A couple of notes for Bengals five-game stretch

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bengals open this week with a five-game stretch to conclude the 2013 regular season. We looking at a couple of things that we hope changes, or love, which mostly centered around offense.

Time for Giovani Bernard to be "the man": At some point the offensive philosophy needs to shift to feature as much Giovani Bernard as possible. Through 11 games this year, Bernard is averaging 13.4 touches per game with 9.5 of those are coming off rushing attempts.

When Bernard touches the football, amazing things happen.

He scored both of Cincinnati's touchdowns during Cincinnati's win over the Steelers and both touchdowns against the Dolphins that helped stage Cincinnati's comeback -- eventually turning into an overtime loss in Miami. Currently Bernard is tied for the team-lead with seven total touchdowns with a team-high four scores on the ground. Every time he touches the ball, he averages 5.5 yards from scrimmage and has surpassed 80 yards from scrimmage five times, including a streak of the last three games.

Yet in every game this year, save for two, BenJarvus Green-Ellis has had more rushing attempts, settling with an anemic 3.3 yard/rush average. Don't get me wrong -- the low yard/rush average isn't my problem (that will happen with backs who play short-yardage downs). It's the failure to convert the short-yardage situations and to be completely honest, making his role more wasteful than beneficial. In the end, this offense is far more threatening with Bernard in the backfield.

Injuries actually led to a better defense: Let's recall the moment, shall we?

Josh: "Geno Atkins is down. This doesn't look good."
Neo: "Oh."
Josh: "How will they rebound the pass rush?"
Neo: "Uh huh."
Josh: "Who will replace his production?"
Neo: "Radical."
Josh: "Who are you?"

Neo stares blankly.

Josh: "Weren't you in a pseudo-porn?"
Neo: "It wasn't that bad."
Josh: "You should have never made the sequels."
Neo: "But it wasn't porn."
Josh: "Dude, my mind is still f*****."

When Geno Atkins suffered a torn ACL against the Miami Dolphins, there was a momentary sense of panic. Cincinnati, leading 3-0 when he was helped off the field with 4:45 remaining in the second quarter, watched as Miami scored 17 unanswered points. Facing a 14-point deficit with 7:37 remaining in the third quarter, the Bengals eventually recovered with two Giovani Bernard touchdowns in a game that would eventually play out in overtime.

Instead of wallowing in disgust and wondering "what could have been," it's been business as usual for Cincinnati.

In each of the past four games, the Bengals rush defense has generated at least three sacks, and four in three of the past four contests. Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson, Wallace Gilberry and even James Harrison have stepped up their already impressive game, reducing Atkins' presence as a mere reminder during a blogger-induced conversation with the savior of humanity in a machine-dominated future.

However, with San Diego and Indianapolis on tap, the Bengals will need to keep adding pressure. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is at his worst under pressure, completing 57 percent of his passes with three of his eight interceptions. Andrew Luck is even worse, completing 43.6 percent of his passes with four of his seven picks. Granted, quarterbacks under pressure are naturally going to perform worse -- that's just the nature of it. But that's the point. Pressure them.

Cincinnati's rush defense hasn't taken that much of a beating with Atkins' departure either, but it has taken a hit. Rey Maualuga, who has been out since suffering an MCL sprain against the Jets, was replaced by Vincent Rey, actually improving the production from the middle linebacker spot. Taylor Mays' season-ending injury didn't cause the dramatic decline that was drummed up from the defeatist of even their most loyal supporters.

With all of the injuries, squaring off against offensive-deficient teams recently, the Bengals defense has actually been impressive. They've forced seven turnovers in their last two games, allowed only 10 of 48 third downs to be converted in the past three, and have jumped their standings against the league overall. On the other hand, entering the game against the Miami Dolphins, the Bengals rushed defense ranked eighth in the NFL allowing 97.2 yards rushing per game. After week 12, the Bengals currently rank 10th, allowing 102 yards rushing per game. However, Cincinnati has only allowed one rushing touchdown in the past three contests and none in ten straight quarters.

