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Bengals Must Correct Conservative Offense to End Playoff Losing Streak

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistDecember 29, 2015

December 20, 2015; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis instructs during the third quarter against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium. The 49ers defeated the Bengals 24-14. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Complacency kills teams like the Cincinnati Bengals.

Look at Marvin Lewis' team in the 20-17 overtime loss to the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football.

Down a starting quarterback, tight end and safety, Lewis combined with offensive coordinator Hue Jackson to orchestrate one of, if not the best halves of Bengals football on the season. 

It wasn't Andy Dalton under center. He watched bundled up on the sideline with a cast still on his wrist as AJ McCarron went 12-of-17 for 119 yards and a score in the first half. The Alabama product was razor-sharp on the quick passes, helping A.J. Green and Marvin Jones put on a show on the outside and combining with the duo of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard in the backfield to keep the chains moving.

In other words, the Bengals showed loud and clear it could move the ball against one of the league's best defenses, and that McCarron is more than capable of taking risks and making tight throws regardless of stage.

Over the course of the first half, Cincinnati hardly had issues moving the football, nor did the offense face long third-down scenarios. McCarron mostly knew where the ball would go before each snap, the unit dabbled in some Wildcat and unbalanced line looks and went to halftime with a 14-3 advantage, racking up 205 total yards over their first three drives alone.

Clarence Hill of the Star Telegram put it best:

Clarence Hill Jr @clarencehilljr

Hue Jackson putting a clown suit on the vaunted Broncos defense. Hue Jackson should be a head coach next year

The Bengals finished with 294 total yards and a heartbreaking overtime loss.

As a game in Denver tends to usually do, it was the offense's job to keep producing and protect a defense that was sure to begin to struggle as the game wore on thanks to the elevation of the stadium. 

This happened, of course, by way of silly flags, a breakdown in the secondary leading to a touchdown and breakdowns at every level of the defense allowing a go-ahead rushing score.

McCarron's shown he can make the throws, so there's no reason to back off his taking risks when it matters.
McCarron's shown he can make the throws, so there's no reason to back off his taking risks when it matters.Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

All the while, McCarron and Co. went vanilla and put the defense on the field more than it had been in the first half. The offensive line suddenly struggled to gain any traction, and the offense as a whole seemed to telegraph its every intention before the snap. Mostly gone were unbalanced lines, misdirections, screens and anything else to thwart Denver's halftime adjustments.

In reality, there's little explanation for the drastic change in offensive approach after the half other than somebody else took over the play-calling duties. Having a lead in Denver with a playoff bye on the line, something the team needs to get their starting quarterback back for the playoffs, doesn't excuse easing off.

The conservative approach, backup under center or not, won't work in the postseason regardless. How could it? New England would eventually break free with offense. The globe just saw what Denver can do. Houston's defense has J.J. Watt, Kansas City and the New York Jets tout elite defenses and Pittsburgh remains as dangerous as ever.

To make matters worse, the health of McCarron suddenly takes the spotlight as the play on the botched snapped might have injured his wrist, according to Fox 19's Joe Danneman:

Joe Danneman @FOX19Joe

McCarron hurt left wrist on final play. It's wrapped. Says he doesn't know how bad it is. Will get it checked tomorrow.

Joe Danneman @FOX19Joe

McCarron on if his wrist injury will keep him out: I hope not.

If for some reason the Bengals are without their top two quarterbacks, well, forget it.

Blame's going to go many different places in the coming week, though not necessarily from the locker room itself. Folks will point at an offensive line that is continuing to struggle, iffy performances out of the backfield, constant hiccups by the defense and injuries.

In the end, though, these sort of consistent struggles and a clear lack of underperformance against an opposing coaching staff falls on the shoulders of the Bengals coaching staff. There's no reason the Bengals should fall from one of the year's best performances to one of its worst in the blink of an eye after a halftime break. 

There's a fine line between playing to protect an inexperienced quarterback and playing not to lose. Lewis and Co. crossed it Monday, and it cost the Bengals quite a lot.

The conservative, nonadaptive approach, or even a willingness to slow things down and employ the basics, has to go or the Bengals will once again take an early exit from the postseason no matter who lines up under center.

Stats courtesy of NFL.com and are accurate as of December 29. All advanced metrics courtesy of Pro Football Focus.

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