Bengals vs Chargers Preview: Offense faces the perfect storm

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bengals offense has been the target of the blame game in 2013. With a perfect storm to finally recapture some momentum on offense, the defense will face their biggest test yet.

Better job on first and second downs. One of the fantastical topics in Blame Game '13, is Cincinnati's recent struggles on third down. Namely the lack of production on first and second down, forcing an average of 7.5 yards per third down opportunity over the past three games. The resulting attempts create obvious passing scenarios that allows opposing defenses the luxury to pin their ears back for an all-out pass rush.

"Third-and-eight, guys put their hand in the dirt and rush like they've never rushed before," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said via the Cincinnati Enquirer. "So we've got to stay out of those downs and distances."

The principles of staying out of those situations aren't difficult to imagine. For example, BenJarvus Green-Ellis has rushed the football 94 times on first down, and averaged only three yards. Then add the 185 incomplete passes (drops, bad routes, poor throws) and 17 quarterback sacks on first and second down combined, the Bengals are often "off-schedule".

"The last couple of weeks we've been behind the chains, had third-and-long situations which make it tough," said quarterback Andy Dalton. "If we can get these third downs shorter going in, I think it will help keep drives alive, keep finding completions and keep the chains moving."

Compared to first and second, Dalton's third down production is his worst -- namely his 57.1 percent completion rate and 73.3 passer rating. Facing intense pressure from an all-out rush due to the team's lack of success on first and second down, predictably causes one to struggle on third and long scenarios.

Protecting the football.

Let's not completely denigrate the Bengals offense either.

Prior to Cincinnati's 224-yard effort during their 41-20 win over the Browns, the Bengals generated at 465 against the Dolphins and 364 against the Ravens. They are currently No. 10 in the NFL in overall offense, scoring offense, and passing offense. They're also in the top-ten in sacks allowed, 20-plus yard passes and just outside the top-five in passing touchdowns. Cincinnati's struggles isn't a matter of moving the football -- they've actually never been better during the Gruden regime. Dalton is on pace to set a career-high in yards (4,296) and touchdowns (31), but also interceptions (22).

It's the turnovers.

From Miami: Of their 15 possessions against the Dolphins, the Bengals offense strung together six possessions with at least eight plays -- yet three ended with a turnover. To put that in perspective, the Bengals had 27 drives of eight plays or more in the first eight games of the season -- 19 resulted in a score, three ended with a turnover (two picks, turnover on downs) and two concluded with a missed Mike Nugent field goal. In the three games since, the Bengals have 11 drives of eight plays or more with five ending in a score, two punts, two interceptions, a turnover on downs and a missed Nugent field goal.

Finish the drives. Stop turning the ball over. Be more productive on first and second down to improve the team's 38 percent third down conversion rate (currently 15th in the NFL).

Ultimately, protecting the football remains Cincinnati's primary concern. In the past three games, Cincinnati have concluded 48 possessions with 19 punts (14 of those in three-and-out) and another 12 for a score. Nine have ended with a turnover, and that doesn't include two turnovers on downs against the Ravens the game-ending safety against Miami.

One would think, that lengthy third down situations are creating long to-go scenarios and forcing Andy Dalton to make impossible throws.

Not true.

Of the eight interceptions by Dalton in the past three games, only two have been on third down -- three on first down, three on second down. And of the two third down interceptions, one was a pick-six by Brent Grimes on third-and-four -- aka, it wasn't a long conversion attempt.

Perfect storm brewing in San Diego?

One could observe that Cincinnati's effort to resolve their offensive issues could explosively climax this weekend against the Chargers. San Diego's passing defense ranks No. 27, allowing 276.0 yards passing per game and only six interceptions (also ranked No. 27).

It's such a concern in San Diego that the Chargers are holding open competition this week to figure out the best players against Cincinnati's vertical threat.

"They are a big-time vertical team that is going to stretch the field," San Diego defensive coordinator John Pagano said via ESPN. "It’s something that we’ve talked about -- making sure our guys understand to stay back, and really do a great job of making sure we stay on top of things -- because they take shots, and they do it all over across the field."

Eric D. Williams writes:

Cornerback Derek Cox’s poor play has been well-documented. Signed to a four-year, $20 million deal this past offseason, Cox has been benched three of the past four games. Pagano was asked why his top cornerback at the beginning of the season has struggled.

"I think for the most part when you watch him on tape, most of his plays that you see at the struggle point are the big-time plays," Pagano said. "There’s times where I’ve sat down with him and Coach [Ron] Milus, and we’ve shown him plays [where he plays] on a consistent level. And that’s his deal. I think his breakdown is not only each guy in the back end having that mental focus, but it’s also the consistency and keeping them playing every play out."

The defense could use a little help from the offense this week.

Already facing scrutiny from a poor three-game stretch, Cincinnati's redemption song is brewing. And it might be needed as their defense faces one of the league's top passing games. Since Leon Hall's season-ending injury against the Detroit Lions, the Bengals passing defense has only allowed 166.8 yards passing per game, with 16 total sacks over the last four and five interceptions in the last two.

Yet, the passing defense has only beaten names like Geno Smith, Ryan Tannehill, Joe Flacco and Jason Campbell. Suggesting that Cincinnati's passing defense has played well is accurate, but lacking the context of their opposition (and the weather).

A more accurate judgement will come this weekend against Philip Rivers, who has completed over 70 percent of his passes and is on pace for 4,917 yards (a career high) and 32 touchdowns. If at some point he records a game with 390 yards passing, he'll be the first in NFL history to do it five times in a season.

"He's playing very confident," said head coach Marvin Lewis on Wednesday. "The thing I see him doing is running for first downs, and extending drives probably more than I have ever seen him do. It started off in the first ballgame of the year against the Texans. He's doing that more than I have ever seen him do in his career."

Wide receiver Keenan Allen (50 receptions, 737 yards, three touchdowns) should be in rookie of the year discussions. Danny Woodhead is leading NFL running backs in most reception categories and Eddie Royal is having one of his best seasons yet. Lewis remains cognitive of San Diego's threat against his defense.

"They’re running the football with three different backs, hard-running backs. Ryan Mathews runs hard. Danny Woodhead has done a great job. Ronnie Brown really is a complement to everything they do with their offense," said Lewis. "Then you go to their receiving corps, and Keenan Allen has really emerged as a young player, very productive, big yards per catch. Antonio Gates and the other tight end, (Ladarius) Green, have done a nice job for them. They are really doing a good job, and this is probably for Eddie Royal one of the most productive years he's had in the NFL."

All the while Cincinnati's narrative preaches, "take care of business".

With a win, Cincinnati holds a two-game cushion over the Baltimore Ravens with four games left. A loss actually pushes Baltimore into a control their own destiny scenario. Even if both teams win during week 14, 15 and 16, the Ravens can actually capture the AFC North by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Yes. This game is a must-win if Cincinnati wants to control their own destiny after this weekend. That's what comes down to. And everyone will need to step up.

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