The Bengals looked great on offense for a three-game stretch where they averaged at least 27 points per game, leading up to the thrashing that Andy Dalton and company laid on the Jets with 35 points scored by the offense (28 in the first half). Since then, they've scored 20 and 17 respectively, and before that stretch, they had only scored 13 and 6 points against the Patriots and Browns. Overall, the offense is averaging 21.3 points per game (three defensive or special teams touchdowns account for the other 2.1 points per game), which is hundredths of a point from the league average (roughly 21.32, determined after an hour of math).
An inconsistent offense, in this case, is an average offense. There are games where they're flawless and borderline great. And then there are games where they struggle. They clearly aren't a juggernaut, but with Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard added during the offseason, fans elevated expectations after the draft. With Dalton in his third year, established continuity on the offensive line, the emergence of Marvin Jones, expectations keep building.
Part of Cincinnati's struggles over the last two weeks can be attributed to better pass rushers than the Bengals have seen all year. According to Pro Football Focus, before last week, Andy Dalton was under pressure on 25.6% of his drop backs. In Weeks 9 and 10 combined, he was pressured 32.2% of the time, 6.6% more often, or about eight more pressures than he might have expected based on prior performance (118 drop backs in the last two games).
But something about how the Dolphins and Ravens brought their blitzes really bothered Dalton. For the most part, Dalton wasn't terribly affected by them (whether or not it was effective) in the three games leading up to Week 9. In Weeks 9 and 10, PFF graded him -7.7 against the blitz and +1.4 on non-blitzed snaps. If you don't like PFF grades, consider the stat line against the blitz in Weeks 9 and 10. He was 15/35 passing with three interceptions, one touchdown, and was sacked three times (out of 10 sacks). There's something to it.
Getting on the Same Page
Against Baltimore, I think Dalton and/or his receivers and/or the protection were crossed up several times. The Ravens used their exotic blitzes while sitting in zone coverage to read Dalton's eyes. One example of this is an incomplete pass with 6:56 remaining in the first. The Ravens have two deep safeties and rush both outside linebackers. The inside linebackers are responsible for short zones. Sanu thought he had to cut off the deep route and run a comeback instead. Here's basic play art. The outside corners might technically be in a zone, but it ends up as essentially man.
The way Sanu chopped his steps just before he breaks back toward the line of scrimmage suggests option route. Below is a look just seconds before Dalton unloads. After a play-action that fools no one (the linebackers and safeties didn't hesitate at all) Dalton's read is the left go route. Eifert thinks he's open on the seam. There's a lot of space around A.J. Green, but if Dalton's shoulders turn toward Green, the safety has plenty of time to close.
Green-Ellis is leaked out of the backfield, which drew the linebacker covering Eifert into the flat (curl-flat zone: he runs with Eifert till the "curl" point, at which point Eifert becomes the safety's responsibility, and covers the flat). He's also reading Dalton's eyes. The QB is looking left, so the linebacker is reasonably confident Dalton won't throw to Eifert.
The resulting throw sailed out of bounds - maybe it's a throw away. But the fact that Sanu is cutting back and Dalton isn't looking at Eifert, who is about to be in wide open space is a little concerning. Somewhere, someone missed a read, though it's not clear to me whether it's Sanu or Dalton.
What about the Offensive Line?
Josh highlighted the drops plaguing this team lately, and there were plenty of drops and missed "tough catches" against the Ravens. What about the pressure? Dalton's awareness needs to be questioned here, but there's also some blame to go around on the offensive line.
It's tough to block against the blitzes that the Ravens threw at the Bengals, but they could have done a better job handling this play. The Ravens lined up very similarly to Mike Zimmer's third down passing defense. Two A-gap linebackers (Arthur Brown and Daryl Smith), 3-technique defensive tackles (McPhee, 98 on the left and Canty, 99 on the right), and wide pass rushers (Dumervil, 58, Suggs, 55 on the right). It actually turns into a fancy stunt I can't say that I've ever seen before. Brown (59) dives into Kyle Cook and Giovani Bernard instead just rushing the QB, even though he was one-on-one with Bernard.
Cook and Bernard's blocks are rendered useless by the diving Brown, while Dumervil's patience in the A-gap is about to be rewarded. At this point, Sanu is open on his out route, but he's not Dalton's primary read.
As Bernard and Eifert leak out into drag routes after their initial blocks, Dumervil and Suggs are free and chasing Dalton. But look at all the space in the middle of the field, and I just don't think Dalton ever sees them.
The play broke down because Arthur Brown screwed up the protection. In the first shot, Andre Smith is waiting for Dumervil, Cook has Smith, and Bernard has Brown. In the second shot, Cook is rendered useless, Andre Smith is upfield, and Dumervil has a free lane inside, flushing Dalton out of the pocket.
There's some fault there, perhaps with Cook or perhaps with Dalton, or maybe it was just an unstoppable blitz that necessitated a quick throw. In the end, it was six rushers on seven (initial) blockers in the trenches, and the Ravens managed to occupy four blocks with two players. Then Dalton loses his presence and can't identify the open men in the middle. Confusion for the offensive line led to a frantic quarterback.
