Cincinnati Bengals: 5 Most Critical Developments for the Bengals' Playoff Chance
The Cincinnati Bengals are sitting in a familiar position - first place in the AFC North, a division the team has only won once in the past five years. Though the record is an optimistic 4-2, there are still several critical improvements the Bengals need to make to ensure they not only make the playoffs for the third consecutive season, which would be a first for the franchise, but to finally clear the hurdle and grab a postseason victory that has evaded Marvin Lewis in his head coaching career.
1. More Offense: PPG Must Rise
The offense needs to put more points on the board. If you check the offensive rankings, you’ll notice that the Bengals are actually a top-10 offense - in yards per game. But if you arrange the rankings by points per game, they free-fall all the way to No. 23. Averaging just over 20 points a game is simply not good enough. Cincinnati fans should have a familiar feeling- recall last year, when the Bengals finished No. 24 in points per game (24.4) en route to the franchise’s second consecutive first round exit to the Texans. Fast forward a year, and the Bengals are in virtually the same position, only right now, they’re scoring even fewer points.
It's also worth noting that the previous four Super Bowl winners have had at least a top ten offense in points per game.
Jay Gruden needs to establish an identity for this offense. We’re going on week seven, nearly halfway through the season. Already, we’re seeing AJ Green absolutely dominate the targets with 70 thus far. The closest second would be Mohamed Sanu, with 32. The ball needs to be distributed better. The most recent game with Buffalo is case and point: Dalton targeted nine different receivers while throwing for the most yards in a single game for him this season, en route to becoming this week’s AFC Player of the Week.
Furthermore, the juggling act between Bernard and Benjarvus Green-Ellis (BJGE) needs work. Green-Ellis has just under 30 more carries than his rookie reliever. Bernard is averaging four yards per carry compared to Green-Ellis’ 3.3. Furthermore, what about last week in Buffalo, when the Bengals had a 4th-and-1 with six minutes remaining in the game?
Bernard rushes up the middle for no gain in a position where Green-Ellis has traditionally feasted. While there’s something to be said about creativity and not tipping your hand, had the Bengals lost this game, this would have been a water-cooler talking point. Even the CBS broadcast crew had some initial trouble moving past the decision. You'd just like to see both running backs running plays that cater to their strengths. If BJGE isn't in on 4th-and-1, why employ him?
Additionally, the overall disparity between the Bengals running and passing is odd. Via the Bengals' Geoff Hobson, with Andy Dalton under center, the Bengals are 16-1 when they rush the ball thirty times or more. BJGE and Bernard are together averaging about 25 attempts per game.
2. Andy Dalton Must Improve
Andy Dalton must improve, but Dalton needs to be discussed in proper context, beyond the reach of the world wide manufacturer of melodrama. ESPN would have you think it's elite or bust. If you don't have the elite quarterback, you don't win Super Bowls.
Somewhere, Joe Flacco's eyebrow is twitching.
Seriously, if you threw Flacco's and Dalton's 2012 regular season quarterback rating into a hat and blindly picked one, you wouldn't be able to tell who you picked. Andy Dalton is an enormous reason the Bengals made the playoffs twice in a row. Remember the situation he was drafted into? No practices, no OTA’s. Here’s the playbook, go win football games. And all he’s done since is take the Bengals to two consecutive playoff berths, a feat that not even Carson Palmer could boast while at his best in stripes; however, he'll still need to elevate his game.
Success in the NFL does demand good, efficient quarterbacking, but it can be achieved without having a quarterback that's good and efficient enough to have an insurance campaign off his touchdown celebration. With a current passer rating of just 87.2 (No. 16 in football) the Bengals will need Dalton to improve. He finished last year with an 87.4 rating. Similar to the aforementioned point about the offense, a year has passed and Dalton is virtually in the same position.
Although Dalton isn't known for turning the ball over, he's doing it at a rate that seemingly stalls the Bengals offense, as evident by the team's inability to constantly put points on the board. Last year, in a year that most agree could have been better for Dalton, and the offense, he threw 16 interceptions. Through six games, he already has six. He's thrown just eight touchdowns to counter.
