The Bengals’ offensive line needs fixing. This statement has been evident since Week 1 of the 2016 season, when a Sheldon Richardson-less Jets defense sacked Andy Dalton seven times — five of which came in the first half alone.
Disclaimer: I am by no means an offensive line expert. My only experience in regards to offensive line play has been playing offensive line on my collegiate intramural flag football team, which doesn’t mean much.
Still, I’ve had the pleasure of working for and learning from some people who know a lot about offensive line play, and I’ve also read as much as I can on the matter as I’ve been able to consume without falling asleep. Call me a couch coach if you want; I won’t take any offense.
With that, I am going to do my best at taking a comprehensive, player-by-player approach (again, keep in mind I’m not watching 20 hours of film every week) in an attempt to identify what is wrong, what needs to be fixed and what should be done to fix these problems.
In Week 5, Andrew Whitworth gave up two sacks to a very poor — or at best, underrated but still average or worse — Cowboys defensive line. He’s also been penalized for holding three times this season, though only two of those penalties were accepted by opponents. Forget Big Whit’s 2016 salary — he’s earned it — but the two-time first team All-Pro is looking more and more human, and that isn’t necessarily encouraging. In recent years, the Bengals’ offensive line has been operating under the assumption that Whitworth is an otherworldly left tackle. And as he continued to defy his age, the Bengals’ scheme worked. But at age 34 (35 in December), the left tackle is appearing to fall back down to earth. Whitworth is still an above-average left tackle, but he doesn’t seem to be playing at the elite level he was playing at just a year ago. That could change, as Whitworth says, there’s still a lot of football to play, but for now, his play is clearly not what it was last year.
Next is left guard Clint Boling. Boling has been what we’ve all known he’s been over the past few years: solid. Sure, it would be nice to see him play at an elite level, but no one should expect that from him. Boling is reliable, and while he’s not going to pancake his opponent on a play-to-play basis, he’s also not going to get beat that often. With a top five Pro Football Focus grade on the Bengals offense in four of the first five weeks of the season, he’s been one of the best linemen, if not the best lineman, on the team so far.
Since he was drafted, Bengals fans have had (what to me, seems like) a huge — and perhaps even unnecessary — vendetta against center Russell Bodine. Draft Twitter really didn’t like the former North Carolina product, and as a result, the Bengals’ selection of (and playing) Bodine immediately angered fans. But in 2016, the center has really come into his own. Since a disastrous performance in Week 1, Bodine has been graded among Pro Football Focus’ top five players on the Bengals offense in each game, including a Week 5 performance which had him as the number one player on Cincinnati’s offense.
Why do fans have such a vendetta against the center? I call it the La’el Collins effect, but in reverse. Collins was touted as a potential first-rounder before going undrafted and eventually making his way to Dallas due to off-field concerns. And immediately, it appeared as though the Cowboys got away with highway robbery, as the former LSU product appeared to be a major steal.
To an NFL fan like myself, this pancake block alone makes Collins appear to be an above-average player. And make no mistake, this was an excellent play by the Cowboys lineman. But an offensive lineman plays far more than one or two plays per game. How much of an impact does this play — two pancake blocks on a two or three yard run in the second quarter of a tie game — really make? The answer: not a whole lot. Collins, who on this play appears like a top NFL guard, has graded very poorly throughout his first two seasons, especially in 2016.
I've graded guard play on every snap this year for #NFL1000. Average grades and variance (lower means more consistent) through 4 weeks: pic.twitter.com/xMKBiNPmTt— Ethan Young (@NFLDrafter) October 6, 2016
Like Collins has had his great plays, Bodine has had his fair share of bad plays. And when Bodine has failed, fans have been quick to point out the center’s errors, as they appear to be more obvious than other errors, such as miscommunication or failing to pick up a second block downfield on a long run. For example, fans pointed out two or three terrible plays by Bodine in Sunday’s loss to the Cowboys, but he took 70 snaps during the game. Surely none of them were as flashy as a highlight reel run, a deep pass from Dalton to A.J. Green or even a pancake block, but that doesn’t mean Bodine’s performance should be evaluated based on the outcome of strictly two or three plays he’s involved in. The center, in particular, is responsible for recognizing opposing fronts and, in a sense, calling plays for his team’s offensive line. Yet none of us, myself included, probably have any idea how well he’s doing in this sense of the game.
