There are a lot of things that a coaching staff hopes to see and achieve in their teams' preseason games--particularly in the first one. The Bengals succeeded in a lot of areas on Friday night against the Jets and dominated throughout most of the game. As Josh Kirkendall noted in a post game breakdown, the defense really shined in the first game. We figured that they would because of the depth and how they have looked in camp thus far.
Though it's not time to sound the alarm, there are still some concerns on offense that reared its ugly head and caused fans to grimace. Some of the issues could be attributed to rust and getting first live game action of the year. Fine. Other issues though, were eerily similar to those that plagued the offense last year.
Starting quarterback Andy Dalton finished just four for nine with 54 yards passing, with no touchdowns or interceptions. He led the team on one scoring possession that led to a field goal early on and then his day was done. Because of the rust that I mentioned earlier, Dalton should have finished six for nine with roughly 70 yards and a touchdown. Why didn't he? A.J. Green dropped what should have been a five-yard touchdown and Jermaine Gresham dropped a third down pass that would have garnered another handful of yards. It's the first game of 2012 and we don't expect those two, who have the best hands on the Bengals offense, to continue that trend.
But, two major issues seem to have carried over from 2011. The first is the running game struggles. Last season's starter, Cedric Benson, amassed another 1,000-yard season, but did so on a 3.9 yards per carry average. While there were some nice runs by Benson, there were also a number of fumbles over the year, as well as struggles converting short-yardage situations and touchdowns in goal line packages. The Bengals were ranked 24th in the NFL last season in red zone scoring--it was an Achilles heel for the team all year.
The team had hoped that with two new starting guards in Travelle Wharton and Kevin Zeitler, as well as a new running back in BenJarvus Green-Eliis, that this aspect of the offense would be vastly improved. In the small sample size we received on Friday, it looked like a page out of 2011's playbook. Green-Ellis only gained 22 yards on seven carries for a 3.1 yards per carry average. Though he consistently moved forward, Green-Ellis only broke one run of note: a 12-yarder that he bounced outside. Other than that, Green-Ellis had a tough time finding holes to run through and was stuffed on a goal line situation run. Now that the Bengals lost Wharton for the season because of a knee injury, that isn't going to help any.
Overall, the team's backs ran 31 times for 86 yards and one touchdown. Cedric Peerman led the team with seven carries for thirty yards and their lone offensive score. Green-Ellis' 12-yard run was the long of the day. In case you haven't invested in a calculator, that adds up to a 2.8 yards per carry average for the team on Friday. That's simply not good enough. While "hanging onto the football" and "falling forward" are nice attributes to a running back corps, at some point more big plays have to be made and touchdowns need to be scored.
Again, it isn't panic mode time yet. There are three more games to play and the team has yet to fully settle the hole that Wharton left at the left guard position. The team's "big play back" Bernard Scott should be available by the time the regular season commences and that should help things. Still, Dalton is still a young quarterback who will need help from this part of the offense. The fact that a rookie quarterback was able to make the playoffs without an effective running game in 2011 was nothing short of a miracle. Though Dalton has no doubt matured as an NFL quarterback, the team can't rely on the same formula in 2012. The running game simply needs to improve.