FROM THE ARCHIVES: Hue Jackson & The Bengals Opening Drive Prowess

Analysts and commentators will often include “start fast” in their keys to the game. While every team would like to score on their first possession of the game, only the Cincinnati Bengals have done it in 2015. Dave Archibald examines the Bengals opening drive prowess, and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson’s innovative schemes. 

Things can be hectic in the modern world. Kids’ soccer practice, errands, apple picking, and religious services can make us late for the 1:00 PM EST Sunday afternoon NFL games. Most of the time, that’s OK ‒ you can miss the whole first quarter without anything significant happening. But in the case of the upcoming Cincinnati Bengals-Buffalo Bills game, diehard NFL fans are going to want to be on the sofa for the opening kickoff. This contest pits the league’s best opening drive offense, Cincinnati, against a stingy Buffalo defense.

The Bengals have scored touchdowns on each of their opening drives in 2015. There’s an asterisk there: Cincinnati punted on their opening drive against San Diego, but the Chargers muffed the punt and never technically claimed possession, and the Bengals went on to score. Whether you count that game or not, Cincinnati has been the most prolific offense on opening drives all season, as the Packers are the only other team to have even scored three first-drive touchdowns:

Team Games
Bengals 5*
Packers 3
Cardinals 2
Bills 2
13 Tied at 1

Scoring on opening drives is great, but is that really worth pulling your kid out of soccer practice early to see? Probably not, but what’s more interesting than the Bengals’ success is how they are doing it. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson takes his whole bag of tricks and dumps them right on the table at the beginning of the game, employing shifts, motion, package plays, varied personnel groups, unusual formations, and other wrinkles to put pressure on opposing defenses and get easy gains for his team.

Consider the first play Cincinnati ran this season:Bengals presnap shift on first play of the season-markup

The Bengals, who boast one the game’s best offensive lines and a duo of terrific running backs, come out in a run-heavy look with no one lined up as a wide receiver. The Oakland Raiders counter by loading the box, only for Cincinnati to introduce chaos by shifting players in all directions, ultimately showing a five-wide empty backfield spread. This forces the Raider defense to change positions and communicate among themselves to try to combat the new look. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (#14) winds up completing a four-yard pass to tight end Tyler Eifert (#85) on the play.

The play itself wasn’t overly complicated for Cincinnati, but the moving parts pre-snap present a mental test for the defense. Jackson loves to spring “pop quizzes” on opposing defenses early in the game. Among the wrinkles you might see…

Unbalanced lines:Bengals unbalanced line on 6 yard run markup

The Bengals put left tackle Andrew Whitworth (#77) over on the right side, resulting in three offensive linemen to the right of the center and just one to left. To compound the confusion, they run to the left for a six-yard gain.

Three-man lines:Bengals line up OTs wide

Cincinnati lines up tackles Whitworth and Andre Smith (#71) wide on the second play of the Week 5 contest against the Seattle Seahawks, leaving essentially a three-man line up front. Seattle lightens the box accordingly, and Dalton runs for six yards. 

The read option:Dalton runs the option

Who are they, the Navy Midshipmen? On the second play of the game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Jackson reaches into his old college playbook, running the option out of a pistol look. Running back Jeremy Hill (#32) runs for just two yards on the pitch, but it gives the Chiefs another look.

Designed rollouts:Designed rollout 14 yard pass to Eifert markup

This is a well-designed play Cincinnati used to open the game against Kansas City. They sell a zone run left out of a read option look, only for Dalton to roll out to his right with Eifert crossing in front of him, behind the line of the scrimmage. Twin vertical routes on the right side clear the flat for Eifert, and Dalton floats a pass to him for an easy 14-yard gain.

This play highlights the method to Jackson’s madness – whatever misdirection or tricky wrinkles he employs, the goal is to put pressure on the defense and generate good looks for his offense. The play design here results in an easy pass for Dalton with room to run for Eifert, one of Cincinnati’s most dynamic skill players. It gives the Chiefs pause in run pursuit later in the game, as they know they have to worry about trickery to the backside. It’s a nice confidence-builder for Dalton and the offense, netting a first down right off the bat. It put the Kansas City defense on its heels and helped lead to a touchdown a few plays later.

Jackson and the Bengals face perhaps their sternest test of the season on Sunday. Buffalo head coach and defensive mastermind Rex Ryan has seen just about everything in his NFL career, and the Bills have not allowed a game-opening touchdown in 2015. Perhaps they are the team to end Cincinnati’s streak, but perhaps you ought to leave the apple orchard a few minutes early on Sunday to be in your seat right at 1:00. Maybe a few minutes early, just to be safe. When it comes to Jackson’s bag of tricks, you never know what will happen.

Follow Dave on Twitter @davearchie.

Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.

All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.

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