What about the sacks? Well, the Ravens' first sack came on the in third quarter when the Bengals were in "throw to catch up" mode. It was second and a long goal on the play where he -almost- dumped it off to Giovani Bernard. It was a clear coverage sack as Dalton's first two reads were well covered and he hesitated on the dump-off before the sack.
The second sack was on a second-and-eight play to end the third. Dalton had about 2.5 seconds to get rid of it before Dumervil was there. That's reasonably fast pressure, but with Marvin Jones recognizing a corner blitz and running hot, there's some blame for the quarterback as well.
Andrew Whitworth shockingly lost a bullrush to Dumervil after only losing on two bullrushes all year. Here's the field when Dalton hits his back foot at the top of the drop back. If he gets rid of it on time, he's got Marvin Jones for positive yardage. Dalton seems gunshy and Whitworth doesn't keep Dumervil out of his face long enough to pull the trigger.
Watch this play develop, and you tell me if you think Dalton has time to throw. Clearly a failure by Whitworth against the bullrush, but is there a positive play there? My instinct on this angle says yes, if Dalton unloads right away.
The next play I put wholly on the offensive line. On third and 15, the Ravens only brought four against the Bengals five blockers. Cook and Zeitler double teamed Suggs, stunting inside, but Andre Smith whiffed on Pernell McPhee, Clint Boling got bullied by Chris Canty, and Whit literally falls over as Dumervil swims inside him. All of this just as Andy hits his back foot. There MIGHT be a first down throw on a corner route, but I don't know if any QB in the league makes this one. I also can't really remember another play where the whole line lost so egregiously. Yes, Dalton has checkdown options on third-and-very long, but this is the top of his drop and three of the four Ravens rushers are dominating.
Taking inventory of the other two sacks, now that three are accounted for (coverage, shared failure by Whitworth and Dalton, this debacle in the fourth quarter), one was a coverage sack and one (the third-to-last play of regulation) was another case of Whitworth getting blown up by Dumervil when Dalton needed time for four verticals to develop. Yeah, there's a dump-off there, but this is with 28 seconds to go. Better than a sack, but this is a blindside victory for Dumervil.
What about the Running Game (Many GIFs)?
The Bengals ran it 31 times against 51 passes (56 including 5 sacks). That includes designed passing plays when Dalton scrambled as running plays. Much of the disparity can be attributed to the need to make up 17 points in the second quarter. But when the passing game is as ineffective as it was against the Ravens, you might expect to see a bit more reliance on the run before the fourth quarter.
That said, the running game didn't really have much going for it. Bernard looked hesitant at times and the Bengals offensive line wasn't exactly blowing open holes, forcing that hesitation. Here's an example of an inside zone where there's no open lane for Bernard until he hesitates. Ellerbe is initially filling the gap where Bernard should be headed, but Zeitler doesn't get to him quickly enough to prevent Gio's hesitation. When Bernard stops attacking, DeAngelo Tyson has time to bring him down for a minimal gain.
My favorite play was the read option in the fourth quarter. Don't need many words for it, but it's about as well as a read option can be executed. Bernard has the first down if he takes it, but Dalton sees Dumervil staring down the inside run and takes off with a great read.
But that ingenuity wasn't present for most of the game, with many power runs coming out of the shotgun without a lead blocker. I truly think the Bengals are a much better zone running team than power running team. On the very first play of the game, the Bengals run an inside zone to Green-Ellis with Eifert pulling for a backside wham block. There are two running lanes for the Law Firm, and it picks up a nice chunk of yardage that could have gone for more. I think there should have been more of this.
Turnovers and a big time deficit forced Jay Gruden into a pass-heavy second half, and the team simply wasn't hitting on all cylinders. There were individual offensive line failures, blitzes that defeated Bengals protection schemes, bad throws, bad reads, and some questionable playcalling with perhaps too many power runs. The game really seemed to get away from the offense after their first two drives fizzled with a failed fourth down conversion and missed field goal.
The blame game has gone, it seems, in order of Andy Dalton, the offensive line, Gruden, receivers dropping passes, and the running game. That honestly seems pretty close to accurate. Dalton was under heat frequently - 19 of 58 dropbacks according to PFF - and I think that probably forced some of his erratic throws, including the A.J. Green overthrow interception. But not all of that pressure was necessarily crippling - Dalton held onto the ball too long on at least a few occasions as well.
The ground attack couldn't get going consistently, though there was some success with the inside zone running game early. Running backs hesitated, occasional blocks were missed, and then rushing the football was an after thought after Dalton's first interception on the throw that sailed in the middle of the field, intended for Tyler Eifert.
There's a lot to clean up, but there are tendencies to learn from every week. Giovani Bernard needs more zone running opportunities and the shotgun hand-offs need some tweaking (and perhaps to not be run with BJGE). Check out his 18-yard run to see what he can do with a nice zone crease. Dalton needs to regain confidence and pull the trigger on time, especially on quick passing plays and hot routes. And I'm not sure what was going on with Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith, but the usually-solid tackles can't let pass blocking lapses like Sunday happen again.
With all of the talent they need to succeed, Jay Gruden and co. can clean up execution. They'll be at home against a team they've already played, and while the Browns have a solid defense this year, there's a major opportunity this week to show they've learned some lessons and have got it together on offense.