When the Bengals were entering Buffalo to face the Bills on Sunday, the offensive units was under the microscope of scrutiny. Though they came in at 3-2, the defense largely carried the team to those wins and the offensive unit showed signs of regression, confusion and overall youth. For an offseason that promised us fireworks on that side of the ball, the subsequent letdown was palpable.
However, the Cincinnati offense tied its season-high for points scored on Sunday (the 34 against Green Bay included a defensive return for a touchdown) and we had to take note of that. Aside from throwing an interception, albeit a costly one, as well as incurring three sacks, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton played a sound game. A plethora of players contributed, as eight players caught a pass and four others had a carry.
So what caused the sudden change from a team that combined to score 19 combined points the previous two games? Buffalo's defense, though not highly-ranked, still rates well above the league average in sacks (21) and interceptions (10)--two things that they displayed against the Bengals on Sunday. They also boast a number of quality names on the unit including defensive linemen Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus.
A Different Approach In The Passing Game:
Bengals fans have consistently called for a "bombs away" approach from Dalton and Co. this year. Rightfully so, given the weapons that the team has at his disposal and which ones were specifically added this year. However, offensive Coordinator Jay Gruden has devised a plan to work with Dalton's strengths as an NFL quarterback. Dalton can be painfully inaccurate on deep balls, but is solid in short and intermediate passes and that is where the Bengals made their hay against the Bills.
How they did this on Sunday was primarily on the utilization of screens. Not a position was discriminated against in this plan, with running backs, tight ends and wide receivers all getting into the mix. Even though the most inexperienced football viewer could tell that screens to Giovani Bernard were coming, but the Bengals executed them so well that Bernard had a 12-yard-per-reception average, which included a 23-yard thing of beauty. If you have watched any Philadelphia Eagles games over the years, you would see LeSean McCoy doing many of the same things. Normally, one would assume that this screen offense would bring Dalton's yards per attempt average down, and while he's ranked No.20 in the NFL in that category, he's hit a personal high at 7.22. Go figure that one out.
This is the blueprint of the West Coast Offense and the Bengals worked it up masterfully on Sunday. Run the ball effectively, use the screen pass and then pop off a longer pass when the defense isn't expecting it. Though the Bills had three sacks and an interception on the day, Cincinnati had them on their heels for most of the game and most fans can agree that that was a sight for sore eyes.
What must have been preached in the film room throughout the week was for the wide receivers to work for yards after the catch. Mohamed Sanu played like a man possessed when he had the football in his hands, as he broke for 44 yards and converted a handful of first downs. A.J. Green galloped to a 54-yard catch thanks to a number of great blocks. The plan seemed to revolve around Dalton making a manageable throw and allowing the young talent to make plays in the open field. Not a bad idea, eh?
Downfield Blocking Re-Emphasized:
What comes with the screen game is the need for downfield blocking--particularly from a unit's wide receivers. Andrew Whitworth's amazing effort(s) aside, Sanu and Marvin Jones unselfishly worked their defenders on the screens to Green and Bernard, as well as on the runs designed for BenJarvus Green-Ellis. And, though blocking isn't his forte, Green steps in and helps in this area as well.
When you watch the big screen play from Green, you'll notice that behind Whitworth's awesome blocks was Sanu making a textbook block on a defender which also help to spring the 54-yard play. These are the types of efforts needed from this group and ones that we didn't see out of the preceding offensive unit in the Bob Bratkowski era.
The "Thunder And Lightning" Approach Beginning To Sound Off:
The coaching staff has clearly begun to trust Bernard with more duties and he has responded well. Even if one of the uses for the rookie aren't working exceptionally well, be it catching or running the ball, he still makes the other useful. Like Green, Bernard has four touchdowns in six games and they have predictably been split with two on the ground and two through the air.
Green-Ellis has had a tough go of it this year, no doubt. Going into the Buffalo game, Green-Ellis hadn't cracked four yards per carry and wasn't much of a threat. We saw some improvement against the Patriots in Week Five and it carried over to Buffalo. The "Thunder" converted multiple third-and-short situations and racked up 86 yards to the tune of almost five yards per carry.
Dalton and the entire offense's success will hinge on the ability of Green-Ellis and Bernard to be that "Thunder and Lightning" combo. Over the past two weeks, we have seen those two slide into that role a little more comfortably and will need to continue to do so going forward. Green-Ellis has three touchdowns of his own this year and the two backs have accrued a good chunk of the overall offensive statistics.
Obviously, there are other factors at work here, including quality play by the offensive line and such. Still, this offense appears to be figuring things they might be close to hitting their stride. If that is truly the case and they clean up some of the overall mistakes, this could really become a dangerous team. Did I mention that they are 4-2?