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Offense grapples for answers


 Andy Dalton returns to Paul Brown Stadium Sunday trying to get back on the rails.

Although Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has asked the media to let his job status die until the end of the season, the last-in-everything offense has beaten him to it in the last two games. No matter who is the coach for how long or for how much, the state of offense and their star players are going to define the Bengals' 2018 season.

And it starts with reviving quarterback Andy Dalton's confidence and fixing an offensive line that is battered for Sunday's Paul Brown Stadium season finale (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) against the Lions.

It seems like the Lewis thing is going to linger for the last two weeks. He apparently has addressed Sunday morning's ESPN report that he's leaving after this season with management, coaches, and players the same way he's handled it with the media. He says he has yet to talk to Bengals president Mike Brown about his expiring contract and has yet to make a call for next year but also said he continues to talk to Brown every day.

"It's not the pertinent thing right now," Lewis said. "The pertinent thing right now is to coach the football team. That's what my job is, and that's what I am supposed to do."

The situation has made it tough on the coaches, but no one has it tougher than quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor. Lazor is the guy that Lewis turned to after firing offensive coordinator Ken Zampese following the no touchdowns of the first two games. As mystifying as the Lewis saga is Dalton's struggles in the last ten quarters because he responded so well to Lazor and in one stretch had 11 touchdowns during the longest skein of his career without an interception.

But in the last ten quarters the Bengals have blown a 17-0 lead to the division champion Steelers and scored just 17 points since by somehow averaging 3.9 yards per play and whiffing on 26 of 31 third-down tries. Dalton, so good in that Steelers first half, has a meager 46.5 passer rating in those ten quarters and is coming off the worst consecutive games of his career  highlighted by a scattered 47 percent completion rate.

And if Dalton struggles, their best player struggles and wide receiver A.J. Green is right there with him. After strafing the Steelers on seven catches for 77 yards in the first half, he's had just 94 since on 20 targets and seven catches. Their confidence looks shaken since Green had a 61-yard TD catch taken away in the third quarter against Pittsburgh.

And it's that confidence that Lazor had appeared to restore.

"I thought after two weeks into the season when Coach Lewis made the change to the coaching staff, that for a reason I could not understand, there was a confidence issue," Lazor reflected Monday with a group of local reporters. "For the players that we had, I don't think it made any sense that there would be.

"And for whatever reason, I guess it's because of the frustrations of our last two games, I felt more of that," he said. "And I wasn't on the sideline for those first two games. But I felt more of that, again, on the sideline, the frustration starting to build. And, so, I think that's just part of what we addressed with the guys today, was, 'Ok, we've got to be together, not just coaches and players but players and players.' It's the only way to get it done in the league."

The one thread is the loss of running back Joe Mixon, injured late in the second quarter against Pittsburgh and he hasn't played since. But the rushing numbers without him were quite good (120 yards on 21 carries) with Giovani Bernard carrying the load. That is, until last Sunday in Minnesota, when they could gouge just 46 yards on 20 carries.

But that's been a season-long problem. They're averaging 77 yards per game and need 362 rushing yards in the last two games to get past their low for a 16-game season, a number personified by Sunday's four-down series in which Bernard could get just nine yards.

The loss of Mixon has been a problem because they were getting some rhythm with his down-hill style. Before he got hurt, Lazor did a terrific job with play-action to set up some big plays.

"I think the defense is aware of who your running back is," Lazor said. "At the same time, we have great confidence in Gio and he does everything we ask him to do. We are hopeful when Joe comes back and we can have the mix of the two that can bring more to it. I do believe the play action has helped us. I believe we've gotten better at it and it's been productive I would say I don't have the stats of just play action in front of me, it feels as though the last couple weeks it's fallen off. "

Making things tougher for the last two games is the Bengals are going in with two tackles after starters Cedric Ogbuehi and Andre Smith got hurt in Minnesota.

But Lazor emerged from Monday's meeting like any solid, veteran NFL coach. He's been through all kinds of situations. He mused about how his staff in Washington a decade ago was rocked by head coach Joe Gibbs' sudden retirement despite a good season.

So he's seen it all. And he says he liked what he saw when he met with the players Monday and since they were having success before the last ten quarters he thinks they can find it just as quickly.

"We each have our role, let's do our role and rely on the guy next to us to do his role and hold them accountable to do it right," Lazor said. "And maybe that slipped away a little bit and so maybe as much as the Xs and Os and the execution, it's also 'hey let's just connect, let's set our mind, we're going to do this thing together' because we are still the players, with just a couple of exceptions, that we were the first half of that Pittsburgh game. So let's play like that."

Cincinnati Bengals take on the Minnesota Vikings in week 15 of the regular season.

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