Hue Jackson is a man on the spot. From 2011 to 2013, Jay Gruden called Cincinnati’s offensive plays and the Bengals were fairly successful, making the playoffs each season and finishing 6th in points and 10th in yards in 2013. The team flamed out in the playoffs each year, averaging just 11 points in their three first-round defeats as quarterback Andy Dalton threw six interceptions and just one touchdown pass. Gruden left in the offseason to coach Washington while Jackson, a Bengals assistant since 2012, has taken over as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator. The offense is largely unchanged since last season, so if the Bengals are going to transition from playoff also-ran to Super Bowl contender, Jackson will have to play a big role.
The former Raiders head coach has a reputation for favoring the running game, and that’s been evident in 2014. The Bengals have run the ball 102 times, leading the league with 34 rushes per game; last year they finished 18th while averaging just over 30 per contest. Dalton threw 36 passes per game last season, but in three 2014 contests he has averaged just 29. The team’s rushing average of 3.6 yards per carry is unimpressive, but they’re a solid 13th in Success Rate (a play is deemed a “success” if it increases the likelihood of scoring). Where the run-heavy offense has shined is in taking the burden off the passing game. Cincinnati leads the NFL with 8.9 yards per pass attempt, and Dalton has zero sacks and just one interception so far. That success combined with a solid defense has led to a 3-0 start and the best point differential in the league.
It’s premature to give Jackson too much credit, however. Two of the teams Cincinnati beat up on, Atlanta and Tennessee, boast defenses ranked in the NFL’s bottom five in points allowed. And no matter what they do in the regular season, the Bengals will be judged on whether they can muster an offensive assault in the playoffs. Still, it’s a promising start, particularly since two key skill players, receiver Marvin Jones and tight end Tyler Eifert, have barely played and several others have nursed injuries. This is a talented group and will be a good test for a Patriots defense looking to bounce back from a Monday night dismantling at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Jackson once made the Oakland Raiders offense look dangerous, something that hasn’t happened often in the last decade. A creative play-caller, Jackson has proven he can adapt his scheme to fit his talent. When working with Darren McFadden in Oakland, he coaxed the best performances of the running back’s career by utilizing different blocking systems. In Cincinnati, he is using the pass-catching and versatile running skills of Giovani Bernard along with the bruising between-the-tackles style of Jeremy Hill.
Quarterback – Andy Dalton #14
Sporting a career 32-18 record as a starter, the fourth-year player is not universally loved by Bengals fans. That is explained by his 0-3 career playoff record. Dalton has turned in progressively worse performances that culminated last season in a 29-of-51 outing with two interceptions at home against San Diego.
“Dalton had his best season statistically last year, but also threw interceptions at a very high rate (3.4%) and was absolutely abominable in the playoff loss. His flaws also consistently get exposed against upper-echelon defenses. Unfortunately, the coaching staff continues to back him at every opportunity and an extension seems like a possibility. Hopefully his demands are unreasonable and Brown takes a hard-line, because they’re likely doomed for more years of good but not good enough if he’s extended.”
Cincinnati did extend Dalton’s contract, but with the guaranteed money low and no real long-term commitment, the Bengals have hedged their bets on Dalton. The club is paying him reasonable money so if he does prove to be a franchise quarterback this season, great, but allows them to move on relatively pain-free if he has another playoff meltdown.
Dalton also has some basic flaws in his game, aside from his apparent troubles in the spotlight of the playoffs. Bill Barnwell at Grantland has detailed how Dalton struggles when the pass rush penetrates his usually solid offensive line. When Mark Sanchez and Brandon Weeden are valid comparisons, there’s a big problem. Forcing Dalton to make decisions under duress is still an opponent’s best way to attack the Bengals quarterback. Expect the Patriots to try to push the pocket and rattle the signal caller.
Halfback – Giovani Bernard #25
Bernard was the first running back chosen in the 2013 draft and largely lived up to that billing, tallying 695 rushing yards and another 514 through the air while splitting time with former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis. He’s on pace to surpass those numbers in his sophomore campaign, but his 3.4 yards-per-carry average indicates some inefficiency with respect to taking on a larger role.
At 5’8” and just over 200 pounds Bernard is a small back, but the Bengals do run him up the middle frequently and he shows surprising toughness between the tackles. He can make defenders miss but he does not possess elite speed, logging just one career rush over 30 yards. At times, Bernard can rely too heavily on his agility, looking to bounce into the cutback lane when he might be better off just running to the designed hole. The 22-year-old secures the ball well, fumbling just twice in nearly 300 career touches.
