Though the hallmark of the Cincinnati Bengals 2012 season ended up being their defense, it wasn't a terribly poor year for their young offense, either. Second-year quarterback Andy Dalton didn't appear to suffer much of a sophomore slump, despite an influx of new players to throw to, and though their run game left something to be desired, BenJarvus Green-Ellis outperformed expectations.
Let's take a closer look at how things played out the offensive side of ball for the Bengals this past season.
The Passing Game
The Bengals season began with Andy Dalton throwing to a younger corps of receivers that included familiar faces from his rookie season, A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham. Though receivers such as Andrew Hawkins and Armon Binns had been around for Dalton's rookie season, their involvement was negligible in 2011, and the same could be said for Brandon Tate, who operated only as a return man.
Added to the mix were rookies Mohamed Sanu, who would end up playing a marginal role until being sidelined with an injury, and Marvin Jones. Binns and Tate spent the summer competing for the No. 2 job alongside Green, but as the season wore on, multiple receivers were called upon to take up that role.
Binns was the starter for five of the first six games, but drops and his shakiness as a blocker saw him fall down the Bengals' depth chart until he was finally waived at the end of the season. Tate took over the starter's role in Weeks 7 through 10, but after six targets and one catch in Week 9 against the Denver Broncos, and then one target and no catches against the New York Giants the week after, he too was demoted, in favor of Sanu.
In the five games in which he was active (including two starts), Sanu appeared to have the most promise of all the Bengals' young receivers not named Green, pulling down 17 of the 25 passes thrown his way for 159 yards and four touchdowns, with those scores coming in his last three games. He had no drops and had a season-high 10 targets in his final game, Week 12's drubbing of the Oakland Raiders.
However, Sanu suffered a season-ending foot injury in practice the following week, and the Bengals had to turn to Jones. From Week 13 through the Wild Card Round, Jones started opposite Green. His production was more sporadic than Sanu's, with a catch percentage of 58.3, and though he did have 235 yards, he scored just one touchdown (Week 17 against the Baltimore Ravens).
Add to that Hawkins' inconsistent production from the slot and Dalton was ultimately left with Green and Gresham again being his most reliable targets for most of the season.
Though Green's average yards per reception dropped from 16.3 in his rookie season to 13.9 in 2012, the rest of his numbers increased. He had 1,430 total yards (compared to 1,104 in 2011) and 11 receiving touchdowns (versus seven). His drops doubled to 10, but his targets also went up considerably, from 123 to 167.
In total, however, 2012 was a marked improvement for Green in almost every measurable way. According to Pro Football Focus, he was ranked eighth out of 105 receivers for 2012, while in 2011, he was 51st out of 115.
Gresham's year was mostly better than 2011, as he pulled in 66 receptions for 744. His five receiving touchdowns nearly equaled that of last year; however, Gresham's blocking became a major area of concern.
He notched positive grades from Pro Football Focus in everything but run-blocking in 2011 and ended the year as the 26th-ranked tight end. In 2012, however, PFF ranked Gresham last among tight ends, with no positive grades to be found. It was he who benefited least from season-long changes on the offensive line and at receiver, as well as from the team having to rely primarily on a single running back for help.
With so many changes around him this season, and so much youth and relative inexperience in the receiving corps, it's rather surprising that Dalton didn't struggle more than he did. Including the playoffs, Dalton completed 344 of his 560 pass attempts for 3,801 yards, 27 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. He was sacked 48 times and ended his year with a passer rating of 87.4.
Not surprisingly, all of those numbers are up from his rookie season, though it's disturbing that he was sacked a 20 more times in 2012. And though he threw but one more interception in his second season, Dalton had only five games in which he didn't throw a pick, compared to nine in his rookie campaign.
There was a notable drop off in Dalton's accuracy when under pressure in 2012. Though his completion percentage when rushed didn't fall very much, his actions when pressured did. He threw away only 10 passes when facing pressure this season and the result was more forced passes and interceptions; in 2011, by contrast, he threw the ball away 20 times when hurried, and he had no interceptions in those situations.
Dalton also held onto the ball longer in his sophomore season, which likely contributed to his increased sack total. In 2011, 190 of Dalton's 563 dropbacks saw him stand in the pocket for more than 2.6 seconds, while this year, he stood in the pocket longer than 2.6 seconds on 231 of 592 total dropbacks, and more sacks were the result.
However, considering how many changes the Bengals' receiving corps saw in 2012, as well as the fact that their starting quarterback was in only his second season, the signs of progress for Cincinnati's passing offense were very encouraging.
Keeping the roster consistent this offseason will be necessary, however, for this group to take that next step.
The Running Game
Things were a bit simpler when it came to the Bengals' running game—it was all about BenJarvus Green-Ellis—though that wasn't the intention initially. Green-Ellis was to replace Cedric Benson, but the plan was hoping to be the same as in the previous season, with Green-Ellis being joined by Bernard Scott in the offensive backfield.
First sidelined throughout training camp with a hand injury, Scott didn't take the field until Week 3 against the Washington Redskins, rushing three times for minus-5 yards. He then injured his ankle, returning to action in Week 5 against the Miami Dolphins. He looked sharp, tallying 40 yards on five carries before suffering a season-ending ACL tear.
Though the Bengals had Brian Leonard, Cedric Peerman and seventh-round draft pick Dan Herron on the team, none of the three made much of an impact. Leonard reprised his role as a passing-down back and had almost as many receiving yards (66) as he did rushing (72). Peerman was again little more than a special teams standout. Herron had just four carries near the end of the season, having spent most of the year on the practice squad.
Green-Ellis handled his feature-back role well, even if it wasn't one he was best suited to play. His 298 carries and 1,157 rushing yards were career highs, though his six touchdowns weren't. He did, however, have a string of productive games, Weeks 11 through 15, when the Bengals faced run-challenged defenses like the Oakland Raiders and Philadelphia Eagles. He rushed for 89 yards or more in every game during that span.
Green-Ellis' season highlighted two things about the Bengals running game that need to be addressed in 2013—that Green-Ellis certainly has value in Cincinnati as a powerful, north-south rusher and that the Bengals desperately need a speedy back with burst and change of direction to help round out their running attack.
The Offensive Line
The Bengals ended up in the less-than-enviable position of having to retool their offensive line just prior to the start of the regular season. First, free-agent addition Travelle Wharton suffered a season-ending knee injury in mid-August, and then veteran center Kyle Cook injured his foot at the end of that month, requiring the team to sign Jeff Faine to take his spot.
That meant that at the beginning of the year there were three new faces starting in the interior of the offensive line, including rookie right guard Kevin Zeitle
But that wasn't the end of the changes for Cincinnati's offensive line. Eventually Faine gave way to rookie Trevor Robinson, after the former proved to be a liability in run-blocking. Robinson fared far better in that capacity and may well have earned himself the starting job in the future, but Cook's return from injury had him back in his old job, even though his play also proved to be a drop-off from Robinson's.
The real stars of Cincinnati's offensive line were tackles Andre Smith and Andrew Whitworth, who finished the season both ranked in the top 10 at their position, according to Pro Football Focus. Whitworth ranked second overall in pass-blocking.
There could be more big decisions ahead for the Bengals when it comes to their offensive line. They'll need to decide if they want to retain Wharton after his knee injury or whether Clint Boling can remain their starting left guard. Whether to keep Robinson as their starting center or turn to the the aging Cook will be another critical consideration.
There's also the matter of Smith's impending free agency. He was invaluable to the Bengals' offensive line this season, but with Bengals owner Mike Brown a bit stingy with the cash, Smith may find a better deal elsewhere.