Bengals Try To Work The System

WR John Ross runs upfield after making a catch at practice.
The Bengals run game could use John Ross' speed.

Zac Taylor’s Bengals come face-to-face with their offensive DNA this Sunday in London when they play Sean McVay’s Rams. Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan made it clear Monday that they remain committed to the same guiding principles over the long haul.

Both coaches also on Monday weren’t ready to draw the curtain on quarterback Andy Dalton after his three fourth-quarter interceptions this past Sunday against Jacksonville, although Taylor said he didn’t think it was fair to make a commitment for the rest of the season to any position.

“It’s easy to point the finger at the quarterback, but I don’t see it that way,” Taylor said at his presser. “I’ve coached that position for a long time. I know its human nature to do it that way, but everyone has to step up. There were a lot of 50/50 opportunities for the receivers yesterday. They’ve got to step up and make some plays, too.”

Dalton’s struggles have been the offense’s struggles as they try to jump-start a scheme plagued by injuries to their two fastest wide receivers and a bevy of offensive linemen in a stew that has produced a running game ranked last in the NFL.

“Do you do everything all the time that is solely based on what is going to get you yards that week or are you trying to build a system of offensive football?” the professorial Callahan asked a group of reporters Monday. “You can make an argument on both sides to be honest with you. You also trying to build a system and build something that’s trying to be sustainable in two or three years from now. So, there has to be a system in place of sorts.”

When Taylor became the Bengals 10th head coach the day after coaching the Rams quarterbacks in the Super Bowl, the hope was he could translate L.A.’s successful base offense of three wide receivers into the juggernaut that won 24 games in McVay’s first two seasons while finishing either first or second in the NFL in scoring. Now after a traumatic re-configuration of their personnel the Bengals face their cousins with the question if they’re using the Rams’ scheme with a different brew of talent not ideally suited for three-receiver sets.

They’re hoping to get some people back for the game in Wembley Stadium, but it sounds like they won’t have franchise player A.J. Green back at wide receiver, where they won’t have John Ross, either. On Monday Taylor said he wouldn’t rule out Green for the Rams, but he also said he won’t play him until he sees him go full-speed in practices and he wasn’t ready to pull the trigger on Wednesday’s workout because he says it’s day-to-day.

So are starting left tackle Andre Smith (ankle) and right guard John Miller (groin), which means the Bengals could have their fourth straight different starting offensive line in some form. That would give the Rams an up-close look at their struggles that have them winless while ranked 27th in offense while the Rams are 4-3 with the No. 12 offense.

(Left tackle Cordy Glenn was re-instated to the roster Monday after his one-game suspension and they released defensive end Anthony Zettel after his five-day, 31-snap stay. Taylor said he wasn’t in the building and his status for Wednesday’s practice was unclear.) 

“I think we always had intended and that always was the starting point and we were going to try to do it as close to what our guys do well,” Callahan said of the three-receiver set. “As of right now, you can argue that we haven’t done much of anything well. So, that’s part of it. It’s easy and it’s low hanging fruit in that regard. It’s easy to criticize, and rightfully so. But I do think that was always our starting point. We never had intended to pretend that we were the Rams. But there is a system.”

And they’re both using it. According to profootballfocus.com, the Bengals have used three wide receivers with one tight end and one running back (known as 11 personnel) a total of 85 percent of the time. The Rams use 11 personnel 78 percent. The Bengals go double tight ends with two backs and a running back (known as 12 personnel) 11 percent and the Rams go with two tights 12 percent. The only real divide is that the Rams have used triple tight ends on 17 snaps, the Bengals once. McVay has also used 10 (one running back and four wides) 25 snaps and the Bengals haven’t used it.

The result is that, for instance, a former Pro Bowler in tight end Tyler Eifert has played 40 percent of the snaps while undrafted rookie wide receiver Damion Willis has played 44 percent. Third-down running back Giovani Bernard, who recently signed a second contract extension, has played less than half the snaps (45 percent) and been teamed with running back Joe Mixon three times. Or tight end C.J. Uzomah, who had 43 catches last season and a 36-yarder in the opener, has just seven catches and 72 yards since.