Where Bernard excels is in the passing game. He caught 56 passes on 71 targets last year and has added another 12 receptions on 19 targets in 2014. He’s a gifted runner in open space and ranks second in the NFL in yards after catch with 168. Here he takes a little shovel pass 24 yards, hurdling would-be tacklers:
Halfback – Jeremy Hill #32
The Bengals tabbed another rookie rusher in the second round in 2014. At 6’1”, 233 pounds, Hill is unlikely to be confused with the diminutive Bernard any time soon. Hill was productive despite limited touches at LSU, and the same pattern has held true with the Bengals as he’s compiled 132 yards on just 26 carries (a 5.1 average). Hill has a little more quickness than one might expect from a back his size; in that way he’s somewhat similar to Chiefs running back Knile Davis, who ran all over the Patriots in Kansas City’s blowout victory.
Fullback / Tight End – Ryan Hewitt #89
The undrafted rookie from Stanford edged out veteran Orson Charles for a blocking role. At 6’4”, he’s tall for a fullback, allowing the Bengals to at times use him as a tight end or H-back. Hewitt has not been involved much as a ball carrier, tallying just one rush attempt and one reception on the 2014 season.
Receivers and Tight Ends
The Bengals’ receiving corps has struggled with injuries in the young season. Marvin Jones, the squad’s number two receiver, broke his foot in the preseason and has yet to play. Last year’s first-round pick, tight end Tyler Eifert, played just eight snaps before suffering an elbow injury and going on short-term injured reserve. Veteran blocking tight end Alex Smith, a mauler in the run game, is out for the year. With Eifert, Jermaine Gresham, and Smith, it’s easy to imagine Cincinnati would have run a lot of two-tight-end sets, but they’ve been forced into primarily employing three-wide-receiver looks including limited veterans Brandon Tate and Dane Sanzenbacher. After averaging a usage of 1.6 tight ends per play in 2013 (per FootballOutsiders.com), they’re at just 1.1 so far in 2014.
Wide Receiver – A.J. Green #18
Green is widely renowned for his ability to threaten the field deep ‒ according to ProFootballFocus.com, he led the NFL with 586 yards on deep receptions in 2013 ‒ but he’s more than just a one-dimensional speedster. He’s a fine route-runner and excels at beating press coverage:
Green is matched up with a fine cover corner in Jason McCourty but beats his press with a swim move, using his hands and feet to get open to the outside on the fade route.
At 6’4”, the former #4 overall pick has a size advantage over virtually any cornerback and uses great body control to secure contested catches. He will make spectacular grabs but also drops one now and then – his 11 drops in 2013 were fifth-most in the NFL. He’s Cincinnati’s most dangerous player and probably the closest thing there is to a modern incarnation of Randy Moss. Green has not been immune from the Bengals’ injury woes this year, leaving their Week 2 contest with turf toe. He showed up on the injury report Friday but is expected to play against the Patriots.
Wide Receiver – Marvin Jones #82
Jones had a breakout season in 2013, catching 51 passes for 712 yards and 10 touchdowns in his second year. However, Jones broke his foot this summer during training camp and has yet to play. He appeared to be on the road to recovery but has missed practice this week with an ankle injury. At this point, he seems unlikely to play, and very unlikely to be 100% healthy if he does.
Wide Receiver – Mohamed Sanu #12
If you squint, you can maybe see Anquan Boldin. Like the 49ers veteran receiver, Sanu has great size (6’2”, 210 pounds) but frequently plays in the slot, where he’s a mismatch for smaller nickel corners like New England’s Kyle Arrington. Sanu hasn’t translated his size edge into Boldinesque production, however; he doesn’t have a 100-yard receiving day in his career and boasts just three 50-yard games in as many seasons. ProFootballFocus.com ranked Sanu 29th of 33 slot receivers in yards per route run in 2013. This year, Jones’ injury has frequently forced Sanu outside, where he hasn’t been any more effective.
Sanu sometimes lines up in the backfield and has completed all four of his career pass attempts for an average of more than 40 yards. The Patriots will undoubtedly be prepared for this gimmick, but it also means their defensive backs will have to stick to their receivers in coverage instead of going for the tackle when Sanu has the ball behind the line of scrimmage.
