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Bengals midseason report card: Offense

We take a look at the Bengals’ offense eight games into the 2016 season. How is the unit faring halfway through 2016?

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Grades. For those of us in the millennial or Gen X/Y demographics, it’s a word that brings tingles to the spine.

Still, for so many reasons, the metric to gauge performance is apropos, even when talking about NFL teams. The Cincinnati Bengals currently sit at a disappointing 3-4-1 at the midway point of the year, but stumbles by division foes have left the door cracked open for an improbable sixth straight postseason berth.

With the midway point of the season upon us and the Bengals resting on their bye week, it seems like an opportune time to assess the performance of Cincinnati’s positional units. The offense has quite a bit of firepower, even with free agency departures this offseason, and 2016 has had its ups and downs.

Coaching: C+

Ken Zampese has had big shoes to fill, given his two predecessors. Jay Gruden has his critics, but his development of both Andy Dalton and Kirk Cousins in recent years has to be noted. Hue Jackson engineered a breakout season from “The Red Rifle” in 2015, so Zampese just kind of needed to continue the momentum this year.

At the risk of sounding like a poor analyst, the rookie offensive coordinator has both succeeded and failed in that endeavor this year. Zampese has largely let Dalton do his thing and build off of his MVP-like 2015 campaign, but inconsistent play-calling and poor protection, both in scheme and player execution, has led to mixed results.

Jackson and the Bengals’ offense propelled the Bengals to a 8-0 start last season, with many impressive statistical outputs. Cincinnati had 27 or more points in five of those first eight games last year, while Zampese’s group has cracked the milestone just twice in 2016. With the defense struggling, the Bengals’ inability to get high scores this year has come under the microscope.

Through the first six games, the Bengals’ deficiencies in the red zone and on third down were apparent. They have since remedied these issues the past two weeks against the Browns and Redskins, which is partially masking the issues Mike Nugent is facing as the team’s kicker.

On one hand, we have to give Zampese a bit of a break. He’s a first-time offensive coordinator following two coordinators that conducted two of Dalton’s most productive seasons, and some of the best in team history. The team wanted him to merely carry the baton from Gruden and Jackson, but it’s difficult to do that with two new receivers and tight end Tyler Eifert missing six games.

On the other, long dry spells lacking production and the missing of creativity seen under Jackson has come to light. Sure, execution is largely on the players, but Jackson was known as a bit of an in-your-face coach who demanded quality play and Zampese’s lax demeanor might be contributing to a backslide from 2015 to 2016.

We also have to take into account the decline of the Bengals’ offensive line, which points to Paul Alexander. His stubbornness in relying on certain players when they are clearly struggling has hurt the team and 3-4 defensive schemes still seem to puzzle the mammoths they employ up front.

The running backs are playing pretty well, so a tip of the cap to future dad and recent Salute to Service Award nominee, Kyle Caskey there.

Quarterback: B+

It hasn’t been the type of year we saw from Andy Dalton in 2015, but he’s largely taking good care of the football and keeping the Bengals in games. He’s also adjusting to new personnel, while also battling through an incredible regression from the offensive line this year.

Through eight games this year, Dalton has 11 total touchdowns (nine passing, two rushing), against just four turnovers (three interceptions, one fumble lost). The Week 8 tie against the Redskins displayed good and bad from Dalton, but with the struggles on both sides of the ball being prevalent, he’s had to shoulder a lot of responsibility—even for a franchise signal-caller.

Dalton has had five games with a 100-plus rating, including three above the 110-mark. He’s at 98.0 for the season, which is saying something while getting acclimated to two new receivers and awaiting Eifert’s return.

Receivers and Tight Ends: A-

Most of the high marks here have to do with A.J. Green. Some may dispute it, but 2016 is looking like the best season from the perennial Pro Bowl receiver. So far this year, Green has made the likes of Josh Norman and Darrelle Revis look silly, and is on pace for nearly 1,800 receiving yards at this point.

Even though Brandon LaFell has had dry spells, he still leads the team in touchdown receptions with four and has provided a bit more electricity to the offense than many predicted when he was signed as a free agent. Tyler Boyd has yet to fully hit his NFL stride, but he’s made some big catches this year. Unfortunately, he hasn’t found the end zone yet and that might need to change down the stretch.

Eifert’s return in two games has come with completely opposite results. After logging one catch in his 2016 debut against the Browns, he totally dominated the Redskins in London. Eifert had his second career 100-yard receiving game and should give the Bengals a nice spark down a stretch where they can ill afford to lose more than two games.

C.J. Uzomah was the surprising choice as Eifert’s replacement over Tyler Kroft and his six-game stint came with mixed results. Big plays were seen from the second-year tight end, but other dropped passes frustrated the Bengals’ offense. Kroft has 10 catches this year after logging 11 all last season, so some progression appears to be occurring.

James Wright has only four catches, while Alex Erickson has one and has struggled to regain his excellent preseason form in the return game.

Running Backs: B

Again, the offensive line’s inconsistent performance has to be taken into account here. It was a slow start this year for both Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, but things have picked up over the past two weeks. Against Cleveland in Week 7, the dynamic duo rushed for 248 yards and two scores, and followed it up with 128 yards and a touchdown apiece against the Redskins.

Hill’s fumble issues have seemed to be remedied, as the football hasn’t even left his hands in 111 touches (104 carries, seven catches) and he’s averaging 5.0 yards per carry. It’s a nice turnaround from a 2015 campaign where he had just a 3.6 yards per carry average.

Bernard continues to be a quality multi-dimensional back for the Bengals. Though his yards per carry is at 3.9, he already has as many rushing touchdowns as he had in 2015 (two) and has 31 receptions on the season. He’s also contributing mightily as a pass blocker, which has seemingly gone unnoticed.

The oddity in the group remains H-Back Ryan Hewitt. After signing a big extension this offseason, he continues to be used sparingly as a blocker or even reserve tight end. Moreover, the team brought in Pro Bowl fullback Marcel Reece for a workout over the bye week, prompting more questions about fit, scheme and the like.

Offensive Line: D-

Can that still get you through a class? Whatever—the line has been an unmitigated disaster this season. Andrew Whitworth, while still solid, is starting to show his age, allowing a few sacks this year, while the guard play by Kevin Zeitler and Clint Boling has either been excellent or atrocious in any given week.

Unfortunately, two young starters have become easy targets for the issues. A lot of people still hate on Russell Bodine, but this is his best season yet—is that even saying much, though? The other guy with a bull’s eye on his back is first-time starter, Cedric Ogbuehi

Unfortunately, the experiment with the second-year tackle has been an utter failure. He has been regularly responsible for pressures, sacks and penalties and has forced the team’s hand in rotating him with Eric Winston. While veteran reliability is appreciated, one has to wonder why Cincinnati won’t give Jake Fisher more looks at the position to see if they have something there.

Even with not every team having their bye yet (10 teams yet to have theirs), the Bengals currently sit at a tie at 29th in the league with 25 sacks given up this year. Dalton may have run into a couple of those, but anyone who has watched Cincinnati this year, knows that pressure has been given up with eye-popping regularity.

Along with some of the issues on defense, Cincinnati’s clean-up of the offensive line issues will be paramount to a surge in the second half of the season.