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Cincinnati Bengals

Why the last two weeks of 2017 should make us all Bill Lazor believers

Russell Heltman

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Let’s not sugarcoat things, the 2017 Cincinnati Bengals were a disgrace on the offensive side of the football.

Channeling some of the nightmarish results of teams from the late-1990s, the Bengals finished 26th in points, dead last in yards, 27th in passing yards, and one spot ahead of the Detroit Lions (who haven’t produced a 100-yard rusher since Thanksgiving 2013) in rushing yards per game.

That last number I mentioned isn’t an anomaly for recent Bengals rushing attacks. Cincinnati averaged 3.6 yards per carry last season for the fourth time in the past decade and have eclipsed 4.0 yards per carry just four times in that span. Watch a few highlights of Joe Mixon, and you’ll be scratching your head wondering why it all doesn’t add up.

The Bengals are trusting one guy to turn those numbers around: offensive coordinator Bill Lazor

After pulling the plug on Ken Zampese a couple months too late, Lazor was tasked with the nearly impossible challenge of implementing a new offensive system two weeks into the regular season. The results and the subsequent record were mixed, but a 7-7 finish while implementing a new system on the fly shouldn’t be completely brushed aside.

Lazor is as focused as his namesake would suggest and that’s been clear with the changes he is making to his coaching group. The former Dolphins play caller has brought in three new coaches to his staff: wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell, offensive line coach Frank Pollack, and quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt. All three are proven commodities with excellent track records, Bicknell coached multiple receivers to career seasons with the Eagles, while Van Pelt was beloved by his former quarterback and Pollack helped establish the Cowboys as one of the most dominant offensive line groups in the NFL.

These coaching additions paired with the return of Tyler Eifert, a remade offensive line, and a healthy, motivated John Ross give Bengals fans plenty of hope that this offense can return to its 2015 heights, where Andy Dalton helmed the seventh-best scoring offense in the league.

These expectations haven’t just formulated out of smoke and mirrors, a lot of what’s expected this season played out in the final two weeks of December when Bill Lazor’s system took hold just in time to extend the Marvin Lewis-Era for at least one more campaign.

Lions vs. Bengals

At this point in the season, faith in Bill Lazor was hard to find amongst Bengals fans.

Cincinnati was fresh off of two absolute stinkers that followed another (!) heartbreaking loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, combining for 14 total points in back-to-back blowout losses against the Chicago Bears and the Minnesota Vikings. Marvin was all but gone and seemingly on his way to taking Bill Lazor and his up-tempo style with him.

Then all of a sudden everything clicked.

The Bengals beat Detroit 26-17 on the strength of their 2nd-highest total yardage of the season. Andy Dalton wasn’t spectacular but he was on target throughout (65.9 completion percentage) the game and didn’t get in the way of a monstrous outing from Giovani Bernard despite throwing an ugly interception off of his back foot early in the contest. Bernard ran for 116 yards on 23 carries (5.04 yards per carry) and anchored the third-largest rushing total the Bengals produced all season.

Just by watching the highlights above you’ll notice how much success the Bengals had when operating out of the shotgun. Bernard was able to run to the outside much more effectively than any Bengal had earlier in the year and it also opened up opportunities for the Bengals backfield to rack up 106 yards through the air.

These formations allowed Dalton and the offense to get into the kind of tempo the Red Rifle operates in best, all while getting the entire set of offensive weapons involved. Lazor took what worked against new co-worker Teryl Austin and used it to exact revenge on the Ravens in the final week of the season.

Bengals vs. Ravens

It’s far from a hot take to say this was the most complete offensive performance the Bengals put together against a (non-Browns) team all season. The 31-27 victory was the only time Cincinnati scored 30-plus points against a team not coached by Hue Jackson and they did so by picking up right where they left off against the Lions.

Dalton was a little less efficient in this contest, completing 23-of-44 attempts but he made up for it with three touchdowns, including the 49-yard game winner to Tyler Boyd. Just like the week prior, a lot of his success, especially in that two-minute drill, came out of shotgun formations. Dalton was in rhythm throughout the contest and wasn’t forced to make a lot of quick transitions between progressions. We all know Dalton is at his best when he has a clean pocket (crazy I know) and these formations allowed him enough time to make decisions without worrying about the shoddy offensive line group in front of him.

These shotgun sets would’ve been useless without the combination of Bernard and Mixon who ran hard and hit holes that weren’t open in the first 15 weeks of the season. The duo combined for 148 yards on 28 carries (5.29 YPC) eclipsing the rushing production from the week before. As a running back, it has to be taxing on your confidence when you’re not only failing to produce but also aren’t being given the opportunity to showcase your skills. The offensive line reconciled that a bit in these final two weeks and the Bengals backs were eager to take advantage.

