The Bengals made a big change at head coach this offseason; bringing in an offensive-minded head coach is a huge reform for a franchise who has not had that since Bruce Coslet. *shudder*
Over the last eight years, Andy Dalton has spearheaded some effective offenses, but despite three changes at offensive coordinator over that timeframe, they have failed to properly evolve, creating a stagnation within the heart of the offense. The hope is under head coach Zac Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, the stagnation turns into more first downs and touchdowns.
Here are a few key areas where improvement is vastly needed.
Usage of top talent
The Bengals need to do a better job using their top offensive talent more effectively, and this conversation needs to start with John Ross.
Ross has been poorly mishandled throughout his brief time in the NFL. The Bengals tried to use his speed on an occasional jet sweep last season, but this was never done correctly. It was not blocked well, nor was the play set up with complimentary plays. They used his speed as a deep threat, but in general he was just that: a threat. The team did not work to actually get him the ball.
They need to manufacture touches for Ross that put him in a position where he can succeed. This means screens, jet sweeps, and reverses. It also means getting him the ball on short passes that give him a chance to run after the catch, and of course they need to take a few shots a game on deep balls to him.
Last season the Bengals finally started using A.J. Green in the slot more often, which was huge for them early in the season. Green is the best player on the roster. They need to be able to move him around to every receiver alignment in order to create the best matchup for him.
After Green, Ross and Tyler Boyd, the team’s next best receiving threats at not wide receivers. That is why they need to get Tyler Eifert and their running backs (more on that in a bit) involved in the pass game. I know what everyone is going to say about Eifert, and yes, it is true. It is also true that Eifert is one of the NFL’s most dominant receiver threats from the tight end position when healthy.
The Bengals must make smart use of Eifert. He really should be used as a receiver given that he isn’t much of a blocker anyway. He should be used sparingly early on to protect him for the end of the season. Think about Danny Amendola. Amendola struggled to stay healthy early in his career, before he found himself in New England. The Patriots barely used him during the regular season, essentially maintaining his body for the playoffs, where he made some big time plays for them.
Unlike the Patriots, the Bengals can’t just assume they will win the division and be in the playoffs, but the philosophy could be the same. Use Eifert sparingly early on, lean a little more heavily on him in divisional match-ups, then set him loose in December to make a push for the playoffs. Overall, his usage should be mainly in key situations like 3rd down and in the red zone.
Finally, the Bengals need to use Joe Mixon more in the passing game. And not just more often, but in more elaborate and intentional ways. He should not just get an occasional check down or screen. He needs to be the primary receiver at times and should not exclusively line up in the backfield. I wrote extensively (with film) on all the different ways they could get him involved in the pass game here.
Better use of running backs
Mixon is the star of the group, but they need to make better use of the running back position as a whole. Under Marvin Lewis the Bengals were terrible at utilizing their talent at running back and also highly predictable. Jeremy Hill would come in on early downs and run the ball and Giovani Bernard would come in to run a screen or pass block on 3rd down. Meanwhile, Rex Burkhead and his varied skill set was sitting on the bench waiting for the team to be decimated with injury, so he could get a chance to shine.
With Mixon, Giovani Bernard and now Trayvon Williams and Rodney Anderson, the Bengals have an impressive group of backs. The Patriots did a good job last year of utilizing the talents of Burkhead, James White, and Sony Michel et al. and the Bengals need to do the same with their group.
One way to do that is to have two backs on the field at the same time, much like the Saints have done with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara during the last two years. All four of the backs in question are talented receivers; they should be lining them up at wide receiver and getting them more involved in the passing game. Like receivers, they can also be utilized on jet sweeps and screens. Their understanding of how to read blocks, may make them even more effective at running slip screens than the team’s receivers are.
Game plans that make sense
As was alluded to in the previous sections: game plans have to be intelligent. There are a few things this entails, but perhaps the most important aspect is self-scouting. This means that you must understand your own tendencies and what the defense is thinking.
Just like an opponent scout, a self-scout will expose tendencies based on personnel, formations, motion, down and distance, field position, and other more specific situations.
For example, the Bengals have had a tendency to throw the ball with Bernard in the game. It makes sense because he is an effective receiver and an excellent pass blocker. Obviously other factors come into play (third-and-long, two-minute, etc), but that has certainly been a tendency in the past.
Another example is jet sweeps. The Bengals have not been very good at running jet sweeps in part because they have also not been very good about running other plays off of jet sweep action, so the motion gives away the play.
The Bengals need to game plan with a better understanding of what the opposing defense is seeing.
They also need to be better at making pre-snap adjustments. Dalton is good at making pre-snap reads in the pass game, but they need to coach him to understand the run game better. He needs to be able to check them out of running the ball into defensive looks that they cannot block. This can mean checking to a different run, flipping the play to run it to the opposite side, or checking to a pass.
Dalton must become an extension of the coaching staff who can make pre-snap audibles to keep them out of bad plays. Don’t be surprise if Taylor decides to be in his ear until the last possible second like Sean McVay is with Rams quarterback Jared Goff. This would accomplish the same thing.
What changes are you looking forward to seeing in the Bengals’ offense?