The Cincinnati Bengals have one of the deepest and most talented offensive rosters in the NFL. Weapons abound for their quarterback, Andy Dalton. They spent the draft taking players like tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard to make Dalton's life easier.
But yet, things have only gotten increasingly more difficult for the offensive side of the ball in Cincinnati.
Though the Bengals have a 2-2 record—good for a three-way tie for the top spot in the AFC North—they could be in a much better position right now. Though the defense can and should share part of the blame for this, the offense has been performing far worse than expected.
Dalton is surrounded by better offensive weaponry than most other teams in the NFL, but the weaponry doesn't matter if Dalton cannot do anything with it. In fact, the Bengals seem to be asking Dalton to do too much, all at the sacrifice of their run game and their win-loss record.
On Sunday, the Bengals were defeated by the Cleveland Browns, 17-6. Dalton completed just 23 of his 42 pass attempts for 206 yards, no touchdowns, an interception and a lost fumble. He averaged only 4.9 yards per attempt. All of these were his worst numbers of the year, and it's not a coincidence it came in a game in which the Bengals ran the ball only 20 times, netting 63 yards.
To be fair, the Browns have a top-four rushing defense, allowing only 79 rush yards per game. However, that doesn't excuse the fact that the Bengals have turned away from being balanced. Through four games, the Bengals are averaging 37 pass attempts per week to just 24.8 runs. This, all while possessing a solid one-two punch at running back with the elusive Bernard and the bruising BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
More frustrating is how the Bengals haven't balanced out the carries between the two backs. Green-Ellis has 52 carries thus far for 142 yards and two touchdowns and is averaging 2.7 yards per carry. Bernard has 32 carries—20 fewer than Green-Ellis—but has 147 yards and two rushing touchdowns of his own. He's averaging 4.6 yards per carry.
Any other team with two heavily-used running backs would likely prefer to get more carries to the more productive one, but not the Bengals. Bernard did have more carries than Green-Ellis against the Browns, but again, the numbers were low, with 10 for Bernard and six for Green-Ellis. Bernard should have had 16 carries himself, with Green-Ellis a mere contributor.
Further, Bernard has been far more valuable as a receiver. Green-Ellis has only two receptions, netting nine yards. Bernard has 12 for 122 and a touchdown. Bernard's versatility would provide a good safety valve for Dalton, but he's not getting enough time on the field.
Bernard is smaller, yes, which limits his effectiveness in pass protection (he was matched up against—and burned by—Browns linebacker Paul Kruger on Sunday), but that cannot be the only explanation for his underuse.
Play-calling questions combined with Dalton's limitations have resulted in some bad throws at bad times. Joe Goodberry breaks down Dalton's struggles to read defenses and his insistence to lock onto A.J. Green even when it's not advisable. Dalton needs to move the ball around more, and the best way to get that done is more 12 personnel—two tight ends and a running back along with two receivers.
Eifert was the best tight end in the 2013 draft class, and he's looked good so far with 12 catches for 159 yards and a team-leading 13.3 yards per reception. However, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Eifert has played only 168 offensive snaps to fellow tight end Jermaine Gresham's 254.
These two must be on the field at the same time more often, which means Eifert must see more playing time. With two tight ends, Green, Mohamed Sanu or Marvin Jones at receiver and either Green-Ellis or Bernard at running back as the Bengals' base offense, Dalton has better chances for success.
The opportunities in both the passing and running games are opened up, defenses are stretched thin and the real playmaking ability of these weapons can be fully showcased, all by just using 12 personnel.
Dalton is the sort of quarterback who needs balanced play-calling in order to be successful. He's not a carry-the-team, pass-the-ball-50-times-a-week type of player, and he may never be. The offensive players around him actually make it so he doesn't need to be, as long as the plays being called are done so with keeping that in mind.
No, being a top rushing offense does not mean games won or playoff appearances. Of the top 10 teams in average rushing yards per game, just two—the Seattle Seahawks and Indianapolis Colts—presently have winning records. The more successful teams are like the Kansas City Chiefs, who are 4-0, rank 13th in rushing yards per game and 22nd in passing.
The key to success is balance, if a team can manage it. Not every team possesses both running and receiving talent to the degree the Bengals have, so it is baffling why they wouldn't use that better to their advantage.
The Bengals cannot afford to keep wasting their assets, not in an AFC North so completely up for grabs and not in a league with two dozen teams that would do almost anything to have the kinds of players the Bengals so stubbornly are misusing.