September 20, 2014

Run Game Improvements Trump Number Two Receiver Question

 

It seems that the most interesting and entertaining debate in Bengal circles revolves around the opening for a number two receiver.  The debate has been raging for weeks now, with fans making cases for vets like Brandon Tate and Armon Binns, or pushing the virtues of rookies Mohammed Sanu and Marvin Jones.

It’ll make for good fun and lots to write about over the summer.  Maybe Binns is the next Ocho, or Sanu is the next T.J.

In the meantime, I prefer to look at things pragmatically and take a “worst case scenario” approach to the wide receiver battle.  Obviously, A.J. Green is a stud, but he may have a sophomore slump.  Injuries may plague guys like Jordan Shipley again.  Worst yet, we may find that none of the guys on the roster can match the paltry production we got out of Jerome Simpson last year.

A scary thought.

If it turns out that the aerial attack does not make leaps and bounds in 2012, then the hopes for Cincinnati’s post-season successes rest ever more so on the running game. 

Running the football has an almost mythical quality in NFL vernacular.  It’s considered a commandment for winning, and in most cases that’s true.  Teams that can run the ball well have fewer turnovers, win time of possession and field position, and ultimately wear down their opponents both physically and mentally over the course of a game.  It’s not as pretty or entertaining, but when the passing game isn’t clicking, or your quarterback is having a bad day, or the weather is cold and wet, a good running game can bail you out. It is the port in the storm that delivers the ugly win when all else fails.

Coincidentally, the Bengals rush offense has been mediocre for the last several seasons.  Not surprisingly, the team  has enjoyed only mediocre success.  To win in 2012 with or without huge contributions from the wide receivers not named A.J., the running game must get better. 

Thankfully, it is clear the Bengals have made this a priority since the beginning of the offseason.

While many observers (including myself) were upset when the team ignored free agent wide receivers in February and March, they instead focused their attention on several steps that should result in an improved ground game this year.  These improvements came in the form of new personnel in the backfield and offensive line, and added coaching.  Here’s a brief look at each:

BACKS

First, they chose not re-sign feature back Cedric Benson.   While he griped and moaned about sharing carries and not getting enough touches, he failed again and again in the opportunities he was given. Benson averaged less than 4 yards per carry each of the last two years, fumbled 12 times in 2011 (losing seven), was questionable at best as a receiver, and was usually on the sidelines on third down.   Perhaps worst of all, he was horrible in short yardage situations and goal line.  Mike Nugent and his franchise tag thank you, Ced.

Benson was replaced by former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis during the early free agency period.  BJGE seems to be the anti-Benson.  He actually excels in short yardage and goal line situations, is a very capable receiver, an accomplished blocker, and has never fumbled in his NFL career.  NEVER.

“The Law Firm” also brings a professional and ego-less  approach to the game that focuses his attention on technique and team success rather than personal glory.

BJGE will not complain when the coaches try to take more advantage of Bernard Scott’s talents and Brian Leonard’s playmaking.

Additionally, the Bengals made one of their first orders of business signing fullback Chris Pressley to a 2-year extension.  Too often in recent years, Bob Bratkowski tried to go without a true fullback in his playbook.  He used converted tight ends, linebackers, and even extra tackles instead.  The results were to be expected; fullback formations were a rarity, as was the team’s conversion rates on 3rd-and-short.

It’s no surprise that the last time the Bengals were at the top of the league in rushing was when they have a bona-fide fullback as a prominent member of the offense.  Remember Lorenzo Neal?  I sure do, and so does Corey Dillon.

Offensive Line

Perhaps more important than the man totting the rock are the bulldozing uglies in front of him.  The Bengals made a clear and concerted effort to address this area this spring.  It was evident to even the most casual observer (like my wife) that Nate Livings and Mike McGlynn simply could not get push in the interior offensive line.  Bobbie Williams was a beast, but a league suspension wiped out his early season and an injury wiped out the end.  In his absence, McGlynn and Clint Boling proved not up to the rigors of blocking in the AFC North.  Improvements were necessary.

The Bengals addressed this area of need by bringing in Carolina’s Travelle Wharton, a highly-regarded run blocker to man the left guard spot, and drafted Wisconsin’s Kevin Zeitler in the first round to man the right side.  Both players are immediate upgrades at both spots and are known for their capabilities in the run game and particularly short-yardage.  Veteran Jacob Bell was also added, though he chose to retire, leaving the team with a capable stable of young developmental guards in Boling, Otis Hudson, and Reggie Stephens behind the starters.

Coaching

People tend to either hate Paul Alexander or love him.  Either way, the team took steps to help their offensive line coach get more out of his players in 2012.  Jim McNally, who coached the Bengals offensive line from 1980 to 1994, returns as a consultant.  His input in analyzing running plays and breaking down opponents has already proven valuable to Jay Gruden.

“He’s been a big help for us. He’s brought some ideas from his experiences and we’ve added a lot of them to our concepts,” Gruden says. “It’s been good to have him. He does a good job breaking down future opponents for us, doing some preview work on other teams, which sometimes you don’t quite have the time to be as thorough as he is, but he’s as thorough as any coach I’ve ever seen.

“There are some entry points and issues we tinker with a little bit. Aiming points by the back and things of that nature. We’ve changed a few things with the way we’re blocking some things. For the most part we’re the same, but a little bit different.”

I suppose you pick up a few things over 43 years of professional coaching. 

Overall

It’s hard to quantify how much these efforts will result in improvement come September.  But with two new guards, a new running back and a coaching staff focused on improvement, the pieces are in place.

An improved running game means less double coverage for A.J. Green, less blitzing for Andy Dalton, and more options for Gruden.

That may mean the second receiver isn’t as critical to the team’s overall success.