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Bengals vs. Browns Preview: Three Keys for Cincinnati's Struggling Offense

Take a look at three keys for the Bengals to beat the Cleveland Browns

Patrick Smith

Get off a fast start

Two weeks ago against the Miami Dolphins, Cincinnati fell behind 17-3 midway through the third quarter before Giovani Bernard added a pair of touchdowns to tie the game. Mike Nugent and Clint Sturgis exchanged punts and the game went into overtime with an unusual game-ending play that's mysteriously filed under, "memories to be deleted". Despite Jonathan Martin's disappearance on the Monday prior to the game, the distractions weren't as significant as they are now for the Dolphins.

Yet Cincinnati still had the odds stacked against them. They played a late afternoon game on Sunday against the Jets, had two days to practice -- with the first being a glorified walk-through so players could recover from playing an NFL game less than 24 hours ago -- and traveled to Miami on Wednesday.

So it was unsurprising that the Bengals struggled early, compounded by the emotional impact of losing Geno Atkins, which nearly buried Cincinnati's early-season resolve to conquer adversity. Whomever wasn't feeling depressed after Atkins was carted from the sidelines is lying. This game suddenly mattered less because Atkins' injury had a greater impact on their successes for the rest of the season. Of course, that's still to be determined but seriously... Yet they almost did, forcing the game into overtime, but eventually losing it on a  ** MEMORY FILE DELETED **. Excuses aside, Cincinnati was forced to come back after the slow start, which kept the Dolphins in the game long enough for Cameron Wake to ** MEMORY FILE DELETED **.

After Thursday's game, the Bengals had ten days to recover. Heal those bumps, bruises and to deal with the loss of Atkins, it was a mini-bye week for players. Accumulating injuries on defense and an offense that needed to get back on track, Cincinnati needed a break. Baltimore losing to the Browns that weekend also setup an encouraging scenario for the Bengals to lower a cleat on the division's throat entering week 10.

Instead, Cincinnati replicated the their start against Baltimore, falling behind 17-0 by half time, needing two fourth quarter touchdowns, including a 51-yard Hail Mary, just to send the game into overtime. A questionable fourth down decision to go for it (not by us, it seemed the logical choice at the time because Cincinnati's defense was playing so well, wind impacted the kicking game and the gains on a punt were minimal -- Huber was struggling anyway) led to a handful of first downs and an eventual game-losing field goal by the Ravens.

In the past two weeks, the Bengals have been outscored 27-3 in the first half behind awful starts that's putting Cincinnati in a sleeper hold causing them to slowly lose their grip on the division. Excluding knees to end the first half, the Bengals offense has combined for 13 possessions in the first half against the Dolphins and Ravens. They've turned it over four times, gone three-and-out five times, punted seven times, missed one field goal while making another. People will praise their tendency to comeback, but they're losing these games now and it's not helping that offensive philosophies are dictated by those early-game struggles.

Maybe all the Bengals need right now is familiarity and routine, instead of these Thursday night games and 10-day breaks.

Develop a consistent running game

It's not that the Bengals have had a "bad" running game, but for some reason they're just not getting consistent effectiveness out of it. For statistical glory-hounds that unintentionally view generic statistics as fantasy points, it's been productive. During Cincinnati's two-game losing streak, Cincinnati has generated 283 yards rushing and a 4.3 yard/rush average -- it's the second-best two-game stretch of the season, behind Cincinnati's 327 yards rushing against the Patriots and Bills. Obviously early deficits are significant reason. Maybe there's just no relationship between the passing game and running game. One isn't necessarily helping the other.

Down by 14 in the third quarter against Miami, the Bengals only ran the football 10 times after half time. Cincinnati's loss to the Ravens featured a more consistent ground attack, even though they were losing by as much as 17 in the second quarter. In the third and fourth quarters, as well as overtime, the Bengals called 22 runs and 29 passes.

Yet something always happened to wipe out their running game. With 11:59 remaining in the third quarter against Baltimore, Giovani Bernard's four-yard gain was neutralized on Andy Dalton's quarterback sack. After A.J. Green's 43-yard circus reception with 4:52 remaining in the third, Dalton threw two incomplete passes and lost a yard on a quick pass to Green forcing the Bengals to punt. After a two-yard run over Kevin Zeitler, Dalton was sacked twice on the bookends of the third and fourth quarters, forcing the Bengals to punt.

And even when they are running the football, they're not doing it in situations that we're expecting. In overtime, the Bengals have second and two with 11:43 remaining from the Ravens 33-yard line. Giovani Bernard gains eight, setting up third and two. Do the Bengals use the short-yardage back in BenJarvus Green-Ellis? No. They call Bernard's number on a run and a pass and he's unable to convert for a critical first down.

Personally I don't have a problem running Bernard on third and two. But if you're going to keep your short-yardage back on the bench, don't run Bernard up the gut. He's evasive and generates awesome yardage, but Bernard also tends to shuffle behind the line of scrimmage when access to his targeted lane has closed. That's fine on first and second down. But with opposing defenses crashing down during short-yardage situations, it's a death move for most backs. The failure to convert on fourth down was just a good play by Baltimore's defense -- and a bad decision to go backwards by Bernard.

It's really the only chink in his armor.

Reduce the turnovers and penalties

Yet the issues facing Cincinnati's offense isn't strictly about talent or even performance-based. There will be stalled drives, quarterback sacks and offensive holds that bury one's head into their finely crafted desk. It's the mistakes. The turnovers, missed receivers, dropped passes and the five quarterback sacks in the second half against the Ravens. You can't be a productive offense if you're constantly crushing your own opportunities to make plays.

The more you analyze, the more you can make a convincing argument that the Bengals are playing just as well as they did against the Jets earlier this year, winning by 40 points. Where that argument breaks down is that the mistakes that they're making now, they didn't make against New York.

Jay Gruden's game-plan was flawless against the Jets, as were Cincinnati's protection schemes. Andy Dalton was comfortable in the pocket, even checking off his initial receiver to find open players. Their performance against the Jets proved how great this offense can be. Their follow-up performances against the Dolphins and Ravens show how much they can struggle, largely because they're causing their own misery. Limit those and watch Cincinnati's offense fly once again.

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