Atlanta Falcons: Previewing the Cincinatti Bengals Offense


The Atlanta Falcons battle the Bengals this Sunday as they begin their quadrennial rotation versus AFC North teams with a trip into The Jungle of Cincinnati.  Let’s take a look at the Bengal’s Week 1 offensive performance and what it might mean for Atlanta’s chances to go 2-0.

Cincinnati’s offense does a good job spreading the field…

First the good: Cincinnati scored on five of six 1st-half drives against division rival Baltimore Ravens in week 1.

Now the bad: All five scores were field goals by kicker Mike Nugent, who went 5 for 5 to stake the Bengals to a 15-0 halftime lead.

While that may be great for Nugent and his fantasy owners, it should concern new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson that his “Bengal Coast” offense failed to find the end-zone on so many drives into opponent territory – two of which started inside the Ravens’ 30-yard line.

Part of the blame clearly rests on their poor performance running the ball.  Even though they only had 3.0 yards per rush, Jackson was insistent on pressing the issue by rushing 41% of the time resulting in 26 carries for a paltry 76 yards.  “You might not have rushed for a lot of yards but the attempts gave you a chance to throw the ball more efficiently,” explains Jackson after the game.

“When you are spreading people out there’s potential for big plays”-Hue Jackson, Bengals Offensive Coordinator

Jackson’s passing attack, based on spreading the field, rarely stretched vertically as only 5 of QB Andy Dalton’s 38 attempts went 20+ yards with just 2 completions.  Dalton was a relatively efficient 23 of 33 on passes under twenty yards.  Jackson’s playbook contains simplified plays out of numerous “exotic” formations.  He rarely had his QB take 5- or 7-step drops as screens and quick tosses were the order of the day.  Jackson explained his scheme’s basis, “When you are spreading people out there’s potential for big plays.”

… but they have too few play-making threats to make good on the strategy’s premise.

Cincinnati’s dismal 4-14 3rd-down conversion rate also contributed to their 1st-half field goal bonanza, but their lack of game-breaking skill players is the fundamental problem with Jackson’s spread-’em-out strategy.  The Bengals only have one true playmaker and possibly another in the making, but that’s simply not enough.  This seems to be a classic case of forcing players into a system instead of crafting a scheme to take advantage of what you have on the roster.

Former UGA Dawg WR A.J. Green is the one Bengal proven to make incredible plays on a regular basis, and he did just that with his lone TD coming on a circus-like juggling 77-yd catch.  More evidence that Green is the only gamebreaking pass-catcher worth planning for:  Dalton averaged 16.4 yards per passing attempt when throwing to Green but just 5.7 yards per attempt throwing to everyone else.

Aug 8, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard (25) is shoved out of bounds by Atlanta Falcons cornerback Robert Alford (23) during the second quarter at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The other potential playmaker is Bengals 2013 2nd-round pick running back Giovani Bernard.  He never reached the end-zone last Sunday despite 20 touches comprised of 14 carries for 48 yards (3.4 avg) and tying Green for a team-leading 6 receptions good for 62 yards (10.3 avg).  RB coach Kyle Caskey compared Bernard to Reggie Bush with his ability to line up all over the field and run pass routes.  That comparison seemed appropriate when Bernard turned a short screen in to a 32-yard gain, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and call him a playmaker for argument’s sake.

As for all the other skill position players on the Bengals roster Sunday, no other player touched the ball more than 5 times and nobody produced more than 40 yards.  There may be dark horse candidates we don’t know about, but it’s basically the Dalton, Green, and Bernard show.

Bengals tried to show some wrinkles to their Bengal Coast.

Jackson got a little creative with his offense with some plays not seen during the preseason in the form of four zone reads, one option, and one QB draw.  The problem is Dalton only netted 3 yards on 6 carries.  The QB may be more nimble than he gets credit for, but he’s not remotely the athlete that either Carolina’s Cam Newton or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick is.  It’s critically important in a zone read offense to have a QB who can gash a defense with his feet.  Without that running ability there’s no real threat to the defense, and I could find no scouting reports touting the Bengals QB’s prowess on his feet.

I have to give Jackson an “A” for effort, but this part of his offense has no legitimate chance to be remotely effective let alone enough to counteract a lack of top-flight skill players.  Even dedicated Bengals fan website refers to that zone-read as “migraine-inducing.” It smacks of desperation designed to disguise their lack of game-changing talents, so I’ll ignore it as such.

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  • How the Atlanta Falcons can contain the playmakers the Bengals do have:

    As for shutting down proven Bengals threat A.J. Green, I point to how Nolan developed a nice zone coverage scheme to control match-up nightmare TE Jimmy Graham last week.  Graham was held to 8 catches for 82 yards and no backbreaking plays.  The Falcons were in lot of deep zone coverages and especially played a lot of Cover 2-Man with both safeties back and the cornerbacks sticking man-to-man on individual pass-catchers.

    I doubt Nolan will repeat this exactly because Cincinnati’s roster simply lacks the overall offensive talent found in New Orleans.  The plan for containing A.J. Green will likely call for CB Desmond Trufant manning up with one of the free safeties providing help deep.  If Nolan’s scheme is similarly successful as last week a play such as Green’s 77-yd TD won’t happen.  Absent that play, Green’s numbers would have been similar to Graham’s with 5 receptions for 84 yards and no scores, and that’s something Atlanta can certainly live with.

    As for potential playmaker Bernard, his rushing suffered in part because of first-year center Russell Bodine’s shoddy run-blocking as he took on “Man Mountain Dean,” Ravens nose tackle Haloti Ngata.  Pro Football Focus graded out Bodine at minus-1.3 as a run-blocker.  I expect a similarly poor performance from the rookie against Atlanta’s 345-lb DT Paul Soliai.  Soliai and fellow newcomer DE Tyson Jackson, are run-stuffing linemen who can blow up run plays on their own.  This likely makes Bernard a one-dimensional pass-catching threat once again this week, which allows Nolan to dedicate additional resources to pass defense.

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    This will likely be necessary because I’m concerned about ILB Paul Worrilow’s ability to play Bernard in coverage.  Worrilow had a great game last week with 15 tackles, yet I’m not sure he has the wheels to match up with Bernard both in the open field on screens and especially in coverage when the speedy back lines up as a slot wide receiver.  Don’t be surprised to see recently-promoted nickelback Robert McClain take man coverage responsibility when Bernard is in the slot.  Even if there are some coverage breakdowns or mismatches involving Bernard I still doubt his ability to change the game on his own.

    Hue Jackson’s spread Bengal Coast offense is likely to perform as it did last week: spread the field, dink and dunk their way down the field, but with little to show for their efforts when it’s all said and done.  They are a couple of proven skill players away from realizing the potential of Jackson’s offense, but if you’re looking to replace your fantasy team’s kicker this week might I suggest Mike Nugent?