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Familiar offensive issues plague Bengals in loss to Steelers

It would’ve been nice to say we didn’t see this coming...

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Ken Zampese has caught a lot of flak from Bengals fans in his first season as offensive coordinator, perhaps to an unreasonable level. Sure, Zampese is no Hue Jackson, but if anyone was expecting him to be as good as the departed coordinator, and now Browns coach, it’s worth questioning whether those expectations were reasonable in the first place.

Under Zampese, the Bengals have been great in some areas and not-so-great in others. Against Pittsburgh, the juxtaposition between the good and bad was dooming. Sunday’s game against the Steelers was a battle of two halves, just as most Bengals games have been this season.

In our weekly “Winners and Losers” column, Jason Marcum mentioned the Bengals’ lack of halftime adjustments. His overall point that the Bengals underperformed in the second half was spot-on, but I disagree with the phrasing. Because ultimately, the Bengals didn’t need to adjust at halftime. If they played the second half like they played the first half, the Bengals likely would have beaten the Steelers on Sunday.

Granted, teams cannot just play the same way in the second half, because running the same scripted plays after you’ve already run them leaves a team predictable and puts its players in a position to fail. What went wrong for the Bengals’ offense on Sunday — something that has gone wrong on a seemingly weekly basis this season — was its inability to execute unscripted plays.

Some of the blame here has to fall on Zampese.

For those unfamiliar, the concept of scripted versus unscripted plays is pretty simple. Early on in the game, coaches call plays based on the game plan they’ve developed heading into the week, generally based on the team’s strengths and its opponents weaknesses. But because football is unpredictable and you don’t know whether your team will be leading or trailing later on in the game, the execution of unscripted plays becomes more and more important.

Many will call this concept “halftime adjustments,” an idea that just isn’t the same in football as it is in sports like basketball or soccer (where teams are smaller and play-calling is simpler), but ultimately, this isn’t an issue that could get resolved with a fiery halftime speech.

Fixing issues like this is a matter of preparation and execution. Zampese, on occasion (though not as often as Jackson was able to do last year), has put his players in a position where they can win. That said, there have also been plays which should have never been called — ones that likely wouldn’t have succeeded, even with great execution.

Like Zampese, player should also be held responsible. Cincinnati scored zero points in the second half, punting three times and throwing an interception. The Bengals did this after scoring on all four of their first half possessions (the kneel-down at the end of the half being excluded).

I’m still not of the mind that Jeremy Hill should be cut, let alone benched (like many have called for), but one has to question why the running back — playing through injury — continued to get carries over Rex Burkhead in the second half when the backup was more effective than the starter. Burkhead averaged 4.57 yards per carry while Hill averaged 2.15 yards per carry on Sunday.

One also has to question why the Bengals’ passing game became virtually invisible after Cincinnati left the locker room following halftime. I’m sure we’ll have in-depth analysis on what happened later on in the week, but for now, it’s just worth noting that things didn’t go well. Dalton completed six of his 11 second half passes, tallying 41 yards along with an interception.

There’s also the issue that Cincinnati’s offense continued to kick field goals (kicking two on Sunday) in the red zone, unable to convert those red zone opportunities into scores. These issues were primarily a concern in the first half, but they bit the team in the tail nonetheless. The Steelers did rank second in the league in red zone defense coming into Sunday’s game.

It’s fair to mention the defense, as the unit on the other side of the ball was far from perfect on Sunday. The Steelers scored on seven of their eight possessions, excluding their final drive in which the team could’ve easily scored points had it not taken a knee to run down the clock. But when the Bengals offense manages just 19 plays and about 10 minutes of possession in the second half, the defense can only handle so much of the blame. Pittsburgh managed nearly six minutes of possession and 13 plays on its last drive alone.

As I mentioned, second half offense — an issue I’d argue has a lot to do with the team’s inability to execute on unscripted plays (and/or Zampese’s struggles in managing a game plan consisting of unscripted plays, something every offensive coordinator has to do) — was a major issue.

Cincinnati managed just three points in the second half against the Browns last week and the Bengals scored on two of five second half possessions in Baltimore. After scoring 10 points on their first two second half drives against the Giants, the Bengals punted four times and threw an interception. After managing three touchdowns on their first four possessions of the second half against the Redskins in London, Cincinnati punted three times and lost a fumble. And those struggles don’t even factor in the team’s first six weeks, when to put it nicely, the Bengals were a mess in virtually every quarter they played, Weeks 1 and 4 excluded.

And of course, there’s the notorious Bills game, where the Bengals gained 37 yards on five meaningful second half drives, before putting up 73 yards on a garbage-time drive in which Buffalo played prevent defense knowing Cincinnati needed a touchdown to win. In a vacuum, it would be fair to blame Mike Nugent’s two missed extra points for the Bills loss. However, games are not played in a vacuum. It had always mystified me why fans blamed the kicker for a loss in which Cincinnati essentially gained 37 yards in the second half, going scoreless after halftime with six consecutive punts.

The Bengals haven’t scored a fourth quarter touchdown since Week 8 in London and before that it was in Week 5 against the Cowboys in garbage time. Scoring in the final corner is often a vital component in a win, and the Bengals have proven incapable of doing that.

It would be foolish to point the finger at one individual — whether Zampese, Hill, Dalton, Marvin Lewis or anyone else — for the Bengals’ offensive struggles in the second half of games. The first-year offensive coordinator would probably be the first to admit he still has a lot to learn about play-calling and that he needs to be better.

But the solace of the Bengals’ struggles is that the talent is there. Cincinnati has done a great job running scripted plays, so improvements on unscripted plays — whether this year or next — could help the Bengals become an offensive juggernaut like they were in 2015, even without guys like Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu in the lineup.