Bill Lazor and Co. have a lot to improve on this Fall, but judging by the end of last year and his one full season as the Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator (4.7 YPC in 2014, 2nd in the NFL) expectations in the jungle have rightfully been raised for 2018.

A Cincinnati sports fan since before he could walk, Russ grew up in Anderson Township and currently attends Ohio University where he is pursuing a degree in Broadcast Journalism. Aside from cheering on all of the lovable losers in Cincinnati, Russ is an avid golfer and diehard Charlotte Hornets fan. When he's not breaking down the Bengals on 97 WATH you can find his analysis and thoughts on everything Orange and Black right here.

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Podcast

Austin, Bates and Kirkpatrick discuss George Iloka’s release

James Rapien

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I discuss the Bengals’ decision to release George Iloka on today’s podcast. Plus, hear from defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and the man who’s expected to replace Iloka in the starting lineup – Jessie Bates. Hear that and more on today’s Locked on Bengals podcast.

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Cincinnati Bengals

Grading the Bengals victory in Dallas

Russell Heltman

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The Cincinnati Bengals are undefeated halfway through the 2018 preseason slate but if the 2017 Browns taught us anything it’s that victories before September matter a lot less than the performances that go into them. With that being said it was a victorious night for the orange and black but it was rarely pretty, time to assess their performance in each phase of the game.

Offense: C-

It was an ugly night on offense for Cincinnati, The starters basically no-showed in the first half and here’s how each drive looked before they headed to the locker room: Punt, Punt, Punt, Fumble, Punt, Interception.

All in all the first-team offense put together two drives with no first downs and 10 total yards.

That’s enough to put any team down three scores early in a regular season game and plenty of those struggles were linked to the offensive line. The left side looked decent with Clint Boling and Cordy Glenn proving they can be trusted with backside pressure. Outside of that, it was pretty rough, Bobby Hart started the game at right tackle and was shredded by Pro Bowl end Demarcus Lawrence. Cedric Ogbuehi was even worse as his replacement, allowing a sack to Taco Charlton even though he was called for a hold on the play.

As for right guard and center, Trey Hopkins didn’t make any egregious mistakes and contributed as the center on a 14-play, 92-yard TD drive in the third quarter. The argument could be made for him to be the backup center over T.J. Johnson.

Rookie center Billy Price on the other hand still has a lot of work to do, some of it looks like rookie mistakes but that is now two games into his career where he’s looked a little lost. The former Buckeye isn’t quite where we need him to be three weeks from Indianapolis. Right now Joe Mixon is averaging 2.4 yards per carry in the preseason, don’t expect that to get much better without improvement up front.

On a positive note, Jeff Driskel looked competent and collected in the second half. The Florida product went 10-of-16, for 116 yards and 1 interception but he led the Bengals longest drive of the night highlighted by this gem to John Ross.

The Bengals got the win and scored 21 points but still have a long, long way to go on the offensive line.

Defense: A

I fully expect this group to be the heart and soul of the 2018 Cincinnati Bengals.

They were absolutely dominant in Dallas, especially on the defensive line where they picked up five sacks including this power rush from Jordan Willis.

Sam Hubbard, Nick Vigil, and Carl Lawson tallied a sack and highlighted this crew’s biggest strengths: depth and versatility. Teryl Austin has the luxury of a talented front seven that isn’t reliant on one or two players but on the machine as a whole. The Cowboys could never get into a rhythm offensively because Cincinnati consistently won the first two seconds of each play. Andrew Billings was a big part of that equation, he got pressure on the inside all night and all but cemented a starting spot alongside Geno Atkins.

Pair this group with another deep crew in the cornerback room and all of those issues I mentioned above might not matter if the defense only allows 13 points on a regular basis.

As for the last line of defense, rookie Jessie Bates III got some first-team reps in place of George Iloka and looked the part, Austin has talked about running more three-safety looks all offseason and Bates III is making that game plan look more likely each week.

The offense might not be ready but this defense, despite missing Vontaze Burfict, looks ready to pounce on Andrew Luck in week one.

Special Teams: B+

This was arguably the Jonathan Brown game.

The soccer convert out of Louisville had never kicked a field goal at any level before coming to the NFL and now he has put the pressure on incumbent kicker Randy Bullock. Brown went 2-for-2 on field goal tries including a 55-yard field in the third quarter, that would have tied the Bengals regular season record set by Mike Nugent.

Marvin Lewis came out after the game and said Bullock is still the guy, which isn’t big news, he did go 18-of-20 for the Bengals last season, but keep an eye on Brown over the last two preseason games. Cincinnati let a young kicker go last year who is shaping up to be pretty special.

As far as the return game goes, Darius Phillips will be returning his fair share of kicks for the Bengals this season. he flashed serious game-breaking ability last night, finishing with three returns for 96 total yards. Making it pretty clear how he left Western Michigan as the NCAA’s all-time leader in return touchdowns.

