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Why the last two weeks of 2017 should make everyone 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 near 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 it’s 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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