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Bengals’ offensive line is key to rebuilding success

There are a lot of reasons why the 2016 Cincinnati Bengals look so much different than the 2015 squad, but the issues with the offensive line might be the most important.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s one statistic that really pops out when analyzing the Bengals’ 2016 season, it’s the number of times Andy Dalton has been sacked (32). That’s as many sacks as they gave up all of last year. Only Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer, and Tyrod Taylor have been sacked more times this season. The Bengals’ poor pass protection has significantly affected their ability to win games

The 2016 incarnation of the Cincinnati Bengals looks like a shell of its 2015 self, and the lack of offensive firepower has a lot to do with that. It could be argued that the huge number of personnel changes that took place in the offseason are to blame for the issues, which could explain why the offense has been improving as the season goes along.

Over the last six weeks, the Bengals’ offense has recorded 10 touchdowns, as opposed to only five touchdowns through the first six games. This has come in the face of injuries to key players like A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard as well as a carousel at right tackle that the Bengals are hoping can help cut down on the pass protection issues.

In fact, Dalton recorded arguably his best game of the season just last week against the Eagles (332 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, 130.0 quarterback rating). On that note, it’s no coincidence that Dalton was rarely pressured throughout the game and was not allowed to be sacked once.

The Bengals came away with a decisive 32-14 victory that honestly felt more like stepping back in time to watch a game from 2015. That’s across the board. Although the defense wasn’t perfect, the Bengals saw enough good performances out of this unit to maintain a healthy dominance over the Eagles throughout the entire game. In fact, the Eagles didn’t score a single point until the Bengals had already put up 29, and that was late in the third quarter.

Although you have to give credit to the whole team for what really was an impressive win, the way the game played out helps confirm that the Bengals are more effective all-around when the quarterback is properly protected. Not only does it help the Bengals’ offense be multi dimensional, opening up opportunities in the running game. (Though, that didn’t show on Sunday.) But, it allows the defense to get some rest. Defensive players typically play better when they have time to rest in between drives and that can’t happen when the offense goes three and out repeatedly.

This week, the offense should have another opportunity to build their confidence as they are going up against the Cleveland Browns, who have recorded the least sacks of any team in the NFL this season (17). Three of those sacks came against the Bengals in Week 7, but hopefully the offensive line has improved enough by now to not let that happen again. Going forward this season, the Bengals will want to do whatever they can to develop the offensive line for the future.

From the perspective of a rebuilding strategy, the tackle positions might be problematic going forward. Although he hasn’t seen as much starting time as Cedric Ogbuehi, the 23-year-old Jake Fisher has struggled and has a long way to go before the Bengals should be comfortable starting him.

Benching Ogbuehi seems to have helped the unit perform significantly better in the short term. But, the Bengals can’t give up on the 24-year-old Ogbuehi, who was last year’s first round pick. Veteran Eric Winston could certainly help the Bengals win games in the short-term, but the Bengals will be hoping that Ogbuehi can work out his issues and help the team return to their winning ways long-term. They’re moving him to backup left tackle, and Fisher to backup Winston at right tackle to start.

“For as much as we like both those young kids, they haven’t had the opportunity to be consistent and have the preseasons and things you’d like to have to grow through,” Marvin Lewis said of the offensive tackle duo of Fisher and Ogbuehi. “All of their stuff is when things have been on the line. All their reps and plays. When it’s really important, it’s on the line. They conscientiously want it to be right. Sometimes you overthink things and get a little tense with it.”

This is true as Fisher and Ogbuehi both got injured in the preseason and really could have used those games to learn and grow. Though, Ogbuehi played in 11 games this season and didn’t seem to be progressing much at all. This coming offseason, both players will need to work hard to prove they belong and can be trusted.

The Bengals are currently fine on the interior line with a 27-year-old Clint Boling and a 26 year old Kevin Zeitler at the guard positions. Both players have generally performed well throughout their careers. They have had a few issues this season, but not enough to worry about long-term. Zeitler will be a free agent in March, but the Bengals should prioritize re-signing him sooner than later.

24 year old center Russell Bodine has struggled for much of his career with the Bengals, but he has seen significant improvements in his game this season. If he could only learn how to snap a ball consistently, and be more effective in the run game, the Bengals would be much better off at center.

The Bengals also have a number of young players waiting in the wings, including Christian Westerman who has been inactive in every game this season. If Zeitler isn’t re-signed, Westerman could be the next man up.

If the Bengals can get their offensive line back to the level they were playing at in 2015, when they only gave up 32 sacks on the entire season, they will be poised for great things. The new members of the team will eventually adjust to the system and learn to be valuable contributors. Ultimately, once the offensive line starts consistently playing well, the rest of the offense should follow suit.