Wide Receiver – Brandon Tate #19
Patriots fans will be familiar with Tate, an injury-prone blazer that was cut after just two seasons. He has stayed healthy in Cincinnati and carved out a role as a return man, though not an especially productive one. He hasn’t blossomed as a receiver with the Bengals, and caught just one pass in 2013. With Jones’ injury he’s been integrated into the offense more (playing about 65% of offensive snaps), but rarely gets the ball except on a gadget play ‒ he has just six catches, with his biggest play this year a 50-yard reception on a pass from Sanu.
Wide Receiver – Dane Sanzenbacher #11
Sanzenbacher, like Tate, has benefitted from Jones’ absence. At 5’11” and without great speed he profiles as a slot receiver where he’s logged 85% of his snaps according to PFF. The 25-year-old has just eight catches since joining the Bengals in 2012.
Tight End – Jermaine Gresham #84
Gresham was chosen 21 spots ahead of the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski, but even with Gronk’s injury issues Gresham trails him by more than 1,000 career receiving yards. At 6’5” and 261 pounds he’s got prototypical tight end size, but he’s inconsistent in the running game and commits too many holding penalties ‒ five in 2013, the most among NFL tight ends. Gresham has fumbled eight times since entering the league in 2010; the next-highest total for a tight end over that span is five.
With Eifert and Smith on injured reserve, Gresham rarely comes off the field – only five tight ends have played a higher percentage of their team’s offensive snaps than Gresham’s 90%. Hewitt and little-used journeyman Kevin Brock are the only other options for Cincinnati at the position.
This is what it could be like, Patriots fans. Look at that clean pocket, all that time to throw. Every team has allowed at least three sacks on the year ‒ except Cincinnati. Andy Dalton hasn’t been sacked yet in 2014 ‒ not even once. Tom Brady probably took a shot from a defensive tackle while you were reading this. The Bengals’ offensive line is solid and deep, and on the short list of best unit in the league.
Left Tackle – Andrew Whitworth #77
The 32-year-old has been one of the best tackles in the league for several years. He’s as stout as ever in the passing game and a strong head-on blocker when the Bengals run power, though he struggles at times staying in front of nimble ends and linebackers when zone blocking:
Whitworth played the final six games of last season at left guard when Clint Boling went down with an injury, but he’s slid back outside without a hitch so far in 2014. He’ll be a tough challenge for Patriots pass-rusher Chandler Jones who struggled mightily against Kansas City.
Left Guard – Clint Boling #65
Boling saw his 2013 cut short by a torn ACL, but made a full recovery in short order. He’s the most active of Cincinnati’s offensive linemen in the run game. He pulls more often than his compatriots, but also shows strength at the point of attack. He’s got a mean streak, too.
In the above clip you can see Boling pull through the hole, drive back the linebacker, and then play through the whistle. At times he can get a little bit high and lose leverage, particularly in pass protection.
Center – Russell Bodine #61
New England’s Bryan Stork won’t be the only rookie fourth-rounder starting at center Sunday night. Bodine, a former North Carolina Tar Heel, was chosen six picks after the Patriots’ pivot. His 42 reps on the bench press led all offensive linemen at this year’s NFL Combine and was the second-best total in the last five years. Bodine won the starting job over veterans Mike Pollak and Trevor Robinson despite a preseason with mixed results. He’s done well so far in games that count, displaying his strength in the run game and showing awareness in pass protection.
Right Guard – Kevin Zeitler #68
Zeitler is a solid guard, but not quite the stud Bengals fans would expect out of a former first-round pick. He tore his calf in Week 2 and it’s doubtful he’ll be ready to suit up Sunday night; he has not practiced this week.
Right Tackle – Andre Smith #71
Normally when teams take a tackle with the number six pick in the draft they’re looking for a blindside protector, but the Bengals can’t be too unhappy with what Smith has become. The well-endowed 27-year-old ranked as PFF’s number one right tackle in 2012, sixth in 2013, and he’s fourth in the young 2014 campaign. Smith is a little shorter than most tackles at 6’4”, but he makes up for it with long arms, huge bulk (330+ pounds), and good awareness and technique.
Guard / Center – Mike Pollak #67
Pollak signed a 3-year, $4.8MM deal in the offseason. He will most likely fill in for Zeitler on Sunday. The 29-year old played all the interior positions at various times in 2013. Pollak is a solid player lacking great physical gifts. He’s a good technician but can be beaten by players with superior strength or athleticism. Pollak has nursed a knee injury much of the year, missing practice twice this week, but he’s expected to play Sunday.
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