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Bengals fared surprisingly well in EPA per pass attempt in 2018

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Pro Football Focus found that the Bengals’ passing game was probably more effective than you thought in 2018.

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NFL: Cincinnati Bengals-Minicamp Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL offseason is for two things.

One is to talk about how much better your team is going into next season, and the other is to really take a look at how your team performed last season. Today we are doing the latter with some help from Pro Football Focus.

Recently, Ben Linsey of Pro Football focus ranked each teams offense by EPA per pass play in 2018. EP stands for expected points. Before we get to exactly where the Bengals rank, it is important to try and explain what that is. Here is an example Linsey gives in his article:

Imagine a five-yard run by your favorite running back — how valuable was that run? If you’ve been watching fantasy football for too long, you might say it is half a point, but in the real world, you don’t have enough information to say how valuable that run was for his NFL team. The reason is that a five-yard run on third-and-15 at the 50-yard line isn’t very valuable, while a run of that same five-yard distance on third-and-four at the 35-yard line is quite valuable. You can imagine how frequently context matters in the game of football and expected points aims to alleviate this issue.

Say your expected points on third-and-four is 2.3 points, after the five-yard run you are now on first-and-10 at the 45, and the EP at that state is 3.5, what would you say the value added on that run was? Before the run, you were expected to score 2.3 points on the next scoring play, and now you are expected to score 3.5 — that run added 1.2 expected points or what we call EPA (expected points added). Concretely, EPA is a measure of the value of a play that takes context into account and thereby better measures efficiency at the play level.

The basic idea of it is to try and contextualize plays better than looking at a box score, which can be very valuable. His example also works with passing plays as well. A five yard pass on third or fourth down to covert for a first is far more important than one in a third and long situation. That is actually a good lead into where the Bengals rank in this stat and why.

16. Bengals

Injuries ended up taking a major toll on the Bengals’ passing game, as the seasons of Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert were all cut short. Before his injury, Dalton was having one of the best seasons of his career, recording an overall grade of 81.9 in 627 snaps. The injuries did allow third-year receiver Tyler Boyd to flourish in a larger role, however. Boyd finished the 2018 season with an overall grade of 84.6, ranking 12th among 117 qualifying wide receivers. A large reason for Boyd’s success was just how effective he was on the money downs – third and fourth down. Boyd converted 25 first downs in those situations throughout the regular season, tying for first at the position with Julio Jones.

It should be surprising to see the Bengals rank even near the middle of the road in this stat. They were decimated by injuries towards the end of the season, but Linsey lists Dalton and Boyd’s accomplishments as the reasons why the season wasn’t lost (with this stat at least).

Boyd has emerged as Dalton’s safety blanket on money downs. If you need any proof, go check out the end of the Atlanta game when the two connected to convert two fourth downs on the drive that led to the go-ahead-touchdown in the final seconds.

The first was about a 12 yard completion, and the second was only for about eight yards. Two catches for 20 yards doesn’t look like much via the box score, but those plays were valuable in the EP’s eyes and the games.

The Bengals didn’t make any changes to personnel on offense going into next season. In fact, after the news of rookie offensive tackle Jonah Williams possibly missing the entire season with a shoulder injury, it really only appears that John Miller at right guard and probably whoever starts at left guard( with Clint Boling’s status seemingly up in the air) are the only new starters the team will have going into 2018.

So how could the Bengals end up better in this category? The most obvious way would be to stay perfectly healthy, but the odds of that happening for any NFL team is pretty much 0. The real reason is new head coach Zac Taylor has the potential to utilize the talent on this offense better than his predecessor, Marvin Lewis.

Play action seems to be the driving force behind Taylor’s new offense, which is good news for Dalton who thrives with play action. We should also expect to see Joe Mixon and the other running backs to be more involved in the passing game beyond the obvious screen pass on third and long. The running backs only put up average numbers in the receiving game last season despite proving they could create big plays when called on.

There are a whole lot of uncertainties for Cincinnati heading into 2019, and it could take some time before they really get their feet under themselves in this new system. It is still encouraging to know that the talent is obviously there to work on. It is a matter of whether those are numbers that can be improved on at all.