Using Elite NFL Offenses to Show the Bengals’ Red Zone Failures

Cincinnati Bengals (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Cincinnati Bengals (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images) /

The Cincinnati Bengals were unsurprisingly not among the league leaders in red zone efficiency. What made the elite teams more effective inside the 20?

The Bengals’ red zone offense dipped last year, but it should rebound in 2018. The team’s offense, as we’ve noted, was excruciatingly bad last year. The Bengals finished 32nd in the NFL in yards, 31st in rushing yards, and 26th  in total points. Besides AJ Green and maybe Giovani Bernard, no player on the offense was a positive.

Obviously, that translated to the poor performance inside the 20. For starters, the team averaged almost a full scoring opportunity less in 2017 than in 2016. Last year, the team only averaged 2.7 scoring opportunities per game. With those, the Bengals ended the year converting only 55.8% of their red zone opportunities. That was full 13% worse than the leaders (Jacksonville). When looking at the Bengals’ offense versus the leaders in RZ efficiency, it’s clear where the team went wrong.

Most notably, the Bengals never established a power running game. Last year, the core consisted of Joe Mixon, Giovani Benard, and Jeremy Hill. Hill showed he was completely washed and Bernard has never been a powerful runner. Mixon, while he profiles as a physical back, was not able to rush effectively between the tackles.

Looking at Jacksonville and Philadelphia, the top two teams in red zone efficiency, both teams have powerful runners in their backfields. Leonard Fournette was unstoppable on short yardage situations as a rookie for the Jaguars. Likewise, the Eagles had LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi, both of whose are better physical runners than Mixon. If Mixon can improve his power rushing, the Bengals should expect a bump in red zone production.

The passing in the red zone wasn’t much better. Andy Dalton had one of the worst years of his career last year overall, and his red zone production may have been the worst part. His completion percentage of 59% is not great to start with, but it dropped to just 51% inside the 20. Furthermore, Dalton was inefficient, throwing for only 3.3 yards per attempt in the red zone.

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Quarterback play is essential to a red zone offense as the leaders in red zone percentage seem to prove. The Bengals lag significantly behind teams like Philadelphia, New England, Green Bay, and New Orleans – teams 2-5 in red zone efficiency. Clearly, quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees will carry offenses to great production. All three guys are future Hall of Famers. Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz had a career year, too, with a 7.2% TD rate. Wentz was extremely efficient passing the ball, and it translated in the red zone. Dalton is usually a pretty good red zone passer, so he will hopefully regress to his career average next season for the Bengals.

Lastly, having a reliable tight end is very useful for scoring touchdowns in the red zone. When healthy, Tyler Eifert is one of the NFL’s best at creating separation in the end zone. However, health has been a huge issue for Eifert. He didn’t even play a game last season, forcing the Bengals to rely on Tyler Kroft. Kroft had a solid year last year, but Eifert has a clear talent advantage over Kroft.

Philadelphia (again) and New England both clearly benefit from their excellent tight ends. Zach Ertz had a breakout year for the Eagles and may have been Wentz’s most reliable target all year. Ertz could even run routes out of the slot, making him a mismatch in the red zone. The Patriots have Rob Gronkowski, though, who may be the biggest mismatch of all. Gronk’s size and quickness give him an advantage unlike anything else in the end zone and is virtually impossible to guard. Brady can just throw it in his vicinity and let him go up and grab it. The Bengals have that type of weapon in Tyler Eifert and could return to red zone success if he can stay healthy.

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The Bengals may not have the elite playmakers of these top tier teams, but the infrastructure is there to improve in the red zone. Mixon’s growth, Dalton’s improvement, and Eifert’s health would all be big bonuses for the red zone offense. With additions to the offensive line and more creative playcalling, I see plenty of avenues for the team to improve inside the 20 next season.