For a team known for its crippling inability to change its operating practices, consider us impressed with the Bengals noticing at least one recent major shortcoming.
It’s no surprise that in the past two years of playoff-less football, the Bengals have lacked sizzle and game-changing plays. It’s also no surprise that the team suffered major free agency attrition in the 2016 and 2017 offseasons as a large part of that negative equation.
Whether you agree with some of the recent personnel decisions or not, the team is attempting to obtain players who have skills to create more “wow” and back-breaking plays. While some are big-time gambles, if they pay off, we’re looking at another potential solid rebuilding project under Marvin Lewis.
You can see the attempts by the team in a number of acquisitions they have made over the past two offseasons. While the ones from 2017 didn’t all net immediate results (John Ross, for example), the payoff from that class and this most recent one could be huge in 2018.
The interesting thing about these acquisitions is that it isn’t just about the players. It’s coaches they’ve brought in, retained and/or let walk. In short, it’s a philosophical change from Marvin Lewis and Co.—which is eye-opening because of both his defensive background and the franchise’s oft-conservative approach to their football team.
Aside from using a No. 9 overall pick on John Ross last year, the Bengals went for another one of those “height/weight/speed” guys in Josh Malone in the fourth round. Though neither did much of anything in 2017 (just combined for six catches for 63 yards and one touchdown, as well as one carry for 12 yards), the hope is that both will be massively productive in their second year.
It’s in Ross’s 28 career college touchdowns (22 receiving, two rushing, four kickoff returns), as well as Malone’s 19.4 yards per catch average and 11 touchdowns in 2016 with Tennessee that has the Bengals hoping the big plays will come in the passing game this year.
Heck, you can even look to a recent signing of Ka’Raun White. The former West Virginia Mountaineer had a 16.5-yard per catch average and 12 touchdowns last season.
After the team has ranked a deplorable 31st in rushing yards per game in 2017, Cincinnati is committing to giving more carries to Joe Mixon, while also allowing Giovani Bernard to be his versatile self. They’ve added the exciting Mark Walton to the mix, who averaged 7.6 yards per carry in an injury-shortened 2017 campaign and 15 total touchdowns in 2016.
But, as it often does with NFL offenses, the line will be the key to any success the unit has in 2018. Cincinnati made two big acquisitions to aid a beleaguered line in Cordy Glenn and first round center, Billy Price.
While both should immediately shore up the run game, the hope is that they’ll give Andy Dalton enough time to strike for more big plays. Pro Football Focus recently promoted a 2017 statistic that seems complimentary on the surface to the Bengals’ signal-caller, but it also has an underlying back-handed slap.
The Bears were conservative with Mitchell Trubisky as a rookie, but when he did go deep, he still protected the football. pic.twitter.com/JsZ4Zw4LPn— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) May 9, 2018
You see, in this company, Dalton is amid other “game-managers” and the deep ball attempts appear to be lower than that of the explosive 2015 offense. It also doesn’t account for overall completion percentage, even though the one interception is an impressive number at first blush.
Though they want to keep some aspects of the controlled, yards-after-catch passes, Bill Lazor will undoubtedly want to use A.J. Green, Ross and Malone for deep ball opportunities. Oh, and speaking of Lazor, it’s his second year as the team’s offensive coordinator.
So, there’s the increased comfort level for everyone in the second year of his system. Still though, he is greatly shaking things up as he’s throwing out Jay Gruden’s playbook (one that has had many incarnations with four different coordinators since 2011) and making his own.
After finishing 19th in the NFL with 33 sacks in 2016, the Bengals drafted two exciting edge rushers to help boost the unit to 41 sacks and a No. 13 ranking. Wanting even more out of the unit, Cincinnati drafted two more versatile mid-round linemen in Sam Hubbard and Andrew Brown.
Another aspect the Bengals want to improve upon and have made strides toward the last couple of years is in turnover creation. They finished in a tie for fourth in interceptions back in 2016, but fell all the way down to 20th last year with just 11 picks.
Jessie Bates III was added in the second round this year after nabbing six interceptions the past two years. The starting duo at the safety position, George Iloka and Shawn Williams, netted just one interception apiece in 2017.
It isn’t just about the creation of turnovers that the Bengals seem to be interested in, though. Some of the players they have brought in over the past couple of seasons have a total knack at getting into the end zone when they get their hands on the ball.
Whether it was in Brandon Wilson’s six ways into the end zone at Houston, Bates’ two returns for scores in 2016, or Darius Phillips’ crazy 14 career collegiate touchdowns, Lewis and new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin aren’t into playing it conservative on defense this year. They want the game-changing plays—whether it’s from their trusted veterans or the new faces.
Alex Erickson was the darling of the 2016 preseason and he parlayed that into a nice season returning kicks for the team in the regular season. The 2017 season wasn’t as solid for Erickson and he should be feeling some additional heat this summer in the form of competition.
Ross and Mixon were explosive on returns in college, but it’s unlikely the team risks opening them up to injuries. However, guys like Phillips and Wilson could push for a role there in 2018.
Of Phillips’ 14 touchdowns, six were returns, while Wilson had two kickoff return scores in college. Additionally, the Bengals may find some diamonds in the rough in this year’s crop of undrafted rookies, as they report this weekend.
Maybe part of the “change” we’ve been hearing so much about this year is in this change of focus. Maybe the team is going a little more “risk/reward” than in years past and with that philosophy could come personnel changes.
Though opinions of both pundits and fans are currently fickle on how the team will fare in 2018, the Bengals have at least begun to address some of their shortcomings of the past couple of seasons. It’s just a matter of these exciting players creating and executing the explosive plays we saw from them in college.