After another disappointing exit from the playoffs last year, the Bengals are looking to implement some changes with hopes of going deeper into the playoffs in 2014. This roster is loaded with promising players and may possess Super Bowl worthy talent, but putting that talent in the best position to succeed is the ultimate challenge for any coach. Of all the Bengals staff, new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson may have the tallest task. Jackson is seeking to retool the Bengals offense by implementing an up-tempo and aggressive approach, which relies on the run primarily. This is counter to much of what the Bengals have done in past years and the offense will need time to learn the system. But the question to consider here is whether or not Jackson’s approach will have its desired effect and raise this team to the next level. So will it?
Jackson’s vision lies in developing a rhythm for the offense to work within; something that should help Andy Dalton especially as he seems to be very much a rhythm passer. He’s a fiery coach who demands the most out of his players. His bullish style is infectious amongst his players creating an atmosphere of confidence. Former Bengal Takeo Spikes said as much recently during an interview.
“I see the entire mentality change in what they do and I think that comes with Hue Jackson as the leader, his mentality.”
Jackson is pushing a quicker and more aggressive style where the run game is featured and executed more effectively than in the past (the Bengals finished 27th in the league last year with a 3.6 yards/rush average) and he certainly has the resume to support this effort. When Jackson coached Oakland in 2010 and 2011 as the team’s offensive coordinator and head coach respectively, his teams finished amongst the league’s best when utilizing the run. In 2010 the Raiders finished second overall in total rushing yards (2494), yards/rush (4.9), and rushing TDs (19). In 2011 the Raiders weren’t able to produce as successfully in the run game having only finished seventh in total rushing yards (2110), yards/rush (4.5), and in rushing TDs (16), but much of this decrease can be attributed to Darren McFadden being lost for the season during week seven after having a career year in 2010.
An uptick in running production for the Bengals should help the team on multiple fronts. First, as great as the receiving options are on this team, the offense seems built for the run, which is especially important in the AFC North. The Bengals now possess two potentially impactful runners in Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill along with a few other potentially productive options behind them such as Rex Burkhead, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and James Wilder, Jr. But more than this, Andy Dalton “grew up” in a running style offense and enjoyed great success within it. While at TCU, Dalton led the Hornfrogs to two of the better seasons in the program’s history. In 2009, Dalton led the team to a near perfect record only to lose their final game against Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl. Not to be discouraged, Dalton and the Hornfrogs achieved the perfect season in 2010 and a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin. Both of these team’s primarily featured the run and Dalton was able to improve as a passer throughout his collegiate career. While in the NFL Dalton has no doubt improved, but he has struggled to raise his game to the next level. This plateau could be attributed to Dalton having been forced into an unfamiliar offense and one that isn’t built to compliment his strengths. An effort to emphasize the run should play to Dalton’s strengths while also relieving some of the pressure on him, which has grown to record highs recently, and allow him to flourish.
The run game should also open up the deep-ball passing game. The Bengals currently possess some valuable weapons that are capable of making plays down the field. Recently Dalton has been targeting Tyler Eifert on some deep seam throws. Eifert is more than capable of making these types of plays while also possessing the skills to line up on the outside and catch the ball at its highest point as he did in college so often. Marvin Jones proved to have this ability last year making numerous catches down the field such as during the Bengals playoff game versus the Chargers. And we’ve yet to even mention the Bengals star, AJ Green. Green resembles Randy Moss with his combination of size, speed, and excellent hand-eye coordination. This makes Green more than capable of finding success on the deep passes that a more effective running game will allow for. With these types of weapons within the offense, the Bengals should enjoy increased opportunities to make plays down the field; a play that Hue Jackson is known for utilizing.
Although naturally the offense will be the primary beneficiaries of a more adept running game, they’ll hardly be the only ones. The Bengals strongest unit is clearly its defense. It’s been an elite unit for a few years now even in light of having been forced into several difficult situations due to careless mistakes and poor game-planning on the offensive side of the ball. If the Bengals can dominate time of possession, this will provide the defense with necessary rest and allow the unit to play faster and more effectively when on the field. The Bengals will allow opposing teams less opportunities to score points while taking the opposition out of any rhythm they may try to build; this may be especially important considering some of the offenses the Bengals will face in 2014. Giving the defense rest and a lead to work with should help this unit continue to improve while also allowing defensive coordinator Paul Guenther opportunities to utilize the blitzes he has in mind for the coming year.
