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Bengals’ rushing defense ranked dead last in the NFL - will it get better?

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After two weeks the Bengals have given up a league worst 138 rushing yards per game. Is there reason for optimism?

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers
Can the Bengals defense stop the run in 2016?
Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Last season, the Cincinnati Bengals gave up only 17.4 points per game, finishing second in the NFL, only one tenth of a point off the NFL lead. They were very good against the run, giving up only 92.3 rushing yards per game (7th best in the NFL) and only eight rushing touchdowns (6th best in the NFL).

In eight of their last nine games last year, the Bengals’ defense held opponents to under 100 total rushing yards, averaging only 78 yards allowed during that span. During the entire 2016 season, they only once allowed a running back to top 100 yards in a game (Thomas Rawls in Week 5).

This season, the Bengals have dropped from superior to inferior after two weeks. With roughly the same defensive starters, the Bengals are giving up an abysmal 138 rushing yards per game, which is the worst mark in the NFL. The 4.2 yards per carry they are allowing ranks 20th in the NFL. The only bright spot is that they are one of only four teams to not give up a rushing touchdown after two games.

In Week 1 they surrendered 96 yards to Matt Forte and 41 yards to Bilal Powell on a combined 5.3 yards per carry. In Week 2 DeAngelo Williams reached 94 yards, with the rest of the backs chipping in 30 more.

The Bengals’ defense is still largely the same with All-Pro Geno Atkins, and a pair of defensive ends in Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson who are typically good against the run. They improved at linebacker with the addition of Karlos Dansby (who leads the team in tackles), and are now starting Shawn Williams at safety, whose strongest suit is supposedly in run support.

So what gives?

Cincinnati Bengals v New York Jets
Bengals offense has been derailing their defense
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Bengals’ offensive struggles have been a big factor in the defense’s struggles this season.

The Bengals’ offensive drives are consuming 30 percent less time than they did last season. In 2016 the offense is only holding the ball for 26 minutes a game. This has left the defense to play for an average of 34 minutes, spending much more time on the field with more opportunities to wear down and give up yardage.

One reason the Bengals offense can’t stay on the field is that the offense is only seven for 27 (26 percent) this year on third down conversions. This is the third worst mark in the NFL, only ahead of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Los Angeles Rams. By comparison, the Bengals successfully converted more than 40 percent of their third down attempts last year.

So why can’t the Bengals convert on third down? A key reason is because they can’t run the ball effectively, which puts them into difficult third and long situations. The Bengals have run the ball 37 times for 103 yards (second worst in the NFL), producing only 2.8 yards per attempt (third worst in the NFL).

When the Bengals continue to try to run, but fail, they get “off schedule”. This puts them into low percentage third down plays. And when they don’t convert these, the result is short drives and frequent punts (their 12 punts this year is the fourth most in the NFL).

Another factor is that the Bengals are only scoring 1.5 points per offensive drive this season, down considerably from the 2.26 they scored last season. Not only is the offense failing to hold onto the ball, but they are failing to score points. Last season when the Bengals were scoring more frequently, opposing teams were more apt to run less and throw more, in an attempt to keep up or catch up with the Bengals’ scoring. This season, their opponents are running more frequently because they aren’t playing from behind. In fact, the Bengals’ opponents have held the lead, or been tied, about 85 percent of the time this year. The Steelers never trailed in Week 2, and in Week 1 the Jets only trailed for about eighteen minutes.

Is this problem fixable?

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

The Bengals need to be who they are built to be - not who they want to be.

The Bengals want to run the ball, but they are not built to be a dominant running team. We saw this last season, and it’s been evident this season, too. Right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi is still learning the position after missing much of last season and much of training camp this season. He is more athletic than former right tackle Andre Smith, but not nearly the run blocking road grader. Center Russell Bodine has never been one to provide much in the running game. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth is a solid blocker, but his best asset has always been his ability to protect to quarterback. Fullback Ryan Hewitt is more of an H-back than your run paving Jeremi Johnson or Lorenzo Neal.

What they do have are the pieces of a team that seems built to run a spread offense, but are trying to play a “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense with it. They have an elite wide receiver, a great pass catching running back, a great tight end (when healthy), a very promising, young slot receiver, and a fullback who can catch the ball. And they have a quarterback who has been very efficient over the last two seasons, improved his long ball accuracy, and become better at passing while under pressure. And what do they do with all of this? They run Jeremy Hill behind Bodine on first and 10 for no gain.

If the Bengals can improve on offense, and play to their strengths, the offense can be very productive. As the offense improves, the defense will return to what Bengals’ fans have grown accustomed to. All of the pieces are still there from last year’s defense, and the zero rushing touchdowns allowed show they are still capable. They just need the offense to do their part.

This Sunday, the Bengals host the Denver Broncos who rank fourth in the NFL with 141 rushing yards per game. Can the Bengals’ defense stop C.J. Anderson and Devontae Booker? The answer to that question will sit not only with the defense, but with the offense. The Bengals’ ability, or inability, to move the ball on offense will go a long way to helping the defense on Sunday.