Coming off a tough home loss to the Steelers last Sunday, the Bengals head to Baltimore for another titanic divisional clash with another monster in the 6-3 Ravens. After surprising the league with a 6-2 first half, the Bengals are now hurled head first into the teeth of the toughest part of their schedule. Two tilts with the defending AFC Champion Steelers sandwich divisional games at Baltimore and versus Cleveland. For the Bengals to maintain any hope of the divisional crown or even a wildcard berth, they need to make it through this four game stretch at 2-2 or better. With last week’s close loss to Pittsburgh, the Bengals need to go 2-1 over the next 3 weeks to achieve that goal.
So for now the focus is on Baltimore. The Ravens are extremely talented and are coming off an ugly loss to Seattle last week. They’ll be at home and they’ll be hungry to win, and as desperate as the Bengals. Both teams need the victory to keep pace with Pittsburgh.
Unfortunately the Bengals enter the lion’s den without some key players.
On defense, the Bengals will be without starting CB Leon Hall. Hall’s injury has placed him on injured reserve—out for the season. Hall’s presence in the defensive secondary will be missed. On the bright side, DE Carlos Dunlap (fast becoming a star) will be back. On offense, it gets more disconcerting. Early indications are that the Bengals will be without rookie superstar WR A.J. Green. Green, who is still recovering from a knee bruise suffered last Sunday, did not participate fully Thursday, and is listed as a game time decision. This puts the team’s already mediocre offense at a disadvantage in facing Baltimore’s always stingy D.
To address this problem, the Bengals should consider the talent they do have, and the consistency of the options available to them. That being the case, I offer a humble suggestion to offensive coordinator Jay Gruden: Take a look at some Patriots game film.
Not the entire offense, mind you—that would be impossible—just the plays that involve multiple tight end sets and feature Wes Welker in the slot. New England has the second-ranked offense in the league, and much of their success can be directly attributed to the work of Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.
Tom Brady is happy with the results. “The skill set of both those players really allows us to be flexible, “Brady said. ”Not only are they good blockers, but they can catch the ball, too. You can run it behind them, you can play-action pass and then they’ve become pretty efficient in the passing game also, just to spread them out and be able to run them on different run combinations. They’re very good players.”
With their two talented tight ends on the field together with the diminutive Welker, the Patriots have found plenty of success both running and passing. Welker, usually running out of the slot, is leading the league with 72 receptions. Welker’s role in Cincinnati would be played by Andrew Hawkins, who is roughly the same size as Welker, has excellent hands, great speed, and is very shifty as a runner. Hawkins has already been compared to Welker, and with good reason. Hawkins has been absolutely electric every time he’s stepped onto the field. He clearly deserves more playing time. Lining him up in the slot on 3rd downs, the Bengals may find more success with him there instead of Andre Caldwell.
Caldwell can then shift to the outside, where he’s stated he’s more comfortable and more productive. Simpson and Caldwell work the outside, while the Bengals talented tight ends, Jermaine Gresham, Donald Lee, and Colin Cochart are proving week after week that they can play be a productive NFL unit.
Welker isn’t the only Patriot having productive years. Gronkowski is 9t in the league in receptions, and WR Deon Branch and Hernandez give the Patriots 4 players in the top 70. Even the running game benefits from these formations. BenJarvis Green-Ellis is only 32nd in the league in rushing yards, but he’s averaging a robust 4.0 yards per carry.
If the Bengals must face the Ravens without their premiere stud wide receiver, they would be wise to have a more dynamic game plan than simply moving Caldwell outside. The fact is that neither Caldwell nor Simpson has shown any consistency thus far. Putting the primary receiver responsibilities on them is a recipe for disaster. For the Bengals to come away with a win Sunday, they should exploit the match-up problems they could obtain through a heavy tight-end and slot passing game. This will allow Andy Dalton to have faster reads, it should help Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott in the run game, and it should make the Bengals less predictable, particularly on early downs. These formations should also allow Jay Gruden to dial up more screen plays. Gruden is far fonder of screen plays than Bob Bratkowski ever was, and I personally love it. Imagine the different options for the screen game that can be envisioned with Hawkins, Gresham and Cochart on the field together.
The Bengals are clearly better served by having A.J. Green on the field Sunday. However, they shouldn’t (and won’t) rush him back into action unless the knee is 100%. Thus, Gruden and Marvin Lewis are faced with the dilemma of how to generate offense with the remaining moveable parts. Gruden has proven already in his short coordinator career that he has the ability to put players where they make the most sense, and tailoring the offense around those strengths. In my mind, looking at more 2 tight end sets with Hawkins in the slot will give the Bengals a more versatile, less predictable game plan, and will allow the team to exploit the talents of Andrew Hawkins, the tight ends, and wide receivers better.
Just my 2 cents…