If the Bengals can convert a higher percentage of their third downs, they'll be in much better shape in 2013.
Much attention has been paid to the Cincinnati Bengals' first and second-round offensive draft picks, tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard, respectively, for what they'll do to elevate Andy Dalton from simply "good" to "franchise quarterback" in his third season as the starter.
However, Bernard and Eifert need to help the Bengals accomplish something else this year, and while it does involve Dalton, it really concerns the entire offense.
They have to improve productivity on third downs.
In 2012, the Bengals converted an average of 4.4 third downs per game, ranking them just 26th in the league. Of the 227 third downs they faced, they converted just 77 of them—a mere 33.9 percent conversion rate on the year.
They passed the ball on 170 of these third downs and rushed only 57 times, which makes sense as the Bengals' third downs occurred with an average distance of 6.63 yards needed to get a first down.
Sadly, the Bengals averaged just 4.76 yards per third-down play last season, which is not a way to sustain drives. And it's not entirely Dalton's fault that their conversion rate was so low, with just seven interceptions and 20 sacks occurring on third down last year.
It was a problem for the entire offense, from play-calling on down. Dalton was merely a part of an overall issue that must be dealt with in order for the Bengals to join the ranks of the NFL's best teams.
Though the Bengals managed to do more with less—they were middle-of-the-pack in offensive touchdowns scored per game and ranked 13th in the league in overall average points per game, with 23.8—imagine the kinds of points they could put up if they could just convert one more third down on average per game.
That would put them in line with the Green Bay Packers, whose average third downs converted in 2012 were 5.4 and whose average points per game were 27.1, the fourth best in the league. Just one drive can make all the difference, as the Packers' numbers compared to the Bengals' clearly attest.
Looking deeper at the Bengals' third-down numbers from 2012, 170 of their passing plays resulted in 146 actual passes thrown by Dalton, and 103 of them were tossed to just three players—wide receivers A.J. Green and Andrew Hawkins and tight end Jermaine Gresham.
Surprisingly, though Green is the Bengals' biggest playmaker, he only pulled in 32.4 percent of the third-down passes thrown his way, which was likely a result of great coverage.
At the very least, Eifert and Bernard give the Bengals two more passing options on third down and one more rushing option, depending on the personnel on the field. A fully healthy Mohamed Sanu in the No. 2 receiver position also helps—of the nine third-down passes thrown to him last year, he caught eight of them and scored three touchdowns.
It's also important for the Bengals to become more balanced between running and passing on third downs. While much of this rests on the distance they face as well as the defenses they're up against, the fact that only 57 of their third-down plays in 2012 were runs compared to 170 passes makes it safe to assume there were situations when running the ball would have worked better.
For example, the majority of their third downs (32.2 percent) in 2012 came with a distance of zero to three yards. While the Bengals cannot choose to run the ball all the time in those short-yardage situations because defenses are particularly keyed in on runs and prepared to stop them, their primary back last year, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, did a good job when asked to carry the ball.
Green-Ellis had 28 third-down rushing attempts in 2012, good for 152 yards. He had a 5.43 yards-per-carry average that, while lower than the average third-down yardage the Bengals faced, was higher than the average yards they managed to put up on third downs.
Green-Ellis was also responsible for a total of 54 first downs in 2012, ranking him 10th among running backs, which also seems to indicate the Bengals could have run the ball more in short third-down situations.
Although the Bengals have spent this offseason trying to improve their overall offense by adding weapons for the running and passing games, it will all be for naught if they don't improve their third-down conversions.
While the Bengals were able to translate this poor third-down performance to 10 wins and a playoff berth, once they reached the postseason they were knocked out in the Wild Card Round by the Houston Texans largely because they didn't convert a single one of their nine third downs.
That's not acceptable. All the offensive talent in the world doesn't matter if it cannot be used effectively when it matters the most.