While quarterbacks are given the same interception metric even if the ball bounces right out of an open receiver's hand, like it did most notably in Chicago, off a wide open AJ Green, Dalton needs to improve this ratio.
3. Bengals Need Better Turnover Ratio
The turnover differential must improve. The Bengals are 4-2. In their first loss against Chicago, Cincinnati ended the game at minus-two in that department. In the Cleveland loss, minus-two as well. In fact, on the year, the Bengals are minus-two. It won’t be good enough to get the Bengals to the next step. Last year, the Bengals finished with plus-four. Their Round 1 opponent and familiar season-ender, the Houston Texans, were plus-12 in 2012. In the season prior, the Bengals lost to a Texans team that had a plus-seven differential compared to the Bengals' zero mark.
It is worth noting that the Bengals have a patchwork secondary at the moment. Leon Hall seems to have a chronic hamstring problem, Dre Kirkpatrick struggles to stay on the field, and for the second consecutive year, the Bengals had to bring back Chris Crocker, who seems to be exclusive property of the Cincinnati Bengals, even when he's not. Getting this core healthy will be vital for the Bengals to take the ball away, but the fact is, the team hasn't been good at this for years. The highest turnover differential the Bengals have had since 2006 is plus-five. In 2005, arguably the best season under Marvin Lewis, the Bengals finished first in all of football, with plus-25.
Moment of silence for Carson Palmer's ACL.
4. Paging Dr. Eifert
Most thoughts were that the Bengals were bringing in Eifert to supplement an already dangerous tight end game. If you're a Bengals fan, you may be wondering what I'm even talking about. But the numbers don't lie. Jermaine Gresham was one of the most utilized tight ends last year, finishing top-10 in both receptions and yards. The problem was, he wasn't scoring touchdowns or picking up first downs. Last season, Gresham finished No. 59 in the NFL, amassing just 33 first downs all season.
The Bengals third down conversion rate last season? 36.1 percent. That was good for No. 20 in the NFL. This year? 36 percent. No. 25 in the NFL.
The more things change...
This is why it is extremely vital that Tyler Eifert becomes a routine option in this offense. It's the very reason the Bengals valued him as a first round draft pick. He's a receiving tight end that just creates chaos to cover, since his height and hands makes for a difficult linebacker assignment. The Bengals need to produce more first downs on third down. It's safe to assume that Green will receive extra special attention on every third down, so if we're picking the next logical option for success, why not try the guys the organization spent two first round draft picks to secure?
Nearly half of Eifert's receptions this season have been for first downs, just four fewer than counterpart Gresham, who has five more targets. This duo, in my opinion, is the key development to unlocking this offense, more than Dalton, more than Gruden.
5. Marvin Needs to Install Finesse
Marvin Lewis needs to improve as a manager. Marvin Lewis’ Bengals have already tallied one crushing defeat because the Bengals found themselves with over eleven minutes left in the 4th quarter and no timeouts, on an opening day road game. And while he didn’t call the timeouts himself, his players didn't hesitate to rapidly exhaust them, nor did Rey Mauluaga hesitate to drop that rookie linemen after the Bengals’ enormous stop that would have allowed them to get one more possession His overall challenge percentage, last year, was 31.5 percent, meaning his red flag helps the Bengals more from Marvin’s back pocket.
If you’ve seen Hard Knocks, you know Lewis is a no-nonsense kind of guy, which works well for this Bengals team. But his attitude needs to manifest itself on the football field. The Bengals have demonstrated themselves as an organization that can resurrect the careers of talented troubled athletes. Cedric Benson, Tank Johnson, Adam Jones, Vontaze Burfict - all guys with enormous personality baggage. All guys that ended up working really well in the system, while for the most part, staying out of trouble. That's a testament to the tone Marvin is setting.
But how many times do we still need to endure 12 men on the field? Or 10? How many timeouts must the Bengals burn to even ensure the right personnel is taking the field? Why does Pacman still feel it's OK to field a punt at the five yard line? These might not be direct faults of Marvin. But it's Marvin team, so they're Marvin's problems.
Surprisingly, the Bengals, at least on defense, are the least penalized team in football (just 20 penalties); however, the offense ranks No. 13 (40), which will need to improve.