What am I saying in all of this? Bodine hasn’t been that bad. He still hasn’t been great, but the center — at least to my eyes — hasn’t been the worst offensive lineman on tape this season. In fact, he’s among Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded Bengals thus far this season, earning top-five offensive grades in Weeks 2-5, including a Week 5 performance in which he was graded as the best player on the team. That, coupled with the fact that the center could be made of iron — he’s missed less than five snaps in his entire career — should be encouraging, and it should be enough to stop the hate which comes Bodine’s way. Will it? Probably not. At the end of the day, people just want someone to blame. Blaming things on one person, rather than on multiple people — or in this case, the offensive line as a whole — makes it easier to find a potential solution.
Playing in a contract year, Kevin Zeitler hasn’t been at his best so far. That’s not to say he won’t get paid handsomely this offseason — he will, and he’ll be deserving of the salary he receives based on his past four years of production alone — but the guard needs to step up his game for the sake of his team. The guard has been great at times, but he’s also been poor at times, surrendering five penalties (including three false starts) and an average of seven penalty yards per game to opponents. The guard earned high grades against the Steelers and Broncos but has disappointed in his other three outings.
There’s no sugarcoating the way Cedric Ogbuehi has played — he’s faced some difficult competition and has lost the battle virtually every week — but it’s far too early to cast judgments on a guy who is in his first year as a starter, especially considering his previous ACL injury. Ogbuehi has certainly struggled, but it would be unwise to pin the struggles of the entire line on his individual performances.
How does one fix these offensive line problems? First, it’s important to identify the problem. So what’s the problem? Here’s a hint: there isn’t just one problem. There are problems with both the Bengals’ blocking scheme and the execution of the scheme. Firing Ken Zampese or Paul Alexander wouldn’t solve these problems; in fact, I think firing either coach would heighten the problems the Bengals’ line is currently facing.
Whether it’s a matter of cohesiveness (or lack thereof), execution, coaching or a combination of the three, the Bengals’ issues along the offensive line are on both the team and the coaching staff. To fix them, everyone needs to buy in, from top to bottom.
The players need to improve on their execution, but the coaching — from Marvin Lewis to Zampese to the offensive assistants also needs to improve. And before someone says Zampese needs to stop being creative as a coordinator, let me be the first to say no, he doesn’t. Hue Jackson was creative with the Bengals’ offense last year, and while not every “cute” play worked, many did. And the offense as a whole was one of the league’s best. The reverse to Brandon LaFell didn’t work yesterday, but many of Zampese’s plays have worked — particularly some of the screen passes he’s dialed up.
What might need to change is the complexity of the Bengals’ blocking scheme. Simplifying the plays for the offensive line has been working for several teams, notably the Falcons and Bills.
In Atlanta, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s zone-based scheme has paid massive dividends, as Matt Ryan has embraced a career year, while running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have surpassed Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard as the NFL’s best one-two punch at the running back position. Some will argue that the addition of Alex Mack improved the Falcons’ offensive line — and they’d be right — but it took more than the addition of a quality center to improve Atlanta’s line. It took time. Fans in Atlanta and around the NFL were impatient with the Falcons’ offensive coordinator, clamoring that his scheme wouldn’t work with Atlanta’s personnel. Five weeks into the 2016 season, it appears critics were wrong.
Since firing Greg Roman, the Bills’ offense has taken off. Three consecutive quality wins, in which Buffalo’s running backs are averaging 178.3 rushing yards per game (102.8 more than they averaged in Weeks 1 and 2), have put Buffalo right back into contention. But it’s not like firing Roman and replacing him with Anthony Lynn, who has never called plays in his life, is what sparked a flame in Rex Ryan’s team. The Bills’ turnaround was sparked by the simplification of Buffalo’s offense. Roman is an offensive mastermind, but the offense he was running in Buffalo (like Ryan’s defense last year) was simply too complex for the personnel to fully understand and execute. As Lynn entered the fold, he made things easier on the players running his offense. Per the MMQB’s Andy Benoit, Lynn “has reportedly put less than 50 percent of the number of plays in the gameplans as Roman had.” Added Benoit, “at the risk of making psychological speculation, it reasons that an inexperienced QB like Taylor would play calmer with less on his plate.”
With a first-year starter at right tackle and second-year lineman Jake Fisher seeing time in the rotation as a backup, the Bengals’ coaching staff should make things easier on the personnel and simplify the playbook. Again, that doesn’t mean Zampese and his staff shouldn’t be creative — it just means the Bengals should ease Ogbuehi and Fisher into the mix rather than continuing to run an offense in which the veterans fully understand but youngsters aren’t as familiar with. Perhaps a simplification would even help running backs Hill and Bernard become more decisive and give them a better understanding of what they need to do on each particular run play.
There’s still plenty of time left in the season for a Bengals turnaround, and as an optimist, I’m still of the mindset that a turnaround is not only possible but likely. But if these issues aren’t resolved sooner rather than later, this could be a long season of football in the Queen City.