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Bengals at Jets: Reviewing Ken Zampese’s debut as Cincinnati’s play-caller

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Cincinnati’s rookie offensive coordinator has some big shoes to fill from his predecessors and the 2016 opener brought mixed results. How do you think he fared in Week 1?

Cincinnati Bengals v New York Jets Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Sometimes things are just out of a coach’s control. When Hue Jackson and his quarterback guru reputation left to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns this offseason, the Cincinnati Bengals handed the reins of the offense to longtime quarterbacks coach, Ken Zampese.

It was a move that reeked of owner Mike Brown and the Marvin Lewis regime, both in positive and negative ways. Preferring continuity and the “devil you know over the devil you don’t”, the team gave Zampese a shot. Unfortunately for the longtime assistant, not only did he get thrust into a job with lofty expectations, but he also faced major attrition, in the form of injuries and free agency, which affected his skill positions.

It was a tough task for Zampese and the Bengals’ offense in the season opener, as they went up against a vicious New York Jets defense. Week 1 started off with disastrous results for the offense, yet they recovered in the form of a hard-fought 23-22 win.

There were major positives and negatives in Zampese’s debut, so let’s take a look at his first game as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator.

The Positives:

The passing offense and usage of new weapons: Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd have been tasked with replacing Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu this year. While it started off with a poor start, mostly due to shoddy offensive line play, the new wideouts ended up playing a big role.

We knew A.J. Green would make plays, but not to the extent he did on Sunday. It was a banner day for the Bengals’ Pro Bowl wideout, who had 180 yards and a touchdown on 12 catches, missing just one pass attempt his way on the afternoon—good for second-best reception percentage of the past two years when a player is targeted 10+ times.

Even so, LaFell added 91 yards on four catches, with Boyd adding two more for 24 yards. As a new offensive coordinator, it would have been easy for him to hone in on feeding the ball to Green (which he still did), but as the game wore on, other weapons stepped up.

Additionally, once-regarded as a third-string tight end, C.J. Uzomah, came in for the start and had two catches for 59 yards, essentially supplanting Tyler Kroft as Tyler Eifert continues to recover from an ankle injury. Tight end was a void that was probably the most concerning going into Week 1, so it was nice to see him step up in his first significant regular season role.

In-game adjustments: A major complaint from Bengals fans was the lack of past coordinators being flexible as the game wore on. Bob Bratkowski was particularly guilty of this, but all things considered, a different game plan was noticeable once things weren’t working in the first half.

The offensive line was dominated much of the day, so Zampese wisely decided to switch to delay/draw run plays and quick passing. That saw good results, as the Bengals put up 10 second half points on the heels of this plan.

Some Hue Jackson leftovers: Zampese’s predecessor was known for making wacky formations while frustrating opposing defenses. The current coordinator’s system often looked a bit more traditional this Sunday, but there were some wrinkles he took from the 2015 playbook.

On more than one occasion, Zampese dialed up bubble screens with just three offensive linemen up front and two more flanked outside by a receiver, which was a Jackson staple last year. It largely worked with positive results on Sunday and kept the Jets defense on its heels.

The Negatives:

The offensive line: Holy cow. Sunday afternoon had to be one of the worst performances by this strong offensive line in recent memory. Dalton was sacked seven times by the Jets, the most in his six-year career, and many of his throws were rushed in the first half because of constant pressure.

While Zampese did a great job in changing the game plan in the passing game, there still weren’t many answers in overall blocking. It was going to undoubtedly be tough sledding against the Jets, but 57 total rushing yards at a 3.0 yards per carry clip isn’t going to be the long-term formula for offensive success. Neither is the allowance of so many sacks and pressures.

Third down conversions: A direct correlation of the poor offensive line play was the offense’s poor performance on third down Sunday afternoon. The Bengals were just 3-for-11 on the most critical down, good for a paltry 27% conversion rate.

It was so bad that the team didn’t convert a third down until early in the second quarter, and none in the final quarter. Given the stats, it’s a miracle the team was able to achieve the comeback win.

The run game: It’s hard to complain when the passing game ultimately got it done for the Bengals, but there was no sense of balance in the Bengals’ offense on Sunday. They ran 19 times to Dalton’s 30 pass attempts, and neither Giovani Bernard or Jeremy Hill could get much going.

When those two talented backs combine for just 14 carries and 16 total touches, it usually leads to a long afternoon for the team. It was especially disheartening given the lack of pass protection on the afternoon and really plays into the performance of those involved in the passing offense.

Overall Grade: C-

At the risk of sounding like a cop-out, Zampese’s debut had some really good, mixed with other atrocious performances and decisions (the two run plays on the game-winning drive, anyone?). The saving grace has to be the efficiency of the passing offense as the game wore on, coupled with the adjustments creating those opportunities.

However, the terrible offensive line play and visibility of the offense being rattled at many points in the game has to be concerning. Maybe it was just jitters because of Dalton finally returning to the lineup since December of 2015 and the combination of going up against a good defense in an emotionally-charged environment, but many things still have to be cleaned up against another talented foe in the Steelers next week.

What’s your take on Zampese’s debut as the Bengals’ offensive coordinator?