Even with a loss in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, yet again to the Texans, the Bengals still outshone many expectations across the board in 2012. Many football writers predicted that they would win no more than 6 games, and almost none predicted that they would make the playoffs.
But the Bengals, warts and all, made the playoffs on the strength of a must-win game against the Steelers. There were more steps forward than backward, but the good take away from the loss to a Texans team that was the preseason favorite of many to win the Super Bowl is that many problems that could have been glossed over by success were accentuated.
Cincinnati could have easily entered the offseason in denial, but instead they were outgunned by a very similar team that is a few steps ahead. Both have all-pro wide receivers and interior defensive linemen, a defense that leads the way, a quarterback that many fans do no completely trust, and an outstanding, shut down cornerback (you’re welcome, Houston).
But Houston has been building on this nucleus for a few more years than Cincinnati has with this current roster. These subjects should be on the forefront of every employee at Paul Brown Stadium this offseason, each of which we will dig into more deeply in the near future.
Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has been mentioned for a few head coaching vacancies. He has indicated that he would not leave to lead another team, but it may be a moot point with the way the offense has played down the stretch.
But the head coach really has little to do with the game plan and is more a leader of men, and in that respect Gruden does have what it takes. The Bengals do have a capable replacement in-house with Hue Jackson, who would likely implement his more downfield, Air-Coryell-inspired offense. Assuming that Gruden stays put, there are a few big questions about his offense.
First and foremost, a big strength of the West Coast offense is the ability to run a few core concepts out of multiple formations and personnel groupings, but part of the reason the Texans were able to put the clamps on the Bengals was Gruden’s predictability.
When the Bengals are in a four-wide-receiver set, they were going to pass downfield. In a big formation, it was likely going to be a stretch zone run. The formation dictated the play, but Bill Walsh designed his West Coast offense to be unpredictable. That was the whole point.
Of course, no one can deny the boost that Mohammed Sanu gave the offense before being shelved with injury, and the reality is that Andrew Hawkins, as explosive as he is, limits the offense when he is on the field. But the reality is that Gruden does not employ any of the basic constraint plays like play action passes and running back screens that limit the pass rush and are staples of any West Coast offense.
Those plays would also help Andy Dalton with keeping a clean pocket. Dalton still struggles with finding passing lanes and climbing the ladder in the pocket to open them up, like a quarterback of a similar stature, Drew Brees, does to excel in New Orleans. Another missing element from Gruden’s playbook is the sprint bootleg. Not only would this increase Dalton’s vision, employ his mobility and ability to throw on the run, and increase yard-after-the-catch opportunities, but it is an outstanding way to put stress on a Cover 2 defense.
Dalton’s anticipation and timing seemed to take a step backward this season and he may not have been ready to go from half-field reads to full progressions. That must be determined this offseason. Dalton seemed to not trust his reads and hesitated to pull the trigger far too frequently. Taking some responsibilities off of his plate may be the key to calming him down.