Cincinnati Bengals need to go for it on fourth down more often

Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)
Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images) /

The Cincinnati Bengals have been forthright in declaring themselves an aggressive team, especially when it comes to fourth downs. Have they been balancing aggression with good strategy, and could they be going for it even more?

Following the Bengals’ Week 1 overtime victory over the Minnesota Vikings, the biggest question remaining from the game was the controversial fourth-down decision in the third quarter. Though the Bengals held on to win, the failed Joe Mixon run allowed the Vikings to score quickly and close the gap. Naturally, Zac Taylor and the coaching staff were grilled about that bold decision.

Taylor’s response was very telling, branding the team as aggressive and willing to take matters into their own hands. That attitude is a powerful one to adopt with a bunch of young, confident playmakers on the team, especially for a team that converted 19-of-27 fourth downs last year. However, the question still remains whether cracking the door for the Vikings in that situation was prudent.

Purely mathematically, the win probabilities supported the decision, with the Ben Baldwin bot giving the Bengals about a half percent better chance to win by going for it (and a success rate of 69% in that situation). Other sites, like Edj Sports, projected the win probability to increase by as much as 2%. Combined with the desire to have the ball in Joe Burrow and Mixon’s hands, the decision seems solid, albeit failed in retrospect.

Cincinnati Bengals need to be bolder on fourth down.

What has been under-discussed, though, is that the aggressiveness that Taylor preached did not show up in some of the other fourth-down decisions against the Vikings or Bears.

While the Bengals defense (and the referees’ flags) dominated the Vikings early, the offense could not get anything going, making the decision to punt on 4th-and-3 at the end of the first quarter from Vikings’ territory puzzling. A first down would have moved the Bengals into field goal range and set up an opportunity to score first; instead, the Vikings marched down the field and went up 7–0.

The more conservative decision came at the end of regulation, facing a 4th-and-3 again from midfield. The same mindset Taylor applied to the failed conversion in the third quarter should apply again—we want the ball in our hands to end the game.

The probabilities support a fourth-down attempt, with the Ben Baldwin bot giving more than a 6% increase in win probability to going for it. A first down—three yards!—would have ended the game, but Taylor instead chose to punt.

A similar situation to the first punt occurred in the Bears game last week. Although the Bengals did go for it on a 4th-and-2 early in the game, which should have drawn a pass interference call, the offense only started rolling in the third quarter. After gaining 14 yards on a 3rd-and-18, the Bengals opted to rely on Evan McPherson’s big leg instead of trying to gain four yards.

McPherson’s great start to the season aside, I would have liked to see an aggressive approach from the Bengals to score a touchdown. Down 7–0, the team needed more than a field goal, and the offense had pieced together an impressive 10-play drive to that point. Building on that momentum to potentially even the score would have swung the game, not only getting more points but also allowing the offense to stay in rhythm.

Looking forward to Pittsburgh this week, the Bengals need to take matters into their own hands whenever they can. Although the Steelers’ offense may not be as fearsome as it once was, the defense will be a menace. Points will be at a premium, so getting touchdowns whenever possible will be essential to win in Pittsburgh.

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I share the attitude Joe Goodberry had toward the decision to go for it against Minnesota. The Bengals have tried to brand themselves as an aggressive team, but that aggression has simply not been consistent across these two games. If the team wants to come from behind and hold onto leads, they cannot be conservative when the game’s on the line.