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Diagnosing the Bengals’ offense halfway into the 2017 NFL season

We take a look at a key problem for the Bengals: playcalling, and why it’s going wrong.

Video diagnosing the Bengals offensive problems

The Cincinnati Bengals’ offense got off to a historically bad start this season, failing to score a touchdown in either of the team’s first two games. However, after the second game, the Bengals switched offensive coordinators, and things seemed to change for the better. Good matchups against the Packers defense and Browns defense certainly helped, but some of the same problems continued to pop up.

The offense struggled to get anything going in the run game, and the offense couldn’t do much at all in the second half in almost any game. The Bengals, after keeping pace with the Steelers in the first half, were shut out in the second half and could not get anything going on offensively.

I am taking a look at some of the things I see that are problems with the Bengals offense. First off, I would like to give a big shout out PyroStag on Twitter whose charting I used for some of the data that I talk about in this.

The Bengals in 2016 had one of the fastest paces of play in the game at 26 seconds per play roughly, which ranked 8th in the league. In 2015, the best season of Dalton’s career, the Bengals were ranked 29th in terms of pace of with roughly 29 seconds per play. In 2017, the offense has reverted to its 2015 form and is ranked in the bottom third of the league in pace of play.

The Bengals offense has seemingly been undergoing a facelift in the past couple of years if you look at their drafts. Starting in 2015 with the drafting of Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbuehi, it seemed as if the Bengals were trying to make a transition to a bit more of a spread system.

Fisher and Ogbuehi are athletic tackles coming from spread offensive systems and no matter what was thought of them coming out, no one thought of them as the big maulers that the Bengals had in Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith.

In 2016, they just attempted to restock their weapons with drafting Tyler Boyd. Then in the 2017 draft, the Bengals went full on towards the spread offense drafting John Ross, a speedy wide receiver, and Joe Mixon, a running back who almost never ran from under center in college.

This all adds up to a team that should theoretically have undergone a drastic identity change with the addition of all the new pieces. However, that has yet to be seen for the Bengals.

Some of that could be due to the lack of availability of top-10 pick John Ross, but the offense has not changed to fit the strengths of the players they have drafted. On Sunday against the Steelers, Joe Mixon got eight overall touches. It was split evenly with four touches coming from shotgun and four coming from under center. On the four touches from shotgun Mixon generated 57 yards for 14.3 yards per touch. On the four touches from under center he generated 11 yards for 2.75 yards per touch.

yards per play in shotgun vs under center
percentage of shotgun vs under center

As we can see in these charts provided by Pyrotag the Bengals overall have not been able to generate a run game from under center at all with the worst numbers in the league. The usage of shotgun vs under center is mystifying to me, it has helped for the occasional big play-action pass from under center, but overall, the Bengals run from under center so often that it is completely ineffective.

I looked at some plays from the Steelers game to try and show exactly how this works out, as well as why the run game is so much more effective from shotgun, on top of the fact that they drafted a running back who ran almost exclusively from shotgun in college.

Joe Mixon run from under center

In this picture, I have taken a picture of a run by Joe Mixon and circled what I think is the key to why the Bengals can’t succeed from under center. The Bengals, when under center, run it about 70% of the time, so teams will load the block and blitz when the Bengals go under center, and normally it stops the run. Mixon may be able to make one defender miss, but when it is three defenders they can normally clog up the lanes and stop the run.

Joe Mixon run from shotgun

In this picture, which was from shotgun I have circled the two big differences, which is a hole in the defensive line and a big hole in the middle of the field. The Steelers were expecting a pass and because of that the Bengals were able to block all the Steelers and then Mixon was able to get to the second level and get down the field for a big gain.

I am not saying that the Bengals need to completely switch to a shotgun approach, however I think that it would benefit them to work towards a more balanced approach.

Especially with the talent they have, going more balanced during each play type would benefit the offense. 63% of the Bengal’s run plays are from under center, and those runs are averaging 2.33 yards per attempt. That is not a way to build a functional offense. Those short runs lead to second and third-&-longs that are very difficult to convert into first downs.