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Bengals offense must exploit Patriots on third down

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Regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s game, the Bengals offense needs to get going again. A matchup in Foxborough could be a good start for the unit desperately in need of a spark.

Cincinnati Bengals v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Prior to last week’s loss in Dallas, the Bengals’ biggest offensive struggle was its inability to convert red zone drives into points. While the Bengals currently have the 10th-best offense in the NFL, they rank 24th in scoring offense. That’s simply unacceptable for a team that boasts Andy Dalton, Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard, A.J. Green and an offensive line which is, at the least, good on paper.

A lack of execution through five weeks has plagued this team. And sure, there are other issues, but provided that the Bengals’ red zone struggles have been somewhat resolved (which is still a pretty big assumption), the next thing Marvin Lewis, Ken Zampese and their staff need to focus on is converting third downs.

The Bengals offense currently ranks 30th in the NFL on third down, converting just 20 of 66, or 30.3 percent, of its third downs. Only the Dolphins and Jaguars have been worse, while perhaps not by coincidence, the three teams which have been most successful on third down — the Cowboys, Steelers and Packers — are all slated to make playoff appearances if the season were to end today.

Several factors should be on the side of the Bengals’ offense this Sunday. First off, linebacker Dont’a Hightower likely won’t see the field. He’s not even the best linebacker on his team, thanks to Jamie Collins (who might just be the best in the NFL), but Hightower is still a top-10 player at his position nonetheless. Hightower’s backup, Elandon Roberts, has played well, but don’t be mistaken — he’s nowhere near close to the level of Hightower as a player.

Second, with or without Hightower, the Patriots defense ranks 27th in the NFL on third down, allowing 44.6 of opponents’ opportunities to go for conversions. That should be encouraging for an offense which has massively struggled in that aspect of the game throughout the season.

Even if the Bengals lose (as expected) this weekend, an improved performance on third downs would be very encouraging from this offense. Cincinnati still has a healthy team, a favorable schedule, a more than capable coaching staff and one of the NFL’s most talented rosters. Though a loss in New England would still be difficult to swallow, it would not mark the end of the Bengals’ season — especially if Ken Zampese’s offense starts getting things right.

How does the offense get back on track? That’s a difficult question to answer. For one, it starts on the offensive line. No more drive-stalling penalties, more efficient blocking in run game, protecting Dalton and demonstrating cohesion as a unit. The Bengals will also need Green to step up, they’ll need Hill and Bernard to get some semblance of a run game going and they’ll need the role players on offense, particularly at wide receiver, to make some plays. Perhaps Brandon LaFell, who caught two touchdown passes last week and who will be facing his former team on Sunday, will be the guy to do so.