Before getting into my article asking questions about the Bengals offense, I have to address the passing of James David Ryan. Buddy was undoubtedly one of the most progressive defensive minds ever seen in the NFL – coming up with the 46 defensive scheme that helped lead the 1985 Bears to the Super Bowl. He was fiery (challenging Ditka to a fistfight during a Monday Night Football game), competitive, and innovative. He was described as not being the right coach for every player; but, man, he was one heck of a coach for the right players. His players loved him, for evidence dial up “The ’85 Bears,” an ESPN 30 for 30, on Netflix. The relationship between Ryan and Mike Singletary is like a father and son. Singletary could tell the end was near and wasn’t sure he would see Ryan again – the emotion from the linebacker was palpable. Do yourself a favor and carve out 90 minutes to watch the documentary. As noted, Ryan’s health was failing, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of the loss the football world felt with his passing. Buddy Ryan went on to be a head coach, but his contribution to the 1985 Bears may be his lasting impact on the game (that and his coaching sons Rex and Rob).
Now, on to the Bengals. I was going to write about the sixth- and seventh-round picks from the most recent draft; but, Brian Baldinger from the NFL Network threw a wrench in those plans. On Tuesday, he released a video ranking his three most underrated NFL offenses. The Bengals came in second on that list (behind the Seahawks). Watching this video got me thinking about the upcoming year and what we can expect from the offense, I came up with five questions that the Bengals will need to answer for the offense to be effective. (Please don’t think that I am less-than-enthusiastic about the upcoming season, the Bengals should be good – but I am looking at questions that have to be answered to take the next step.)
The Bengals lost Marvin Jones to the Lions and Mo Sanu to the Falcons – so who is left to take the pressure off of AJ Green? Last year, with Jones and Sanu, Green had 86 catches for 1,297 yards. There is no doubt that he is the mainstay of the receiving corps and is integral to any success that the offense will have. With Jones and Sanu gone, the Bengals will need to find someone to draw coverage. The Bengals drafted Tyler Boyd – who could become a legit second receiver, but will he step into that role right away? The team signed Brandon LaFell, who could fit the bill as a #2 receiver – but his career stats probably won’t scare defenses. Behind LaFell and Boyd are James Wright, Brandon Tate, Mario Alford, Jake Kumerow, and sixth-round pick Cody Core. This is a rather green receiving corps and someone is going to have to step up … which leads me to my next question.
There is no doubt, Tyler Eifert is a bonafide weapon. He had his breakout season last year, catching 52 of 72 passes thrown his way for 615 yards and 13 TDs. He can be the legit second target behind Green, but he had ankle surgery at the end of May and will miss all of training camp. I’m not saying Eifert is soft; but, injuries have followed him through college and his pro career. Andy Dalton and the Bengals’ offense needs Eifert to be healthy and take some of the coverage away from Green, the other receivers, and Gio Bernard running routes out of the backfield. The good news is that this latest setback is supposed to be “minor,” will he be able to get back to full-strength by the time the season rolls around?
There are experts who believe that the Bengals were a Super Bowl team last year when Andy Dalton was healthy and that run was stopped with his thumb injury (although AJ McCarron did a serviceable job as his replacement). Will the Ginger Messiah be able to replicate 2015? When Dalton’s season ended, he had a 106.3 QB rating – far better than the 88.8 he posted in 2013. Dalton was ultra-efficient last year, not panicking when he was pressured. For the first time in his career, Dalton looked comfortable in the pocket and was able to check down to his second, third, or fourth options when needed. Dalton has a solid, top-rated offensive line in front of him – so that should definitely help … can he keep his head on straight when all around him is falling apart? If the answer is yes, we could see the Bengals break that playoff drought this year.
There were several reasons the Bengals lost to the Steelers in the playoffs – most notably Jeremy Hill’s fumble. I’m not breaking news by saying Hill followed up a rather impressive rookie year with a disappointing sophomore campaign. In the same amount of carries (222 in 2014 and 223 in 2015) Hill gained 400 fewer yards. Yes, he had two more TDs, but that was a direct result of the way the team used him on the goal line. Hill looked less explosive in 2015, lacking that burst of speed he used in his rookie season. Gio Bernard did step up and make up for Hill’s lack of production – but I’d rather have both of these backs firing on all cylinders. With Hill’s power and Bernard’s speed, you have a lightning/thunder combination that can really open up the passing game. If defenses are more concerned with stopping these two, play action would be deadly. If Hill can rebound (and Gio stay solid) the offense could again prove deadly.
This leads me to the biggest question about the Bengals offense in the coming season …
Another year, another offensive coordinator. I was a big-time Hue Jackson fan – what he did with this offense kept defenses guessing and made Dalton and crew very effective. Will Ken Zampese be able to do the same? I’m not looking for Zampese to split the tackles out wide like Jackson did; but, he is going to have to use some innovative formations to get favorable matchups. How is he going to get a good coverage matchup for AJ? What is he going to do to get Gio one-on-one with a linebacker in the flats? Will Zampese find the weakness on the defensive line and exploit it with blocking schemes?
Good teams lose coordinators, and this has happened to the Bengals a lot lately. When Jackson took over for Gruden, the offense didn’t miss a beat and got better. Will Zampese be able to do the same? Perhaps it’s the jaded Bengal fan in me, but I have my doubts about the new coordinator. What works in his favor is that he has been with the Bengals since 2003 and knows what is effective from past offensive schemes. Familiarity is a good thing here. I also like his pedigree. Before coming to the Bengals, Zampese coached with the likes of Mike Martz and Ray Rhodes. He has the experience, will he be able to put that experience into practice and come up with an innovative scheme?