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Bye week checklist: 4 areas of improvement for the Bengals

Cross off these items, and you’ve got a playoff team in Cincinnati.

NFL: NOV 06 Panthers at Bengals Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A much-needed break for the Cincinnati Bengals is almost over. The team’s bye week came at an opportune point in the season as the development of the playoff picture truly begins taking shape. Nine AFC teams have records between 5-4 and 7-3, and only one division leader is ahead by more than a game-and-a-half.

The Bengals find themselves in the thick of it, but a spot in the postseason is far from a certainty at this juncture. The three wild card spots will be heavily contested, and the AFC North has an 85% chance of belonging to the Baltimore Ravens by season’s end, the same Ravens who beat the Bengals a month ago by rendering their offense inept.

Performances like those need to be behind the Bengals if they are to pull off second consecutive trip to the playoffs.

Cincinnati’s first half of 2022 was littered with inconsistencies amongst sheer promise. Take their DVOA metrics for example. Through the first nine weeks, their offense and defense were ranked eighth and ninth, respectively, in the league. But the statistical variance of their weekly DVOA performance, which is aptly named Variance, ranked 32nd.

A well-balanced team who was capable of playing on either end of the spectrum from week-to-week.

The margin of error dwindles as does the regular season. While there’s ample time to make a meaningful run, every step backwards will be magnified, especially if previous problems reoccur. These are the issues that need to be resolved after the bye.

Better protection on the edge

We’re well past grouping the entire offensive line together for its triumphs and struggles. The Bengals’ investments at all three interior positions are paying off wonderfully. Alex Cappa and Ted Karras have provided nothing but veteran stability, and Cordell Volson is now hitting his stride as a rookie.

It’s the tackles who need to establish stability.

Think back to most of their losses, specifically Week 1 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Week 2 against the Dallas Cowboys, and Week 8 against the Cleveland Browns. In those three games, starting tackles Jonah Williams and La’el Collins allowed 49% of their combined pressures allowed on the season thus far. You wanna talk about variance? These two have been primary sources.

Williams and Collins are the 48th and 54th ranked tackles, respectively, in Pro Football Focus’ pass blocking grade when looking at Weeks 1-9. There’s an argument to be made that good quarterbacks can work around pressure off the edge relative to interior pressure, but even for Joe Burrow, this caliber of protection isn’t going to help the offense net better results against quality teams.

Not all is bleak, though. Collins ranked 55th through the first four weeks and 36th in the next five weeks alone. He’s slowing righting the ship amidst a lingering back injury that’s plagued him since July. As for Williams, the more time that passes between his kneecap getting dislocated, the better.

Diversified run game

Some good news—we saw this last week. Against the Carolina Panthers, the Bengals had their best day running the ball in a long time, and it seemingly came out of nowhere. Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan charging up his players during their Saturday meeting may’ve provided a boost, but it took so much more than motivation for the Bengals to pull off that ground attack.

Scheme was the main cause for the Bengals’ ineptitude running the ball. They proved a failed state executing wide zone, and defenses made it even worse by picking up on simple keys to predict run calls, such as Burrow being under center. When they made a dramatic shift to gap schemes out of shotgun, efficiency skyrocketed compared to its previous level.

The Bengals can get by for the rest of the year with an offense that operates completely out of shotgun, but the next step in their evolution is diversifying their run game to keep defenses honest. Against the Panthers, the Bengals played both sides and deployed gap and zone concepts, under center and in the gun. They were feeling themselves, and the Panthers had no answers.

It won’t be that successful 95% of the time, but it doesn’t have to be to get one of safeties in the box. The more diversified your playbook is, the harder it will be for defenses to prepare. Once the under center run game finds it footing, the Bengals can build off that and catch defenses lacking in the passing game.

Generating more interior pressure

Interestingly enough, the Bengals’ offensive line and defensive line are exact opposites of one another. While exterior pressure is what they allow the most, it’s also the only way they can get to the opposing quarterback.

Trey Hendrickson has firmly established himself as one of the better edge rushers in the league. He’s third in the league in pass rush grade with a win rate that’s inside the top 15. He’s meeting expectations, while Sam Hubbard is exceeding them in comparison. Hubbard’s experiencing his best year rushing the passer with 30 total pressures (two fewer than Hendrickson) and the 12th-best win rate against true pass sets.

Finding additional production from the defensive line has been hard to come by, especially during the time D.J. Reader was on Injured Reserve. Reader was having an absurd start to the season for a nose tackle, boasting a 42% win rate vs. true pass sets in the first three weeks. He was their interior pass rush, and they haven’t come close to replicating it since his injury.

This falls mainly on B.J. Hill, who’s boasting a win rate that ranks 36th among starting defensive tackles. Second-year player Joseph Ossai has also had the vast majority of his pass-rushing snaps inside the tackles and the results have been mixed at best. He’s credited with just 10 pressures on the year.

This hasn’t become a detrimental issue for the defense yet, but they’re set to face much better quarterbacks as the season winds down, and their secondary is already down their top cornerback in Chidobe Awuzie. The defensive line needs to create consistent disruption to aid the back seven, and that starts inside.

More consistent special teams

In 2021, the Bengals’ special teams DVOA ranked eighth in the league. It was the fourth consecutive year the unit ranked in the top 10. They’re currently ranked 28th this year. That’s not going to fly.

Punting has become the main talking point here, but punt coverage has also been spotty this season. The Bengals are allowing the second-highest yards per punt return this year at 14.5 yards per Kevin Huber punt that’s not fair caught or goes out of bounds. Huber’s recent struggles have only exacerbated the problems as he’s average 4.27 seconds of hang time per punt with an average net distance of 37.4 yards.

Huber isn’t going anywhere quite yet as he’s still with the team and taking reps in practice, but continued struggles will only make the leash shorter and shorter until it no longer exists.