The Bengals offense has largely been a work in progress over the first quarter of the 2016 season.
That was expected, though, as Cincinnati is replacing a lot of lost production from the 2015 unit that was among the NFL’s best when Andy Dalton was healthy. Since then, the Bengals have lost Marvin Jones, Andre Smith and Mohamed Sanu in free agency, while Tyler Eifert has missed the first four games while recovering from ankle surgery. And, it looks like he’s bound to miss at least one more week.
That’s led to new starters taking over, mostly with players who weren’t even on the team last year. Brandon LaFell was signed this offseason after a poor season in New England to replace Jones as the No. 2 boundary receiver and Tyler Boyd was drafted in the second round out of Pitt to replace Sanu in the slot.
As for Smith’s spot at right tackle, that was left to be replaced by Cedric Ogbuehi, who missed most of his rookie season while recovering from a torn ACL. He then suffered a toe injury that cost him most of training camp and the preseason this year, so he’s basically a rookie starting at right tackle.
All of this has led to a lot of up-and-down spurts for the Bengals offense during the first four games.
The passing game has remained explosive and efficient thanks to Dalton continuing to play at a high level. The Bengals rank third in passing offense, second in yards per pass attempt (8.5), ninth in completion percentage (66.4), and 11th in total offense.
As for Dalton, he ranks third in the league in total passing yards (1,234). His current pace would put him at 4,936 yards over a 16-game season, which would be over 700 yards high than his previous career-high (4,293 in 2013).
Dalton is completing 66.4 percent of his passes, which would be higher than his previous high of 66.1 in 2015. He also is on pace for a career-high in passing yards per attempt (8.45) over a full season. Dalton’s previous high is 8.42 set last year.
All of this is largely due to A.J. Green continuing to be one of the NFL’s best wide receivers. He currently ranks third in the NFL with 468 yards through four games. He’s also converted 18 first downs, which is tied for the fifth most of any receiver.
Green’s eight receptions of 20-plus yards are the third-most of any receiver. His 32 receptions lead the NFL, and his 112 yards after catch are the 12th-most of any player.
As good as the offense has been in many areas, it’s been flat-out bad in just as many. The Bengals rank 24th in points per game (19.5), which would be the worst of the Marvin Lewis era since 2009 (19.1).
Despite the passing game being on top with yards, Dalton has thrown for just three scores this season.
The Bengals ground game has been awful through four games, ranking 28th in rushing offense and 30th in yards per rush (3.1). They’ve also run for just three touchdowns in four games after getting 18 scores in 16 games last year.
Giovani Bernard is quietly having a horrific season running the ball. In four games, Bernard has rushed for just 68 yards on 25 carries, good for a whopping 2.7 average.
Between Bernard and Jeremy Hill, those two have combined for one run of 20-plus yards. This has clearly been a weakness for the Bengals thus far, and it cannot continue if this team is going to be a legitimate playoff contender.
The shortcomings of the offense have been painfully evident when the team gets into the red zone. They’ve failed to convert those trips into touchdowns and often settled for field goals.
The Bengals have the worst red zone offense in the NFL, as they're converting just 30.8 percent of their red zone trips into touchdowns. They’ve scored an average of just 1.5 touchdowns per game in 2016, which is tied with Houston for the worst rate of any NFL team.
That simply won't cut it against better teams, and it must change if Cincinnati is going to get back to the playoffs.
All of the above shows the Bengals have potential, but they’ve failed to utilize it fully through the first four games of the regular season. They’re doing the brunt of the dirty work with all the yards they’re gaining, but they just haven’t been able to punch the ball into the red zone frequently enough.
All of the offseason losses and subsequent new faces in big roles have played a big part in that, so as the new guys get more comfortable in their roles, the Bengals offense should continue to take steps forward as the season wears on.
The question is, will they do so fast enough to end the regular season with a winning record that gets them into the playoffs?