major role with the team, but I don't think it will be as anchored as Benson's was.
New England's offense last year was heavy with short passes and yards after catch. Their running backs were so versatile, that in their no-huddle offense, they would line up in three different spots in consecutive plays. While I don't think Gruden is going to employ the hyper hurry-up mode that Tom Brady orchestrated last year, I do think the Bengal offense has prime short-yardage receivers.
We've all heard the comparisons of Wes Welker to Jordan Shipley and a lot of us think it's because they are both white receivers, but they do play with similar style and both are reliable as hell when they're healthy. Shipley appears designed as an ideal slot receiver and his return from knee surgery made Andre Caldwell's departure a kind of no-brainer. But it's the other slot receiver that I think makes this offense more intriguing than what is noticed at first glance.
Andrew Hawkins is another little guy, built for small spaces on the football field, but at the end of the day, he gets the most out of every play he's involved in. After AJ Green hurt himself making a terrific touchdown catch, I felt Hawkins became Cincinnati's most viable option on third down last year. He runs good routes, catches the ball, and is surprisingly tough to tackle. Having two slot guys like this allows the Bengals to enjoy mismatches aplenty and short-route receptions can be used in lieu of the running game—just like New England does.
The best part of the Patriot offense is their tight ends, and to say the Bengals have the same kind of talent at the position is overly presumptuous. Jermaine Gresham has been granted the body of an NFL tight end, complete with every skill he needs to be great. But I still get the sense that he hasn't completely mastered such a complex and overpowering gift. Unlike baseball, patience is short in football and teams need to see a player's best as soon as possible. If Gresham is going to be the unleashed animal he can be, this is the year we must see it. He can be a difference maker—he can have a Gronk-like impact on the game—especially if the slots are occupied by Shipley and Hawkins, but it's up to him to make that happen. He's been coached enough, he has the experience, now it's time for him to put it all together and dominate. As for Orson Charles, he too has the look of a quality tight end and his strengths are reportedly in the passing game. He is knocked as a blocker, but so was Aaron Hernandez, and he worked out pretty well.
The last category of short-yardage targets are the backs. We know how the Law Firm worked out in this scheme and there is no reason that we should expect much different if employed the same way. Brian Leonard is a better receiver than running back and his extra-effort and abilities to make tacklers miss in the open field have been well documented. Bernard Scott can catch screens but I wouldn't say he has displayed much versatility in that regard.
I haven't mixed Green into this hypothetical offense because the guy can do it all. If all of this short stuff to other players has any success, safeties will cheat up, and Green will find himself one-on-one with a very worried cornerback trying to guard him. Green can make the big play, but he showed he can make things happen on shorter routes too. There are three young receivers who will battle it out this July in order to play second fiddle to Green and they will have to be possession guys to some degree, but whoever wins said battle will not likely be a first option very often.
While all of these individual toys are fun to mentally play with, it's Dalton and his pre-snap reads that will make all of this stuff work. Brady is exceptional at keying in on one defender to make his quick decision, and rarely is he wrong. To think Dalton is on that level is unfair to both men, but he is climbing in his aptitude tests and his recognition skills should be improved from his first season. For the most part, his throws are fine (an improved deep ball would do wonders though), but it's his mastery of the offense that will make the difference. Learning the looks of pro defenses will assist in the scoring of more points, and a lot of points early on will sink a weaker team's battleship.
This type of an offense would be more spread out than a typical Bengals offense of the past. The fullback is less present in a scheme like this, overloaded lines aren't necessary. Four and five-wide formations would be the norm and it would put additional pressure on opposing nickel and dime packages. This would be a big shift in a Marvin Lewis team and the question then becomes, would he be okay with such a move? I think so. I doubt he would consent to the type of player moves that occurred this offseason if he wasn't prepared for a shift.
So if the Bengals want to avoid having to beat all the good teams down the stretch to get into the playoffs, they need to take care of business against the substandard. Best way to beat a bad team is to get ahead early and dare them to come back. Best way to get ahead early for the Bengals is to use the short passing game to set up the home run ball.
If it sounds too easy, that's because it is. Nothing plays out perfectly as predicted, but something has to be a point of emphasis this training camp, and if a twist to this offense is to occur, it should be to put Andy Dalton more in charge. More responsibility, more accountability, more points, and more passing. I think a lot will be different, and I think it starts with Big Red.
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