On October 29, 2017 the Indianapolis Colts will take the short trip to Cincinnati. In this week eight match-up I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea for what we’re up against.
The Bengals finished 2016 with 6 wins, 9 losses, and 1 tie. The last time these two teams faced off our Colts came out victorious, winning 26 to 10 in a 2014 AFC Wildcard match up. That game featured a first quarter touchdown from Boom Herron and our boys never looked back. This time our Colts will have to face the Bengals without Luck and the majority of that 2014 roster, hopefully the result is no different this time around.
Let’s figure out what we can expect in week eight.
Hue Jackson’s The Bengals Offensive Scheme
The Cincinnati Bengals employed Browns head coach Hue Jackson, from 2012 to 2015. He served with the team as their offensive coordinator during the 2014 and 2015 seasons. In that time he built his system around “franchise quarterback” Andy Dalton. If you look at the team rankings during Jackson’s time there, it isn’t really that impressive.
Here’s the impressive part, when you look at Andy Dalton’s 2014 season he threw 19 TD’s to 17 INT’s, in what was Jackson’s first year calling the plays. Fast forward to 2015, Jackson and Dalton work together and I don’t know how he did it but Dalton threw 25 TD’s to only 7 INT’s. Still not impressed? The Bengals finished 2015 in the top 10 of most major offensive categories.
What’s the big deal, the Colts have been finishing in the top 10 on offense for literal decades? Did you forget the part where I said this franchise has opted to build around Andy Dalton?!
Jackson and Dalton had found the secret sauce and Marvin Lewis wanted to continue using that recipe for success once Jackson left for the train wreck that is the Cleveland Browns. As a result, Lewis hired from within the organization, promoting long time QB’s coach Ken Zampese to offensive coordinator. Lewis said during the process that Zampese was promoted due to his familiarity with the offensive system and the specific aspects that were built in for Dalton. Reading between the lines, Lewis wanted to run the same scheme that Hue Jackson ran. Obviously it would have different tendencies and wrinkles that are inevitable with any coaching change, but it is still the multiple Air Coryell system that Jackson put in.
Fast forward to 2017 and the Bengals are struggling mightily to move the football on offense, following their week two defeat against the Texans on Thursday Night Football, the Bengals players staged a mutiny and demanded Zampese be fired. That’s not one of my dumb jokes, that’s literally what happened. So Marvin Lewis, having lost true control of his team years ago, fired a man who has worked for him for 14 years and promoted quarterbacks coach and former Dolphins offensive coordinator Bill Lazor to take the reigns. Lewis once again let us know that the base of his offense will remain the same.
So let’s jump into Hue Jackson’s offensive scheme for the second time this year.
Hue Jackson Bill Lazor runs an Air Coryell system. As often as Jackson is called an innovator, in my opinion he’s just running Don Coryell’s system the way it was meant to be run after accounting for the fact that it’s 2017. The linked article lists the following staples of Coryell’s scheme:
- Single back sets
- Pass heavy
- Using a lot of pre-snap motion
- Option routes
- Pass catching TE’s (it was the 70’s this was a big deal)
- Trips (3 receivers on one side of the field)
I know, you’re thinking that every team in the NFL uses all of those things. You’re correct. It’s why so many people credit Coryell with crafting the modern NFL game. The fact he isn’t in the Hall of Fame is borderline sacrilegious.
Jackson’s scheme uses a lot of the same principals that the league seemingly left behind sometime in the 1980’s which makes his brand of offense seem gimmicky at times. One of them Hue uses extensively is heavy pre-snap movement. In week one things were more mundane than what is typical for a Jackson led team as they started a rookie at QB, but Hue Jackson has been using “his” offense for a long time. This article from Dave Archibald over at Inside the Pylon breaks down what I mean from his time as the Bengals offensive coordinator:
...what’s more interesting than the Bengals’ success is how they are doing it. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson takes his whole bag of tricks and dumps them right on the table at the beginning of the game, employing shifts, motion, package plays, varied personnel groups, unusual formations, and other wrinkles to put pressure on opposing defenses and get easy gains for his team.
Consider the first play Cincinnati ran this season:
The Bengals, who boast one the game’s best offensive lines and a duo of terrific running backs, come out in a run-heavy look with no one lined up as a wide receiver. The Oakland Raiders counter by loading the box, only for Cincinnati to introduce chaos by shifting players in all directions, ultimately showing a five-wide empty backfield spread. This forces the Raider defense to change positions and communicate among themselves to try to combat the new look. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (#14) winds up completing a four-yard pass to tight end Tyler Eifert (#85) on the play.
