The Cincinnati Bengals offense is reeling. When looking at stats alone, it is easy to miss the fact that this offensive unit has been entirely inconsistent throughout the 2013 season. After all, Cincinnati is ranked 10th in the league in yards per game, 12th in pass yards per game, 19th in rush yards per game and 11th in points scored.
This is all well and good, and the team currently sits atop the AFC North with a 7-4 record. Unfortunately for the Bengals, the offense has completely sputtered over the past three weeks—the team has a 1-2 record in that span.
So, what gives?
It is easy to start with quarterback Andy Dalton. After a nice midseason stretch, the third-year signal-caller has been atrocious over his last three games:
Five touchdown passes and eight interceptions over a three-game span will not be good enough to propel this team deep into the playoffs. In the postseason, consistency is key, and the Bengals offense is anything but consistent at this point.
But is this slump Dalton's fault?
After all, this is the same quarterback who went on a tear in Weeks 6-8:
The difference in Dalton's production here is absolutely night and day.
When a quarterback begins to slump, the first thing to break down is the running game. Is the offense balanced enough, or is the quarterback doing too much? Looking at the Bengals running game over the last six weeks, there is not much of a difference between games:
Aside from the Week 7 victory against the Detroit Lions, Bengals running backs were able to carry at least 25 times each game. Clearly, the necessity of establishing the run is important to offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.
However, the effectiveness of the running game has not been overly impressive. The Bengals have averaged 4.0 yards per carry or more just three times in 11 games this season. That is due to the high volume of carries by veteran running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and the lack of carries from explosive rookie Giovani Bernard:
Bernard is averaging more than a full yard per carry more than Green-Ellis this season. He is clearly the more dynamic back and energizes the offense when on the field due to his versatility. Bernard has been reliable as a receiver for Dalton as well, hauling in 42 receptions for 345 yards and three touchdowns.
Looking at each player's effectiveness via Pro Football Focus (subscription required) says it all. Bernard is ranked third with a positive 13.6 overall rating. The only running backs ranked higher are LeSean McCoy and Marshawn Lynch.
Green-Ellis, however, is a completely different story. He is ranked just 45th—out of 54 eligible running backs—with a negative-4.6 overall rating. The only aspect of the game that Green-Ellis excels at is pass blocking. He has a positive-2.3 overall grade, although Bernard is not far behind with a positive-2.0 grade.
So what did Jay Gruden say about Giovani Bernard and possibly getting more touches? http://t.co/Ju05jzyxU1— Joe Reedy (@joereedy) November 7, 2013
Going forward, the Bengals know that Bernard gives them the best chance to thrive on offense. Head coach Marvin Lewis has been known to be "old school" and likes to stick with his veterans. However, the sheer talent of Bernard cannot be denied.
Increasing Bernard's touches also increases Dalton's effectiveness, which, in turn, increases the overall production of the Bengals offense.
Now that the running game has been figured out, it's time to delve back into Dalton's roller-coaster season. Looking more in depth over the aforementioned games that were analyzed, one huge difference comes to light. Dalton's attempts by yards and direction:
Pro Football Focus
These numbers tell quite a tale. It has always been apparent that Dalton has been more effective when relying on short-to-intermediate passes. They fit his comfort level and ability nicely. One surprising finding is Dalton's ineffectiveness over the middle of the field.
During Dalton's near-flawless performance against the New York Jets, 18 of his 30 passing attempts—including all five of his touchdowns—were to the outside. His one interception was thrown over the middle.
Bengals QB Andy Dalton's Total QBR has taken a nosedive the last few weeks pic.twitter.com/75H55IirZw— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 18, 2013
On the flip side, Dalton's miserable performance against Baltimore featured just about half of his throws—25 of 51—over the middle of the field. To no surprise, all three of his interceptions were thrown over the middle as well.
Gruden needs to play to his quarterback's strengths in order to succeed. If Dalton struggles to get the ball over the middle, it is the duty of the offensive coordinator to bring in additional help by adding wrinkles or personnel packages to his scheme. If not, his game plan must feature a plethora of passes outside the numbers.
Now that the scheme is fixed, ball distribution becomes the final priority. Throughout the season, the Bengals have not been able to consistently find ways to get the football into the hands of All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green:
Green's targets have fluctuated by more than double at times this season on a weekly basis. Yes, it is important to keep away from forcing the ball to Green—that is when turnovers take place. But finding new ways to get one of the NFL's most elite wide receivers more touches is necessary.
NFL WR Leaders (yards) 1 Calvin Johnson 1,083 2 A.J. Green 1,020 3 DeSean Jackson 985 4 Andre Johnson 966 5 Antonio Brown 952— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) November 20, 2013
The Bengals offense is full of dynamic weapons who can keep double teams away from Green for a fair amount of time. After the emergence of Marvin Jones as a complement to Green, and the versatility of Bernard along with the consistency of rookie tight end Tyler Eifert, the Bengals have the ability to create mismatches and stretch an opposing defense thin.
Once consistency is established with these targets, Dalton can then take shots to Green. A rule of thumb for the passing game should be this: If Dalton attempts 30 passes on average over the remainder of the season, there isn't a reason why Green should have any fewer than 10 targets in a single game.
Time to take the Bengals seriously? http://t.co/f5UWxwaStj— NFL: AroundTheLeague (@NFL_ATL) November 17, 2013
When looking back over the aforementioned details of the Bengals offense, it becomes clear that this is all a ripple effect.
If Gruden's play-calling allows Dalton to throw to uncomfortable areas of the field, the quarterback's confidence goes down. When his confidence goes down, the tendency is to rely on a ground-and-pound attack featuring Green-Ellis, which takes touches away from Bernard. This, in turn, keeps the ball out of Green's hands.
The Bengals must buck that trend.
Cincinnati is poised to enter the postseason for the third consecutive season, which would mark the first such occurrence in the team's history. However, if these necessary offensive adjustments do not come to fruition, the Bengals could find a familiar and devastating fate yet again in the first round of the playoffs.
The possibility of a deep playoff run for Cincinnati hinges on an offensive resurgence.