Phillips can slide in alongside Alex Erickson this season and form one of the most dynamic return duos in the NFL. The Cowboys put together a couple of nice kickoff returns but Cincinnati’s unit won the night in the end.

The Bengals were edged out in one phase while dominating the other two and that often leads to victories in the NFL. We will see if they can link all three together next week in Buffalo.

 

For more quick-hit thoughts on the Bengals follow me on Twitter: @russheltman11

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Cincinnati Bengals

Players are buying into Bill Lazor’s offense

James Rapien

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The Bengals finished dead last in total offense last season. Yes, the 0-16 Browns finished ahead of them. So did the Colts, who played all 16 games without quarterback Andrew Luck. If you love offense, then you probably didn’t enjoy watching the Bengals last season. They scored less than 10 points in five games and didn’t reach the end zone until week three.

The offense hit rock bottom in 2017, but they don’t expect that trend to continue. Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor led a complete overhaul of an offensive that had been in place since Andy Dalton and A.J. Green were drafted in 2011. Sure, they made some tweaks over the past seven seasons, but nothing like this. Lazor rebuilt an offense that needed it desperately and the players are buying in.

“I like it. It’s different terminology, numbers and stuff like that,” Alex Erickson said. “It’s obviously challenging in the beginning, but we’ve had minicamp and OTA’s to really learn it. It’s allowed us to really progress this training camp.”

Erickson hasn’t played on a winning Bengals team. He beat out Brandon Tate for a roster spot in 2016, after going undrafted. The former Wisconsin Badger is one of the many weapons that Lazor has in his arsenal. Did he design a system that will put the skill players in the best position to succeed? That’s a question that cannot be answered until actual games start, but it’s been asked since Lazor was named offensive coordinator.

The Bengals used high draft picks on skill players over the past three seasons. They drafted a wide receiver in the top ten, a running back in the second round and multiple wide receivers in rounds two through four. They have former pro bowler Tyler Eifert, a talented running back like Giovani Bernard and a top five wide receiver in Green. Did Lazor design a system that will get the most out of a young, but talented offense? Third-year wide receiver Tyler Boyd loves the depth this team has.

“We got fresh guys out there. Guys that are hungry,” Boyd said. “Guys that are willing and dying to get out there on the field and make plays. Every guy wants the best out of each other. We do a great job of motivating each other, grinding hard and competing with one another. We all have a great friendship. We’re all cool and we’re all real tight. We all want everyone to play a part. We don’t want it to just be me and A.J. all of the time. We are able to get me and A.J. a break or get two fresh guys in there and continue what we were doing. It makes it a lot easier for the offense to improve from last year.”

That unselfishness is important to have, even on a team that finished dead last in total offense last season. There are a lot of mouths to feed. From Joe Mixon and Bernard, to Eifert and Tyler Kroft, who are both in contract years. Boyd is eager to prove last year was a mere speed bump, in what will be a successful career in Cincinnati. Former ninth overall pick John Ross not only wants to move past last season, he wants to show people that the Bengals made the right decision when they drafted him in 2017. Instead of worrying about their own touches, it seems like the offense is more worried about being successful.

Fans got their first glimpse of Lazor’s new offense last Thursday at Paul Brown Stadium. The first-team offense scored two touchdowns on three drives. Dalton completed six passes to five different players. They were nearly perfect, outside of an interception that occurred when Ross fell down on a route. The Bengals are buying into Lazor’s system and the skill players are excited about their potential.

“You look at the depth at each and every position. To me, it’s absolutely insane,” tight end C.J. Uzomah said. “It’s not fair – how much skill we have. The offensive line is protecting well. When we’re able to establish the run early, I think that opens everything else up.”

The Bengals will need to be better on the ground this season. They averaged 3.6 yards-per-carry last year and finished next to last in the NFL in total rushing yards with 1,366. Detroit was last with 1,221. If this team is going to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2015, they’re going to need their rushing attack to take a significant step forward. The offensive line is expected to be better with the additions of Cordy Glenn, Billy Price and Bobby Hart. Improvement up front will give Lazor a chance to show he can properly utilize two dynamic and versatile running backs in Mixon and Bernard.

And while the Bengals offense may begin with the ground game, it certainly won’t end there. They have made a concerted effort to throw the ball downfield in training camp. That makes sense when you have Green, Ross and other young players who are capable of making huge plays. Rookie Auden Tate has been impressive and so has second-year wide receiver Josh Malone.

They have shown their potential throughout training camp. Don’t look now, but this offense may complete a 180-degree turnaround from where they were a year ago.

 

For more on Bengals training camp, listen to today’s Locked on Bengals podcast:

 

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