When a football team has a winning record more than halfway into a season, it seems strange to label them as a club that is "struggling". Just taking a peek at the Cincinnati Bengals' performances since their bye week would clue you in to the difference in their quality of play over the past month and a half. They lost two primetime games to the tune of a combined score of 67-20, tied another game that could/should have been a win, and added another embarrassment in Indianapolis. After shooting out to a dominant 3-0 start, they've stumbled to 2-3-1 since, and things don't seem to be going well on either side of the ball.
Ultimately, the head coach and quarterback of any football team receive the most credit and/or scrutiny, depending on the direction in which the team is currently headed. One would be correct if they pointed fingers at Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton during this post-bye stretch. The team looked absolutely lifeless in the two night games, and Dalton has played poorly (just six touchdowns against six interceptions) over the past six games--including the two aforementioned deplorable performances against the Colts and Browns.
However, Lewis and Dalton have relied on the coordinators to make efficient game plans, as well as motivate their units well enough to put the team in position to win. Have they done so? Let's examine.
Too Complicated Or Too Simple On Offense?
Hue Jackson's early-season wizardry was the talk of the NFL in September. Now, people are asking if he is allowing Dalton to maximize his potential and wonder if he is overprotective of his quarterback. In the first month, routes were sharp and Dalton was quick and decisive with his throws--even without A.J. Green in the lineup. It now seems as if Dalton's confidence is shaken and some of the easiest throws become adventures.
Some, like Josh Kirkendall here at Cincy Jungle, wonder if the offensive plan has become too vanilla and predictable. As was the case in last year's playoff loss with Jay Gruden heading the offense, the Browns called the Bengals' Thursday Night scheme predictable. On the other hand, Ravens linebacker Daryl Smith complained to Andrew Whitworth in Week 1 about the wacky formations thrown at Baltimore in their first game of the season.
So, which one is it?
Right now, the cadence and tempo of the offense is off. Early in the Thursday Night game, the first drive in fact, the Bengals looked baffled on offense. Dalton attempted to change the play and formation, based on what he saw from the Cleveland defense. Chaos ensued, with Cincinnati offensive personnel scrambling everywhere before the snap and a timeout had to be called to avoid a delay of game penalty. The worst part? The play that followed the timeout was a gut-punch of an interception.
Additionally, the early plan seemed to have longer-developing routes on a windy and starting right tackle-less evening. It spelled doom for the Bengals and they couldn't recover. Jackson pulled the entire offense back into its protective shell, where predictable screens and dump-offs became the norm.
A Lack Of Executing The Basics On Defense:
One of the things that Mike Zimmer constantly strove for as the Bengals' defensive coordinator was execution of basic defensive principles--almost to the extent of perfection. It wasn't an easy ask from ol' Zim, given that humans aren't perfect and everyone is prone to the occasional mistake. Unfortunately for the 2014 Bengals, occasional has become relatively frequent.
Let's take linebacker Emmanuel Lamur as the unfortunate example piece. A little more than halfway through the season, the rangy Lamur has two interceptions and seven passes defensed. Pretty solid by NFL defensive standards. However, at least four of those seven defended passes were passes that he had his hands on and failed to make a play. He isn't the only one either, as multiple players in the secondary have dropped interception opportunities. With a sub-par pass rush so far this season (more on that later), these players on the back end of the defense need to take advantage of every opportunity possible.
Tackling has also become a major issue for a defense that hadn't had a problem with it since the pre-Zimmer days. Backs trapped behind the line of scrimmage seem to inexplicably squirt through for positive gains and receivers are getting more yards after short catches than they should. Let this one sink in for a second: the Bengals have allowed 100 yards rushing in seven straight games--a streak never achieved under Zimmer's watch and extremely uncharacteristic of what this unit has produced in recent years.
During the offseason, Guenther talked about trusting his players, primarily Burfict, about being more cerebral football players and fully understanding what's going on around them. Whether it's being familiar with every defender's responsibilities or the memorization of multiple formations at one time, it could be system overload and the reason behind the struggles with the basics, as is sometimes the case with the offense.
What Are The Identities Of Each Unit?
Under Gruden, the Bengals' offense was pass-happy, but struggled to run the ball effectively. The defense, which was largely responsible for the success of the team since 2011, did a few things well. Zimmer stressed the importance of making an offense one-dimensional--i.e. stop the run and then tee off to rush the passer with minimal blitzing. Both units hit a crescendo last season with a No. 10 overall ranking in offense and No. 3 overall ranking in defense.
