Forget the sacks. Really, forget the 19 sacks the Bengals’ offensive line has surrendered to opponents through six games, after Andy Dalton took just 20 sacks in 12 games (plus one drive) last season. The biggest issue with Cincinnati’s offensive line has been its inability to open creases for Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard to run through.
Something needs to change. For the Bengals’ coaching staff, the first effort was to start Bernard in Weeks 5 and 6, whether due to perceived struggles from Hill, matchup favorability, injuries or whatever other reason the staff might’ve had.
But as we saw in the Bengals’ Week 6 loss (and pretty much every other game), Cincinnati’s struggles running the ball have been related to the offensive line, whether due to a flaw in the scheme or execution of it. And now that T.J. Johnson could see additional snaps, considering Russell Bodine’s injury, it seems like a great idea for the coaching staff to simplify things for the offensive line.
Consider this: per Pro Football Focus, the Bengals currently rank 28th in the NFL in yards per carry, but 61 percent of the Bengals’ rushing yardage has come after contact. It’s hard to blame Hill or Bernard when the majority of their yards are coming after they’ve been hit. Through six weeks, opponents have tallied 15 tackles for loss on the Bengals’ offense, including nine TFL’s in the past three games. That needs to change if the Bengals are going to successfully run the ball — something they’ll need to do well (relatively) if they want to start winning games, especially if a playoff run is in their reach.
Bengals fans have been incredibly vocal against virtually any sort of implementation of gadget plays — even Hue Jackson frustrated fans with some of his play calls, though it’s worth mentioning the play calls have thrown opponents off, especially in Jackson’s tenure — but one of the more questionable coaching decisions this season, particularly this week, was to hand the ball off to Bernard in goal line situations, when Hill has been the better of the two:
Before today, Hill has score a TD on 37% of his runs inside the 10 yard line. Bernard has scored on 20%.@BrennenWarner— Joe (@JoeGoodberry) October 16, 2016
Perhaps it was Hill’s injury which prompted the Bengals’ coaching staff to give Bernard the goal line carries, but the choice was questionable nonetheless.
Ultimately, the Bengals’ issue running the ball hasn’t been on Hill or Bernard as individuals. Sure, they can still be better — but Cincinnati’s offensive line has much more work to do than the backs they’re blocking for.
And again, these struggles aren’t just going to be solved by replacing Bodine with a backup. The center has been one of the better (and certainly more consistent) run blockers on the Bengals’ line throughout this season. If T.J. Johnson plays this week, he needs to be just as good, if not better, than the starter (if Bodine misses time with injury, which still isn’t clear, but looks unlikely after he practiced fully on Thursday).
The Bengals need their stars to play better. Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler are both playing for contracts this season, and both have under-performed in comparison to years past, at least thus far. The left tackle has been solid in pass protection, but he hasn’t been as great in the run game, while the right guard hasn’t made very many impact blocks in the run game, if any. It’s hard to imagine the line getting any better if its veterans don’t start playing like the stars we all know they are. Whitworth even had a game where he gave up two sacks, which is highly uncharacteristic to see from him and simply can’t continue.
With a slate of poor defensive lines coming in the next few weeks, now is the time for the Bengals’ offensive line to get things right. If the line can’t get going soon, it’s hard to imagine things will get better at all.