The Cincinnati Bengals' playoff run ended just as it did last year, with a Wild Card Round loss to the Houston Texans. The 19-13 defeat gives the Bengals a lot of offseason fodder to chew on, with takeaways from that game serving as prime examples of areas in which the team needs improvement in order to become a true playoff contender, rather than the one-and-done postseason team they've been in the last two years.
Here are the three biggest issues for the Bengals that surfaced in the loss which need to be addressed in the coming months.
Andy Dalton's Consistency
There were a number of issues with the Bengals' offense against the Texans in the playoff loss, but the most glaring of them were concerning their passing game and quarterback Andy Dalton.
The problems began in the first half, with Dalton trying his hardest to exploit what he believed to be a mismatch between the Texans coverage and tight end Jermaine Gresham. Gresham was targeted five times in the first 30 minutes, but had just one one-yard catch, with two key drops. The Gresham-heavy passing approach also left star wideout A.J. Green without a first-quarter catch.
Though the offensive game plan focused less heavily on Gresham in the second half (he had just two additional targets and one catch) and began to shift Green's way, that wasn't simply enough to boost Cincinnati's offensive production. The reason: Dalton simply wasn't throwing well.
The Bengals offense is young, with a ton of first- and second-year players in key skill positions. Green was Dalton's saving grace in the pair's first two seasons in the league, but with the passing game still coming into its own when it comes to the other receivers on the roster, Green has had to carry a heavy load. It's imperative, therefore, that Dalton hit the mark when trying to get the ball to a scoring threat like Green.
In two end-zone targets on Saturday, Dalton first underthrew and then overthrew Green. It's one thing to try and make up for the zero Green targets in the first half, but it's another altogether to finally get things going with him and then miss him entirely.
Though the Bengals have an excellent defense, when it comes to putting up points and getting wins, there has been an all-in approach to their passing game that has made Dalton very important to their every-week success.
Dalton's issues under pressure—he completed only 30 percent of his pressured passes on Saturday—makes him think pass rushes and blitzes are coming even when they are not. Hearing footsteps leads to erratic passing, and a good example was this game, with Dalton completing only 55 percent of his non-pressured throws and his one interception coming when he had adequate time to throw.
Dalton needs to do two things: Become more comfortable with pressure, and treat Green like he's Calvin Johnson and get the ball to him as often as is humanly possible. The latter can help him build confidence that he can make important throws, even when he's anticipating or facing pressure.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis' Complement
Though BenJarvus Green-Ellis was somewhat of a surprise this season, with 1,094 rushing yards on his 278 attempts, his performance against the Texans helped to illustrate why he cannot be their only running back option moving forward.
Even though the Bengals were never as behind as the on-field play would indicate, they chose to run the ball just 16 times on Saturday, with 10 of those carries going to Green-Ellis. He ended the day with 11 carries for 63 yards—a 5.9-yards-per-carry average—but that average is deceiving when taking into account his 29-yard longest rush of the game.
Since losing Bernard Scott to an ACL injury in early October, the Bengals have chosen to roll on with Green-Ellis and little assistance from their other backs, Brian Leonard and Cedric Peerman. Though Green-Ellis has had some good games, including a five-game span between Weeks 11 and 15 in which he ran for no fewer than 89 yards per week—his generally one-note style of running has limited what the Bengals could do on the ground.
As a north-south runner, Green-Ellis proved he's one of the league's best. He's a battering ram that can force holes open and many times made a lot of something out of what would have earned other backs nothing (or worse), but he's not a burner and he's not a lateral threat.
With Dalton struggling to pass the ball effectively, the Bengals would have been better off with a two-back situation, with the contrasting styles of Green-Ellis and this hypothetical back making them more unpredictable and thus more dangerous.
Though Green-Ellis has proved himself far more valuable to Cincinnati's offense than many had predicted prior to the start of the 2012 season, the loss in Houston further serves to highlight just how much better the Bengals' ground attack would be with someone to complement Green-Ellis' style.
Reacting to Play Action
With the Texans having one of the better rushing offenses in the NFL, it should have come to no surprise for the Bengals that much of their passing game would be operated out of play-action passing. In fact, 25.7 percent of his passes were of the play-action variety in the regular season, the sixth-most in the league.
Though play-action passes are hard to defend, especially when it comes to offenses like Houston's that have a top-tier running back like Arian Foster and a dangerous wide receiver like Andre Johnson, it was still a sloppy performance out of the usually strong Bengals defense.
The pass rush nearly froze them, in fact. Though the Bengals came into the postseason with an impressive 51 sacks, they brought pressure to Schaub on only 11 of his 38 dropbacks and only four of those employed the blitz. It was as though they were scared of Foster running and couldn't react to Schaub appropriately.
Schaub took advantage of Cincinnati's apparent focus on Foster and the run game and absolutely burned them with the play action. Though he only employed it 26.3 percent of the time, his nine play-action throws yielded seven completions and 107 total yards. The defensive line and linebackers alike bit inside on the fake over and over, allowing Schaub easy completions especially when throwing outside to tight end Owen Daniels, who had nine catches for 91 yards in the win.
It's hard to read and react to the play action appropriately, which is why it's such a successful tactic for those teams with excellent run games. However, a defense as experienced and accomplished as the Bengals' shouldn't have been left so exposed by it on Saturday.
It killed their ability to bring pressure and exploited the coverage and run-game weaknesses of middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. They'll need some serious film study in the offseason to strengthen their play-action defense.