However the most interesting comparison:

Pre-Atkins Injury Post-Atkins Injury
Games 1-8 Games 9-11
Total 322.5 (8th) 313.1 (6th)
Scoring 18.0 (t-5th) 18.7 (6th)
3rd Downs Allowed 42% (26th) 36% (9th)
Rushing 97.2 (8th) 102.0 (10th)
Rushing TDs 3 (t-6th) 4 (t-3rd)
Passing 225.2 (11th) 211.1 (5th)
Passing TDs 11 (t-14th) 14 (9th)
Sacks 22 (t-12th) 34 (t-6th)
QB Rating 79.4 (9th) 74.0 (2nd)
Interceptions 7 (t-16th) 12 (11th)

Back with the No. 2 wide receiver discussions: During the first four games of the season (2-2), when quarterback Andy Dalton released the football, 34 percent of the time he targeted A.J. Green. During Cincinnati's four-game winning streak earlier this year when Dalton released the football, that number dropped to 26 percent. In the last three games, with the Bengals losing two of three, Green's percentage on the number of throws he was targeted rose to 30 percent.

Seriously, it's A.J. Green. Why wouldn't you throw to him? But the attention on him has also worked as a liability for Dalton. Not because of what he can do; rather because opposing defenses are well-aware of it too. Of the 117 times that Dalton has targeted Green, eight have been intercepted -- with a handful of those directly blamed on the receiver. It's such a dramatic point that when Dalton throws to Green, his quarterback rating drops to 74.7.

At one point those discussions were resolved. Marvin Jones went off against the Jets, catching eight passes, four of them for touchdown, for a career-high 122 yards receiving. Yes! Yet in the last two games, Jones has caught two passes, while being targeted nine times for 11 yards receiving. What happened?

For those wondering if it's a matter of distribution by Andy Dalton, not quite. During the first four games of the season, Dalton clearly favored Green compared to the combination of Jones and Sanu or Eifert and Gresham. A breakdown of Dalton's attempts and the number of targets to A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu combined, and Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert combined.

Dalton (avg. att.) A.J. Green Jones/Sanu Eifert/Gresham
Games 1-4 37.0 12.5 9.25 10.25
Games 5-8 32.8 8.5 8.5 8.5
Games 9-11 43.7 13.0 12.6 9.3

Which comes to our next point.

Stop throwing the damned ball so much: In as much as we hope for Cincinnati's passing offense to transform into the Madden-esque rockets launchers of Denver, New England and New Orleans, that's just not the Bengals. There's too much inconsistency in the blocking, hands of steel (not a compliment) and read-option routes that were read wrong. And in reality, Dalton is a good team-based quarterback; he doesn't stand out over other offensive players.

Additionally, when Dalton attempts 40 passes or more, the Bengals are 2-3 with wins over the Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills (in overtime). The weapons are there. We've seen their explosions, 90-yard possessions, and complete refusal to let bad plays get them down. The pieces are there. We're just waiting to celebrate the consistency aspect where mistakes (penalties and turnovers) are stop becoming the headline to every story this month.

Dalton has reached the 50-passes plateau twice, against the Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens, but one could argue that those performances were born out out of necessity after facing early double-digit deficits. Yet when you throw 21 incomplete passes in the first half during those games combined, while turning the ball over multiple times, you tend to face those unfortunate scenarios.

Running the football is by no means a formula for success, either. Cincinnati's second-highest rushing effort (163 yards), as well as their season-high yard/rush average (4.7) was during a loss to the Miami Dolphins. When the Bengals collectively generate 100 yards rushing, they're 3-2.

***

All of this just information is filed under the heading, "I still don't get this offense." So my quest for knowledge detoured to Twitter with the question: If you were Jay Gruden, what's the one thing you'd change (and replacing Andy Dalton was not an option).

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