Back to the drawing board.
After stumbling through a 4-11-1 season in 2008—the 13th in the last 18 seasons—the Cincinnati Bengals coaches have taken a new focus for the 2009 season: the trenches.
The Bengals were dominated at the line of scrimmage in 2008, allowing the third most sacks in the league, and collecting the second fewest. As such, they have focused on overhauling the offensive and defensive lines in an effort to establish a tougher team mentality.
In doing so, the Bengals have revamped their approach to play calling, as well.
Offensively, head coach Marvin Lewis and offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski have been attempting to complement an explosive passing attack with an effective running game since Lewis’ arrival in 2003.
After replacing sure-handed wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh with free agent Laveranues Coles in the offseason, the Bengals figure to have more of a focus on establishing the running attack with tailback Cedric Benson.
In focusing on the ground game, the Bengals will need rookie left tackle Andre Smith to become a dominant force against defensive ends. Smith excelled in college in a straight-ahead blocking scheme, and will allow the Bengals to run veers and isolations off of the left side if he is able to continue the run-blocking acumen that got him drafted sixth overall in 2009.
The Bengals will have to attack the exterior of the offensive line more to cover up a weak center position, often requiring a double-team of the nose guard against 3-4 defenses.
Presumptive starter Jonathan Luigs, a rookie fourth round selection, lacks the ideal size to handle nose tackles such as Baltimore’s Haloti Ngata, Cleveland’s Shaun Rogers and Pittsburgh’s Casey Hampton.
As such, the Bengals will avoid inside isolations in short-yardage situations, and will have to keep in an extra blocker in passing situations to account for blitzers that would have gone unblocked with the nose guard requiring a double-team.
With the limitations in the passing game that result from three man routes and a hurried quarterback, Coles and Chad Ocho Cinco will be forced to run more square-outs and hook patterns than seam routes.
The big-play qualities of the traditional Bengal offense will no longer be evident in Cincinnati, but as the youthful offensive line matures, Lewis and his staff hope that a strong off-tackle run game will take its place.
As the focus on the offensive end is on reducing a reliance on the passing game, the defensive mindset for the 2009 Bengals will be on increasing the potency of their pass defense.
Cincinnati only collected 17 sacks in 2008 but managed to field the 12th best defense in the league because of the ability of an underrated secondary to cover extended routes.
The secondary of Leon Hall, Jonathan Joseph, Chris Crocker and Chinedum Ndukwe will be bolstered by the addition of five time Pro-Bowler Roy Williams in 2009.
The focus for defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer will be adding further assistance to the secondary by decreasing the amount of time that opposing quarterbacks have to pick the Bengal secondary apart.
To augment a focus on solid fundamental defense, Zimmer likes to implement creative blitz packages for his defensive units, getting speed rushing linebackers into the backfield.
With the addition of second round linebacker Rey Maualuga and third round defensive end Michael Johnson, along with the return of weak side linebacker Keith Rivers, the Bengals have the speed to get to the quarterback that they did not posses at the tail end of 2008.
Zimmer figures to put Johnson on the field at defensive end on third down to rush from the edge. Coupling this with a twist on the defensive front with defensive tackles Domata Peko and a blitzing linebacker will be aimed at confusing offenses and shorten the time that the secondary must account for their assignments.
Zimmer’s blitz packages and Bratkowski’s off-tackle smashes will be among the highlighted plays in the 2009 Bengals playbook.
All of them will have an eye on expanding control over the trenches. At least that’s how they draw it up.