The play itself wasn’t overly complicated for Cincinnati, but the moving parts pre-snap present a mental test for the defense. Jackson loves to spring “pop quizzes” on opposing defenses early in the game.
Another point this illustrates is just how often Jackson spreads the field and uses 4 and 5 wideouts. In case you were thinking that Jackson left the “exotic” formations and shifting behind when he left Cincinnati, rufio over at Dawgs By Nature wrote up a great breakdown of Jackson’s first few games as the Head Coach of the Browns:
As a tease, Jackson ran several formation shifts and other "gimmicks" on Friday. On the first play of the game, everyone knows that Terrelle Pryor went deep for 49 yards. But what not as many are talking about is the shift that preceded the play. The Browns started with a "4 WR" formation:
Then, we shifted a fullback and Isaiah Crowell into a Pistol formation:
From there, we ran a Coryell Staple, 3 verticals. And Pryor did his thing.
Later, a 2nd and 13 saw us motion the other way, from an I formation to 4 wide:
From there, we ran a nice easy Y stick play to TE Gary Barnidge, which picked up 7 yards and got us into a manageable situation.
One thing to take from these breakdowns is how much freedom the quarterback has in this system. Generally speaking he needs to be able to make reads and progress though his down field options as Hue Jackson isn’t interested in running a lot of short routes.
The past few weeks have seen a change in the offense Lazor took over and immediately said he was going to balance the run game, which he has done. In the three games he’s called the plays two were wins and the third was a three point loss to a very good Packers team.
The basis of the scheme is the same, the specific play calls that are being made are what’s making the difference. We’ll take a look at some of the throws that Dalton is making and some of them that he has struggled with thus far.
Quarterback: Andy Dalton Can Win Games
Last week we played against a quarterback that no one should rely on to win games, in Blake Bortles. This week we’re going to see Andy Dalton, some people would probably lump those two guys together, I disagree. I feel that Dalton and Joe Flacco are on the same tier, which isn’t good, or bad. They can both win you games but shouldn’t be leaned on if at all possible.
I mentioned that since Lazor’s promotion the Bengals have improved, so has Dalton. Under old OC Ken Zampese, Dalton went a combined 36 for 66 for 394 yards, 0 TD’s and 4 INT’s. In the three games since Bill Lazor has taken the helm, Dalton has gone a combined 68 for 93 for 826 yards, 7 TD’s and 2 INT’s. He went from a completion percentage of 55% to 73% and the only difference; the plays being called.
- Deep out:
This is a difficult pass to make, he fits the ball in behind the underneath defender while keeping it close enough to the sideline to prevent the corner from making a play on the rainy turf. Good ball.
- He’s thrown 2 picks in 3 weeks since the OC change:
This pick isn’t his fault. The ball was high, he should have thrown a better ball especially in the rain, with that said his receiver had hands on this ball and he should have pulled it in. This wasn’t a great throw but I’m not going to put this one on the ole’ ginger.
- He just misses here:
Here he has a man open running a go route and he just overshoots him. This was the kind of play you saw often from Dalton in the first two weeks of the season.
- His second INT:
This one is tough to see given the angle but the ball goes through A.J. Green’s arms and into the defenders waiting hands. Again, not on Dalton. Both of his picks since Lazor taking over have come off of his receivers tipping catchable balls.
Andy Dalton looked like a scrub to start the season, but with the firing of their old OC, you kind of have to throw that start out the window. Dalton is playing at a level that can win these Bengals a lot of games if he can get some help on the ground.
Running Back: Joe Mixon Is Good But Can’t Block For Himself
To say the Bengals have trouble up front is like saying Stampede Blue writers are obsessed with the eventual firing of Chuck Pagano. Duh. Both statements are obvious and both statements often gloss over the other good things both the Bengals and Stampede Blue have going for them.
One of those things is second round rookie running back Joe Mixon. The community here at Stampede Blue was divided on Mixon as a prospect. Some said they couldn’t support a player that made his mistake, no matter the circumstance, while others stated that the incident happened when he was younger and mistakes were made in all aspects of what transpired that night. No one made excuses for his actions, but Colts nation was pretty split on the guy.
The draft came and went and the Bengals took him earlier than I (and probably many others) expected him to be drafted. Off the field issues aside, Mixon looked like a great back at Oklahoma and when given room to run in his first five games, he hasn’t disappointed.