So after this, what could possibly be the down side to helping out both primary phases of the game and playing to your offense’s strengths. The Bengals’ offense struggled last year with unforced errors and an aggressive and quicker style can leave a team exposed in this way. ESPN correspondent Cole Harvey recently wrote an article regarding the Bengals first practice with NFL referees. He writes that several false starts were called amongst the penalties. It’s these types of errors that will continue to stall this offense and put the defense on the field more often than the team would like. Last year the Bengals finished 13th in the league for most penalties. The team’s primary infractions were offensive holding and false starts, which accounted for 41 of the team’s 106 total penalties. These are largely careless errors that should be fixable with an attention to detail and better communication along the line and with Andy Dalton. But this responsibility will also fall to new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson who comes with what could be a concerning history.
When Jackson coached the Raiders as an offensive coordinator and head coach in 2010 and 2011 respectively, these team’s finished first in penalties committed overall. But a deeper look leaves questions regarding his history with results that could be positive or negative. On the one hand when Jackson was the offensive coordinator his offense committed the sixth most offensive holding penalties and the most false starts in the league. When he took over the team as the head coach in 2011 his team finished with the second most offensive holding penalties due to increased infractions (25 to 29), but the team substantially improved its false start numbers by finishing 20th in the league (32 to 19). Many interpretations can be drawn from these numbers especially considering the entirely different rosters Jackson will have coached between the Raiders and the Bengals. It’s good to see within his running system, his past teams were able to improve their false starts even though success in a running system starts with getting off the line quickly. On the flip side, the substantial increase in holding calls may be attributed to blockers being technically ill-prepared for passing situations due to the offense’s focus on the run. Encouragingly, it could also be attributed to the less talented blockers the Raiders possessed at the time versus the Bengals current line. Staying positive, it’s encouraging to see that Jackson improved Oakland’s discipline, referring to its false starts, by decreasing its infractions by nearly 41% and the Raiders’ overall infractions by 9%. Jackson’s tenacity is an attribute I look forward to seeing this offense display, but when adopting this aggressive attitude its important for the team to manage themselves and realize it may make them vulnerable to mental errors and hence penalties. Making up for penalty yards will be especially difficult when utilizing a running-based system, so staying sharp and communicating well will be key to avoiding these types of unforced errors.
Also of concern may be a surprising one. The Bengals may actually be missing a key part in this type of offense. While coaching the Raiders, Hue Jackson enjoyed the services of one of the NFL’s best fullbacks, Marcel Reece. He’s a dynamic weapon who can block, run, and catch. The Bengals don’t necessarily possess this type of weapon though it seems they have been searching for it evidenced by their effort to utilize Orson Charles within the H-back role and their signing of UDFA Ryan Hewitt this off-season. Newly drafted running back Jeremy Hill possesses great blocking skills and the team has experimented with both he and Giovani Bernard playing together. It’s far to early to tell if Hill can and should be a lead-blocker for Bernard, but options are generally a good thing. The Bengals have also struggled to find blocking from its tight ends. Tyler Eifert has been improving in this capacity, but is far from a finished product and though Jermaine Gresham is clearly capable, he has often accrued penalties (11 holding penalties and 19 penalties overall in the past two years) and his health is currently a question mark as he has struggled to recover from off-season hernia surgery and is currently dealing with a back injury. Jackson didn’t rely on great blocking tight ends while coaching in Oakland, which should relieve some of the concern here, but when trying to run against the stout AFC North defenses, everybody must contribute towards opening up running lanes.
The Bengal offense under Jackson won’t be an entirely new playbook. Jackson is a good coach and knows the a complete overhaul would be counter-productive especially when dealing with such a young group of players. But any alteration in game-planning will take time to learn and will present challenges. Although the benefits of this alteration are clear, the team will have to remain focused on the details if they are to employ an up-tempo and aggressive style effectively. They will need to keep their emotions in check and their communication will need to be flawless if they are to develop and sustain their desired rhythm throughout games. The Bengals have a great opportunity in front of them and an ideal plan in place, but implementation will prove to be a challenge as the team tries to finally get over its playoff woes.
Tags: Cincinnati Bengals