The firing of Bengals’ Offensive Coordinator Ken Zampese will not be the last major change in Cincinnati if they can’t figure out how to score touchdowns. The Bengals invested heavily in offensive talent in this year’s NFL Draft, but after losing their two best offensive linemen to free agency the unit as a whole has gotten much worse. How can the Bengals get back on track offensively?
Improving the Pass Game
Andy Dalton has not played well, but he is still the best option moving forward. Clearly he has had problems with accuracy, forcing balls into coverage, and fixating on AJ Green. Dalton needs to be comfortable with what he is doing, his receivers, and perhaps most importantly his protection.
The offensive line is going to be bad. The Bengals simply do not have the personnel at that position, but they must figure out how to mitigate this problem. The use of chip blocks from the running backs and tight ends will help with the edge rushers. There should also be hot routes built into their pass plays to hit the defense quickly where a blitz has created a temporary void. When they are looking for a deep striking play, they should be utilizing seven or eight man protections to allow time for the play to develop. When they want to get more people in the route, they should spread the field with four wide receivers (or running backs or tight ends lined up as wide receivers). This will put defenders in a position where it is difficult to disguise blitzes. Dalton must do an effective job of learning a defenses blitz indicators so he can effectively change protections and throw hot routes when necessary. The use of screens will help with the pass rush and put the ball quickly into the hands of playmakers. Tailback screens, slip or jailbreak screens, and bubble screens should all be utilized.
The Bengals’ pass catches need to do a better job of getting open. Some of that comes down to effort and technique, but a lot of it comes down to scheme. Even AJ Green was guilty in week one of running a hitch route against press coverage. Routes need to be called to combat specific coverages and Dalton must know where to deliver the ball based on the coverage. Dalton also needs to improve his accuracy and deliver balls that a receiver can catch in stride so he can gain additional yards. Against the Texans, Dalton threw a ball to Brandon LaFell who had not left the line of scrimmage, and it was so inaccurate that he fell down catching it.
Improving the Run Game
I’m not a proponent of the idea that Jeremy Hill cannot play, but at the moment the Bengals have an overpopulated backfield and Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard are better fits for what the Bengals need to be doing. For that reason, Jeremy Hill should not be seen except in short yardage situations. They need to get Mixon and Bernard going. They should be looking at how the Falcons used Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman so effectively in 2016 and doing what football coaches do best… ripping it off. Mixon and Bernard should be utilized in the pass game, both from the backfield and lined up at receiver. This will allow the Bengals to have both on the field at the same time.
The Bengals have tried to get to the edge in the run game in the first two weeks of the season, and for the most part they have failed miserably. Defenses in the NFL are too fast to simply try to run around them. In order to get to the edge on a defense, crack blocks must be used on the linebackers and the edge rusher. If they want to try to get to the edge purely with speed and not have to worry about the edge rusher, they must use jet sweeps. Bringing a receiver (or back lined up at receiver) in motion and handing it to him at full speed gives that receiver a good shot of getting around the edge of the defense.
The offensive line has and will continue to be an issue. They are not a talented enough group to relay simply on zone blocking techniques. Down blocking and option schemes must be utilized. Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers teams successfully utilized down schemes that incorporated option concepts. Down schemes give offensive linemen easier blocking angles and allow lineman to pull around for key defenders. Tight ends and full backs can be used to get blocks on defenders from different angles. For example the “wham” play where the offensive line works passed the three-technique allowing an h-back to block down on him as he begins to penetrate the line of scrimmage.
Conversely, they can spread the field allowing for a numbers game to be played. If the defense only has five players in the box, the Bengals know that they have enough players to block the run play. If they have six players in the box a receiver screen or other pass game concept can be utilized. Over the past few years the Bengals utilized exotic formations with spread out offensive linemen to exercise this concept. Ironically it is something that former Offensive Coordinator Ken Zampese actually seemed to have a better grip of than his predecessors.
RPO or run-pass-option plays work on the same basic idea and would make a lot of sense for the Bengals to utilize moving forward. RPOs are basically option plays, but designed to get the ball in someone other than the quarterback’s hands. Other option concepts such as the zone read, triple option, and midline could be also beneficial to the Bengals moving forward. Option plays make a lot of sense for the Bengals with the skill set of Dalton, Mixon, and Bernard. This would also be a great opportunity to use Mixon and Bernard together whether it is on a triple option play with one as the dive player and one as the pitch player or a zone read out of a wildcat set. The best thing about the option is that if a defense has a player who you can’t block, you don’t have to. You just design a play to make him the read.
Improving in the Red Zone
The Bengals did improve their red zone play from week one to week two, by avoiding turnovers and at least coming away with field goals. Obviously, this is not going to win you many football games. The Bengals need to figure out how to score touchdowns. With big receiving threats like Tyler Eifert and AJ Green they have the skill set to do it. This is an area where Dalton seemed to become particularly fixated on one receiver. Dalton needs to be better prepared to go to his second and third options on a play. While throwing the ball up to Eifert or Green can be effective, the Bengals need to incorporate other concepts. Quick double cutting routes can catch defenders over-playing routes and pick plays can get receivers open by creating traffic in the secondary.
The Long and Short
The Bengals have a long way to go to return to offensive competency. It is not going to be an overnight transition. New offensive coordinator Bill Lazor must get the team back to the fundamentals. The team must find a couple of things they can do well and build on those things throughout the season.
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