So far, the Cincinnati Bengals’ passing game appears to be carrying the offense in 2016. There have only been two games played at this early stage in the season, but Andy Dalton has already recorded an astounding 732 passing yards and the Bengals have an NFL leading 13 passes for 20+ yards.
“We have about three, four, five plays each week where the quarterback has chosen to throw the football and been very productive,” Marvin Lewis told Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. “Those are good things. He has the ability and chooses and goes up and does his thing. We’re comfortable with Andy doing that.”
Unfortunately, that ability to move the ball in the air has come primarily as a result of attempting the sixth most passes in the NFL (84). The overall completion percentage is respectable (64.3 percent - 12th in the NFL). But, as Bengals offensive coordinator Ken Zampese explains, the fact that the Bengals have put together so many passing yards is a lot less impressive when you realize that it’s the only thing they can do efficiently on offense.
“You’d love him to lead the league in passing, just with less attempts, have things be a little more balanced,” Zampese said. “There’s no problem leading the league in passing, it’s just you’d like to see the ledger a little bit more on the other side as well.”
The Bengals’ ability to move the ball in the air also hasn’t translated to putting the ball in the endzone. In fact, the Bengals rank 21st in the NFL right now in points score and have only two touchdowns completed in the air. Due to the currently abysmal state of the running game, the Bengals rank 31st in rushing yards, which clearly isn’t helping matters.
That overall lack of efficiency is going to be tough to correct against the Broncos, whose defense ranks fourth in the NFL with only two touchdowns allowed so far this season. It is going to be even tougher for the Bengals’ ground game to get going against Denver’s top defense when the Bengals running backs currently rank near the bottom of the league in nearly every significant category so far. Going up against a Broncos defense that, so far, ranks sixth in the NFL in overall defensive efficiency, the Bengals will need to be firing on all cylinders to put together a performance worth watching.
“When we do choose to run it, we can’t have one-person breakdowns and instead of it being a 10-yard gain, it’s a three-yard gain,” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said. “We have to do better at that all the way around. That recognition and execution is important.”
That said, expecting the running game to go from sniffing the NFL’s basement to knocking the socks off of one of the NFL’s best defenses is just silly. Hopefully the running game can finally contribute this week, but the Bengals’ passing offense will almost definitely need to carry the load again, for now.
That means that the passing game will need to stop relying on chunk plays to put together scoring drives. Chunk plays are nice, but when a handful of chunk plays account for a large majority of the offensive production, you end up with situations like last week when the Bengals only converted 25 percent of their third down attempts.
Yes, it also means that Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard will need to do better than forcing a combined one missed tackle against like they did against the Steelers. But, it also means that the Bengals’ top two receivers, A.J. Green and Brandon LaFell, will need to get open for more than a combined five catches.
A big part of the equation is the offensive line. They were praised by Pro Football Focus for their performance against the Steelers. But, they also allowed Dalton to be pressured or blitzed on 25 of his 57 total drop backs. That’s nearly half of the game. Against a Broncos defense that ranks second in the NFL with eight sacks so far, the Bengals’ offensive line will need to step their game up and allow the quarterback and receivers some time to set up and complete their routes.
“Each guy has to emphasize doing his job as well as he can,” Bengals left guard Clint Boling said. “Because we’re close.”
The Bengals definitely were close to beating the Steelers, but they were also close to losing to the Jets. If they’re going to take that next step as a franchise, they’re going to need to pull it together in every aspect of their game. That includes the aspects that look to be doing well at first glance. If the Bengals win on Sunday, expect Dalton to have had a great game against a stout Broncos defense that’s allowed just 293 yards and 20 points per game heading into Week 3.