It's been a week of cold water splashes to Bengals fans everywhere now that their starting quarterback's impressive 2015 campaign has been cut short with a thumb injury. It's odd how things can change in such a brief amount of time and how the question with the Cincinnati Bengals has shifted from if they will be able to win in the playoffs with Andy Dalton, to how they can make any postseason noise without him.
Regardless, it's the AJ McCarron show for the foreseeable future and that's where the questions of our loyal readers are stemming from this week. What will the offensive game plan look like? Will they get more or less creative with such an inexperienced youngster under center? There were, of course, other entertaining questions surrounding the popular Mrs. McCarron and how big the AJ bandwagon will get after Sunday, but with a lot of tweets coming our way this week, we preferred to spend more time on some others. Be sure to tweet or email us your Bengals questions to be featured in this weekly post!
Our first question we're addressing is really a more recent chapter of an issue that has largely plagued the team since Dalton took over the quarterback reigns.
@CincyJungle is it possible we see more of a run game with gio and Jeremy?— Jessie Inacio (@inaciojj7) December 17, 2015
Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said this week that the game plan with McCarron as their starter isn't going to change. We're not wholly certain if it's a ploy by Jackson to keep opposing teams planning for the diverse system he's been utilizing all year, or if he trusts McCarron more than most other coordinators would with a backup quarterback having so little pro experience.
On one hand, the Bengals liked so many things about McCarron as a 2014 NFL Draft prospect. Obviously, he was one of the most successful players in NCAA history with three Championships to his name, two of which were from when he quarterbacked the team. They liked his confidence and commanding of respect while at the University of Alabama, as well as a similar skill set to Dalton in the offense Jackson wants to run in Cincinnati.
Even though he had some errors against the Steelers, McCarron had a number of nice plays too, especially given the precarious situation he was thrown into. It's those plays that have Bengals fans optimistic for the rest of the season and believe the team won't miss too much of a beat with him throwing the ball. NFL.com's Bucky Brooks also believes the Bengals will be in good shape with McCarron.
On the flip side of the argument, McCarron had just four professional passes before Sunday, and those were in mop-up duty against the Cleveland Browns. Because of his 32 attempts versus Pittsburgh, some worry that there is now extensive enough tape to review to get a grasp on how to defend against McCarron. There's also the age-old adage of blitzing/pressuring a young quarterback to make him skittish.
Either way, Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill will need to step up their respective games. Whether it's due to an increase of carries, which is likely, the inconsistent No.14 ranking in rush offense will need to get a late-season spark to take heat off of McCarron. With the exception of last year, the Bengals' rushing offense hasn't always been a superior aspect to their game since Dalton joined the Bengals in 2011.
While Bernard has been pretty solid with a 5.1 yards per carry average this season, but his carries have been inconsistent. For whatever reason (probably multiple factors), Hill isn't anywhere near the same guy who pounded through and ran past defenses throughout the last half of 2015. His long gain of the year is 17 yards and he's running at a 3.6 average.
I don't think things need to fully change, either with scheme or frequency with Bernard--it's largely working, whether teams are stacking up against Hill and/or respecting Bernard's versatile skill set. Let him continue to be an all-around weapon. Hill, on the other hand, will just need to be better.
Before the Steelers game, Hill was coming off of two consecutive solid performances against the Browns and Rams. His carries dropped from 22 the week prior against Cleveland to just seven against Pittsburgh. No. 32 is a guy who gets better with more touches as he wears down a defense and gains confidence.
I don't believe Cincinnati needs to exponentially increase their overall carries, but maybe a slight increase in Hill's touches to get him going and bring balance to the offense. Using those two games against Cleveland and St. Louis as blueprints, you'll also note the availability of big plays in the passing game. That, in my humble opinion, should be the focus with McCarron and the offense over the next three weeks, especially with two very winnable games on the horizon.
@CincyJungle do we see Sanu in the wildcat maybe?— RohanWhoDey23 (@rohankohli23) December 17, 2015
If we do see him there, I don't think it will be any more frequent than in the past. In his career, it's not really an every-game type of thing. Jackson likes to try and get Sanu the ball in creative ways, whether it's in the wildcat, reverses or screens, so that will probably continue should McCarron prove to be able to grasp the many things the offensive coordinator will ask of him.
One thing to keep in mind is that Sanu was the team's emergency quarterback against the Steelers after Dalton went down with the fractured thumb. That isn't the case anymore because the team promoted Keith Wenning to the active roster, but should the team experience another injury at quarterback this season, the possibility could increase.
With the triumphant returns of both Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones this season, Sanu has become a bit of an afterthought in the offense. He's on pace for some of the lowest numbers in his career in 2015 and his only trip to the end zone came on a running play. He has been a true team player in the lessening of his touches, but he'll need to step up a bit more as the postseason looms.
With Eifert nursing the ever-so dreaded concussion symptoms, Sanu will need to be a bigger presence in the end zone for McCarron for at least this week, as it seems the big tight end will be sitting out against the 49ers. I'm in agreement with the thought that Sanu will need to be incorporated in the offense more, but I see it as more important to be a bigger contributor in a conventional sense. The only caveat refuting this is if the offense totally sputters and they need an unlikely spark.
@CincyJungle you think they're going to cram AJ w a ton of passes, to get him meaningful snaps for Next week? And should I start him?— Whitey Bulger (@TheTrevorLongLP) December 17, 2015
By "start him", I'm assuming we're talking about fantasy football. I'm not really a fantasy guru, but I personally like to see a full game or two to see some consistency before starting an unproven player. This is also the time of year that the playoffs come around in the fantasy world, so unless you're in absolute dire straights at the position, I'd hold off.
As mentioned before, I don't think the Bengals' optimum game plan is to have McCarron consistently throw 35-plus times, as it would signal them playing from behind and/or the running game being totally ineffective. There's the off-chance that it could signal the passing game exploiting a weakness, but I'm going to wait to see if that's the case with an unproven backup quarterback.
This isn't to say Jackson won't trust McCarron to wing the ball around the field. He let loose a 66-yard bomb to A.J. Green, while also hitting multiple "dig routes" across the middle to Green and others last week. After all, McCarron did have a 12.7 yards per completion average on Sunday against the Steelers.
Even though McCarron and Co. face the No. 1 passing defense in a couple of weeks when they travel to Denver and face the Broncos (another reason for Hill to get going), the two games sandwiching the big Week 16 matchup are favorable.
The once-proud San Francisco defense is ranked No. 27 against the pass, which is a microcosm of how the entire 2015 year has gone for them. Meanwhile, the once-vaunted Baltimore Ravens defense sits at No. 21 in pass yards allowed per game, with the Bengals offense absolutely torching them in Week 3. Both teams will likely try and bring a lot of pressure to mask those deficiencies, but if McCarron gets time and improves upon his decent day against Pittsburgh, he could make a name for himself.
When he was at the helm, Dalton threw more than 35 passes four times this season with the Bengals going 2-2 in the contests, one of which was an overtime win against the Seahawks. Even if he impresses, I don't think it's wise for the Bengals to ask this of McCarron, but he'll also need to be more than a simple "game manager" if this team wants to win games in the regular season and into the postseason, should Dalton still be recovering.