Fast-forward 10 months and it's a completely different story. Guenther's defense is ranked embarrassingly low at No. 30 overall (No. 31 against the run, No. 21 versus the pass) and Guenther has major issues on the defensive line. Only Carlos Dunlap is generating pressure with any semblance of consistency and the diverse fronts he promised this offseason have been few and far between.
While the offense hasn't been downright awful as some would say about the defense, they are ranked a very pedestrian No. 20 in the NFL. This unit is known more for its peaks and valleys this season, where they can score 33 points one week and then just three (at home, no less) the very next. Dalton is on pace for just 14 passing touchdowns, along with career-lows in completion percentage and yards. This, just one year removed from re-writing the record books.
Though they are running the ball better in 2014, a No. 13 ranking there with a No. 21 ranking as a passing unit doesn't strike fear into the opposition. Neither unit does anything particularly well, so it's a wonder that this team has five wins and is in second place in the division at this point in the year. At some point, both units will need to find a collective strength and play to it if they want to make a postseason run.
Should We Have Expected These Performances?
When Jackson was named the successor for the Cincinnati Bengals' offensive coordinator position, many lauded it as the correct move and expected a jump in efficiency from the days of Gruden. For the first three games, that appeared to be the case. Just one turnover and zero sacks occurred in those three wins and innovative play-calling was seen from week-to-week.
However, Jackson's resume as an NFL offensive coordinator is a bit spotty. In 2007, he headed up the Falcons' unit under Bobby Petrino. That group finished 29th overall in points scored and the team went 4-12. After taking over the Raiders job in 2010, he did raise that offensive unit to sixth in points scored, though the team missed out on the playoffs at 8-8. The following season, he took over the head coaching job and retained the offensive play-calling duties and finished 16th in points scored along with another 8-8 campaign. Aside from the one flash-in-the-pan season as a coordinator and some other player development stepping stones as a position coach, there is a lot of "meh".
Guenther was the unproven guy, with the hope being that he would keep the same scheme and fire as his predecessor. As we have quickly learned, there is only one Mike Zimmer, and Guenther isn't him. Personally speaking, one obscure item that always made me scratch my head about Guenther was on "Hard Knocks" in an interaction with James Harrison.
The then-linebackers coach asked Harrison if he'd be game for an interesting position in goal line formations and Harrison emphatically said yes (he said something else, but I'm being polite). Though it's an understandable thing to be afraid of a freak like No. 92, Guenther was seen backing away from him as he was talking, visibly intimidated by his own player. Is that how he runs a room? We saw Zimmer up close and personal on the show twice and he didn't have issues getting into the grills of big, intimidating guys like Devon Still and Tank Johnson. It's the little things that players pick up on.
If that example is too much of an attempt to grasp at straws, then the "new guy adjusting to a new role" argument might be more plausible. Guenther has done a good job of developing young linebackers into play-makers, as well as helping coach on special teams in years past, but coordinating an entire defense and making adjustments is an entirely different thing. Unfortunately for the Bengals, it seems as if he is learning that lesson the hard way in 2014.
Where Do They Go From Here--Especially With The Injuries?
Hopefully, "up" would be the answer, but let's get a little more specific. As I mentioned earlier, both coordinators will need to find the aspects of their units that the players execute the best. As various players are set to return from dings and dents, this will likely improve, but it's going to take more than just bodies to right the ship.
Guenther is going to need to dial up more blitzes and pressure packages to mask the inefficiencies of the front four that have been on display to this point. With possible added pressure from these packages comes potential errant passes and interception opportunities. If/When that occurs, the defense has to take advantage as they haven't done so in the past few games. A back-to-basics approach with a re-emphasis on catching and wrap-up tackling is sorely needed, as elementary as that may sound.
On offense, the Bengals need to feed the one thing that has worked relatively well for them so far this season, which is that No. 13 ranked rushing offense. Though he had a fumble last week (the first from a back this season) Jeremy Hill is proving that he can be a tough runner with big-play capability. Giovani Bernard has this gene as well, though he is a bit nicked up. Use both as complementary passing options and pound the football.
From there, use short route play-action passes and other high-percentage throws early on to get Dalton some confidence. Dalton is a rhythm quarterback who needs positive plays to feed his momentum. Running the ball well and using the types of passes that we saw in Week 1 will reignite a sharp Dalton.
To answer the question posed in the headline, the coordinators aren't wholly to blame for the recent skid, no. Lewis is in charge of his team and should be looking over weekly game plans on both sides of the ball to see the efficiencies. Moreover, Dalton can't be setting franchise-lows in quarterback ranking if the team wants to win. That being said, Jackson and Guenther need to better prepare and adjust their schemes to ensure their players are in the best position to win football games.