“We usually like the matchups that are presented to us,” Taylor of three receivers. “There are games in the future and games we’ve played in where we’ve been in more 12 personnel because we feel like that’s a good matchup. As we get through the week and as we analyze the Rams and what gives us the best opportunity, we’ll make that determination of who we want to put out there.

“There have been times where we’ve gotten Gio in the game with Joe. There are times where we’ve had more plays in the plan to do that and we haven’t been able to get it off. You look at some the games we’ve played, and we’ve had limited snaps in the first half. It’s certainly an option for us. You need to look at how (the opponent) responds defensively. What do they look at that as? Those are all things that, as the game gets going, we’re trying to understand what their approach is when we do that and what advantages that gives us.”

The Rams built their scheme on a powerful running game that opened up play-action passing for quarterback Jared Goff. Some of the reasoning is that it’s easier to run against the nickel defense deployed to defend three receivers. But Mixon, the AFC rushing champion, has been held to 12 yards on 18 carries in the past two games and there are all sorts of theories. On Monday, Callahan said it was “a myriad of factors.”

“You really kind of watch it and every other time it’s somebody else. It’s the left tackle on this one, it’s the right guard on this one, it’s the tight end who didn’t cut off the backside on the next one,” Callahan said. “It’s kind of everything. That part of it is frustrating. You certainly like to see better production all the way around, but it kind of falls on everybody’s shoulders all at the same time. Probably not the best answer in the world but it’s the truth.”

A popular theory is that with Green and Ross out of the picture, defenses don’t have to be concerned with game-changing speed down the field and that allows them to be more aggressive against the run.

“That's part of it. That's definitely part of it,” Callahan said. “It's hard to make everything married together when you're talking about run game and play action and trying to push the ball vertical and trying to take play-action shots. If they don't respect the fact that you can run the ball at them with some efficiency, then you end up not getting as much pull in the play-action game. You certainly get guys sitting down on top of you. And they're not really too worried about it … It all fits together. You have to be able to threaten them on both angles because being one dimensional makes football hard.”

It's been hardest on Dalton. Callahan acknowledged some throws he would have liked to have had back. That red-zone pick with 8:25 left and the Bengals trailing, 17-10. He didn’t lead wide receiver Tyler Boyd enough for what Callahan called, “The most critical error of the game.” Earlier, for the second straight week, he underthrew Boyd for what could have been a TD on a double move.

But there was also the blown-up screen in his face from too much immediate pressure on a stunt that resulted in the pick-six. There were five combined drops (according to PFF) by his two most reliable receivers, Boyd (three) and Alex Erickson (two). The man is on pace to throw 654 passes, 68 more than the team records he holds with Carson Palmer. No one has thrown more passes in the league this season.

“It’s not a winning formula by any metric you use to look at success rates,” Callahan said. “We’ve been OK on first down. But when you look at where we are at I think we are close to last in the league in second-down efficiency. It put us in a bunch of third and longs and we have guys pinning their ears back. You have to help protect and keep your tight ends in, your backs have to stay in. There are a lot of things that make it difficult when you have to drop back and throw the ball.

“Is it realistic to ask any quarterback in the NFL outside of two or three to drop back and carry a team given our struggles? It's probably not very realistic. He fights and he does it every week as best as he can. He could be better in certain aspects, but that's a tall task. That's a lot to ask of anybody.”

They’re not only trying to find balance in run-pass ratio, but also balance in the name of the system.

“You have to have a system and you have to have something you believe in. If you just kind of go with the wind every time something goes right, I don’t think that’s always the best way, either,” Callahan said. “It’s a fine line. You have to find ways to make the system work and you also have to find ways to put your guys in position to play winning football, go win matchups and things like that. We do our best to balance those things.”

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