We won’t see the Bengals No. 1 offense for 16 more days, until quarterback Andy Dalton stomps his foot to get the silent count going in the din of Seattle. But if you’ve been listening closely, they’ve bought into what new head coach Zac Taylor is selling in that offensive playbook that yielded three passer ratings ranging from 92.7 (rookie Ryan Finley) to 138.9 (rookie Jake Dolegala’s debut) in Thursday night’s 25-23 preseason loss to the Giants at Paul Brown Stadium.
The operative term is “a quarterback-friendly offense,” so maybe it’s no coincidence that the Bengals have three coaches that played the position at a high level in college. (Taylor holds Nebraska season records, quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt passed Dan Marino as Pitt’s all-time passing leader, offensive coordinator Brian Callahan played at UCLA) and have been coaching NFL quarterbacks for a combined 17 seasons.
“Starting with Zac and Alex and Brian and the whole group has done a great job communicating exactly what we want to do on each play,” said Dalton, who posted a 137.1 himself Thursday night. “So guys understand exactly where the ball should go and we’ve been executing.”
The first two series for the ones didn’t go well, but the versatility, which is where Taylor hangs his play-calling hat, was on display at all times. Like the first play of the game. The Bengals lined up in a two tight end set and the receiverish Tyler Eifert took off on a route to draw the force, but it was the other tight end, C.J. Uzomah, that cashed a 28-yard play on a screen through the space Eifert cleared.
The touchdown came on a 26-yard touch throw to Uzomah with Eifert on the bench and Uzomah running an Eifert-like vertical circle route down the right sideline.
“We have a lot of guys. You can’t just lock into one person,” Uzomah said. “So I think that’s what makes us so versatile.”
There’s no question that Taylor needs the run game to get into gear. It is now at 2.7 yards per and that’s uncomfortable for a scheme based in play-action. The other side of that is that Dalton completed 68 percent of his pre-season passes for 7.9 yards per attempt without starting wide receivers A.J. Green and John Ross, his two fastest guys. And, basically running back Joe Mixon. Eifert has played only a handful of plays. The first number would be a career-high for Dalton and the second would be second-best despite the run number.
Instead, Dalton has thrown completions to Uzomah and Cethan Carter at tight end, wide receivers Cody Core, Josh Malone, and Auden Tate, and rookie running backs Trayveon Williams and Rodney Anderson. The only guy with more than 30 NFL catches in that crew is Uzomah. Core, with four very tough and good catches for 36 yards on Thursday to give him eight this preseason, is among many who have professed how much they like the offense.
“It’s really nice. It’s hard to explain,” said Core, who says he feels like he did when he fit into the Mississippi offense in college. “A lot of moving parts and getting open in different areas. It fits anybody and everybody. You just have to be in the right position and you can succeed in this offense. Zac is really good and the coaches surrounding him are getting the details down.”
Dolegala probably said it best. Here’s a rookie from tiny Central Connecticut State who took 18 snaps Thursday, easily more than he’s had in all of training camp combined. And yet he went 10 of 12 for 94 yards and two TDs with the scoring catches going to a vet on a fade to the right to Josh Malone and another fade going to the left to undrafted rookie Damion Willis.
“It’s a quarterback-friendly offense,” Dolegala said. “We like to start by running the ball and if we get that going, it makes it very easy for us quarterbacks to play-action. All of our drop-back stuff is really simple reads. I don’t to say it’s a simple offense because it’s not. Zac gives us the best opportunity to perform at a high level.”
The offense has shown off the young receivers, like Troy’s undrafted rookie Damion Willis. He very well could have made the club after three catches for 55 yards gave him a team-leading 118 yards.
“I knew what this offense was,” Willis said. “When I came out (of college), I made my choice Cincinnati because I knew Los Angeles liked to throw the ball around.”
The offense has also given them the ability to make plays down the field. On Thursday they had three balls of at least 28 yards down the field and one was a Willis’ spectacular leap-and-take-it-back over veteran cornerback Janoris Jenkins for 33 yards.
“Especially when they called that play, and I was able to catch that ball on Janoris Jenkins.” Willis said. “That was my highlight of the night. I am going to remember that forever. A rookie on Janoris Jenkins. I am going to remember that.”
So far in this offense, no one has been forgotten.