Mixon is now the Bengals starter and is leading the team in carries with 67 thus far. Behind him are Giovani Benard and Jeremy Hill who have both started at different points in their career. Together the two backups have 49 carries on the year.
The Bengals are more balanced since the new OC has come on board but their per carry average is just 3.2 yards. That’s not good, but it isn’t due to a lack of talent at the running back position.
Mixon reads his blocks and runs where they ain’t. He’s almost 230 lbs but his cuts are sudden and he accelerates well. This is why you draft Mixon, obviously you hope he can find more room on a consistent basis but when you give him any kind of room, you hope he takes every yard he can get and he does that here.
- This isn’t Mixon, but it counts in the rushing yard totals:
- Trying to end the game:
Which is why you see him dive at the end of the play. He tries to stay in bounds, he was unsuccessful, but he had the wherewithal to think about getting down in bounds after he took advantage of the lack of a holding call on his fullback here.
- That jump cut:
He did what it took to pick up the first. Mixon isn’t easy to bring down in the open field.
- These backs will get involved in the passing game too:
Giovani Benard on the long screen play. Covering these backs might end up being a problem.
These running backs are talented. Joe Mixon is going to play at a high level for a long time in this league as long as he gets some kind of help from his line. If not his 30 for 30 special will just be really sad.
Receivers: You’ve Heard About AJ Green, Right?
This is everything you need to know about the Bengals wide receivers; double team A.J. Green and you don’t really have to worry about anyone else.
That’s not entirely true, Green has 51 targets this year and Brandon LaFell, tight end Tyler Kroft and Tyler Boyd are the next three (non-RB) on the list of targets in the passing game. Together all three have received 51 targets, also.
A.J. Green has received as many targets as the next three receiving threats on the roster. So far he has 32 receptions for 504 yards and 3 TD’s. He’s on pace for 102 catches, 1600+ yards and 10 TD’s.
Like I said, if we can take Green out of the game, we have a real shot in this one.
- Good luck taking him out of the game:
That DB can play that coverage against a lot of other receivers and be okay. I bet he lined up a little deeper the rest of the game. There’s not much to breakdown here. This is just A.J. Green doing A.J. Green things.
- Nice throw and catch:
It was behind him but if he didn’t catch it, no one could have. It was a safe throw and LaFell (I believe) makes a good adjustment to make the catch and move the chains.
I wasn’t joking when I said what I said about limiting Green. I don’t know if it’s possible with where he is in his development as a player, he’s insanely good. With that said, if we make them beat us with someone else, I’m not sure they can. Either way Andy Dalton may not have enough time in the pocket to get throws off, this offensive line is not good.
However you look at it, it took the Bengals years to get to the situation they are currently facing with an offensive line that is certainly not up to NFL standards. And it is going to take time to reverse the trend. Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes.
As Colts fans that’s something I think each one of us can relate to. The linked article talks about some ways a team could potentially fix their offensive line issues and it has some good notes on the 2018 NFL Draft’s crop of tackles.
Anyway these Bengals don’t have much up front, their picks haven’t worked out and things just aren’t going well. Here’s a video that gives you more information about the 2017 Bengals offensive line than you probably wanted to know:
If that wasn’t enough for you I was able to find a clip that shows where the Bengals line can excel.
- As long as Dalton gets the ball out in under 2 seconds these guys look great:
I expect to see Andy Dalton on his back early and often in this one. Which is a good thing.
- If he doesn’t get it out quick even the Browns can get to him:
Nothing like a strip sack.
This line has many of the same struggles that have been present in Indy for so long as well. Don’t misunderstand me, this is good news for us on Sunday, but I hate seeing so many teams around the league with sub par line play. It’s an alarming trend and while I’m not sure what it says about the long term future of pro football, the Bengals are in the same place as a lot of teams around the league.
This team has talented skill players. Mixon and Green have elite talent for their positions, Andy Dalton is good enough to win games as long as he has a good defense, it’s just this offensive line that limits what they can do with both the run and the pass.
If we bracket Green, it’s going to be tough for the Bengals to move the ball. Normally with a back as talented as Mixon, a team would lean on him when you take away a threat like Green. Fortunately for us his offensive line is so bad he will probably be hit behind the line of scrimmage with regularity.
Like I said, as long as Dalton has a defense backing him up, he can win you games. You’ll find out more tomorrow, but this defense is playing well.