It might seem hard to consider the Cincinnati Bengals legitimate title contenders, based on their recent flameouts in postseason play, but Marvin Lewis' squad should be feared, due to a dynamic offense that's lighting up scoreboards around the NFL. The Bengals lead the league in offensive touchdowns while also ranking in the top five in nearly every major offensive category. Sunday's showdown with the Seattle Seahawks and the Legion of Boom will make for a stout test. But given some time to review the All-22 Coaches Film, I've come up with the following reasons to believe Cincinnati's offense could spark a surprising title run this season:
1) Andy Dalton is playing at an MVP level.
Some could be tempted to dismiss the notion that Dalton is elite, based on his reputation for faltering in prime time. But one simply cannot ignore the spectacular performance and production the fifth-year pro has put up this season. Dalton is completing 67.2 percent of his passes and averaging 296.8 passing yards per game while tallying a 9:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio through four games. Most impressively, Dalton has compiled a 123.0 passer rating while averaging 10.2 yards per attempt.
Those numbers not only put Dalton in the conversation with Aaron Rodgers (72.4 percent completion rate, 248.8 passing yards per game, 11:0 TD-to-INT ratio and a 125.9 passer rating) and Tom Brady (72.2 percent completion rate, 370.7 passing yards per game, 9:0 TD-to-INT ratio and a 119.6 passer rating) as one of the top passers in the league, but it squarely thrusts the Bengals' quarterback into the MVP conversation as one of the most efficient passers in the game.
Skeptics will snicker at the thought of Dalton walking away with the hardware at season's end, but a quick look at the All-22 Coaches Film reveals a young passer quickly developing into a premier playmaker. Dalton has been extremely accurate with his ball placement on throws to every area of the field, allowing his pass catchers to pile up YAC (yards after the catch) on an assortment of quick-rhythm throws. Dalton's superb anticipation, timing and awareness jump off the tape; it is one of the most improved areas of his game compared to his performance in 2014.
In the play depicted below, taken from the Bengals' win over the Kansas City Chiefsin Week 4, Dalton shows exceptional timing and anticipation on a throw to Mohamed Sanu down the seam. The Bengals break the huddle aligned in a dubs formation, with Sanu positioned in the slot. He is instructed to run a seam route down the hash to attack the void in the middle of the coverage. Dalton reads the coverage and delivers a dart to Sanu once he clears the slot defender. The timing, accuracy and execution is perfect on the play, resulting in a 52-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Part of Dalton's success as a passer can be attributed to the Bengals' incorporation of more quick-rhythm throws (slants, seams and quick hitches/sticks) into the game plan, to attack soft areas of coverage. Most of these rhythm throws feature a quick run-fake from Dalton to hold the linebackers for a count, creating space for receivers on the perimeter. With Dalton adept at executing similar plays and concepts during his time at TCU (the Horned Frogs' spread attack featured a number of RPOs, or run-pass options, and quick strikes off play-action), the Bengals' young star has become a more confident and decisive playmaker from the pocket. Thus, he is completing a high rate of his passes and keeping the offense in manageable situations by staying ahead of the chains.
Dalton's athleticism, mobility and improvisational skills also stood out during my film study. The 6-foot-2, 216-pounder is a nimble athlete on the perimeter; his ability to execute designed quarterback runs or extend plays has added a dimension to the Bengals' attack. Looking at Dalton's robust 10.2 yards-per-pass-attempt mark, I've been surprised at how many of his big plays have resulted from impromptu scramble tosses. He has a knack for finding open receivers downfield when rolling to his right or left, putting tremendous pressure on the secondary when he flees the pocket. Dalton has routinely exploited out-of-position defenders by dropping pinpoint dimes over their heads when he catches them napping on the perimeter. He torched the Kansas City Chiefs repeatedly on scramble tosses, including the 55-yard touchdown to Brandon Tate seen in the video clip to the right.
With Dalton showing tremendous growth and progress as a passer, the Bengals' offense has fired on all cylinders and become one of the most explosive units in the league. If Dalton continues to thrive as the conductor of the Bengals' high-flying attack, he could swipe some hardware from a few accomplished passers at the end of the season.
2) Hue Jackson's creativity has shaped an offensive juggernaut.
It's no coincidence the Bengals' offense has gone from good to great with Jackson at coordinator. The 49-year-old is a masterful schemer with a proven track record of crafting explosive offenses built around the strengths of his top playmakers.
During his time in Oakland, Jackson turned the Raiders into a top-10 offense on the strength of a punishing ground attack that featured multiple backs (Darren McFadden and Michael Bush) and a variety of unbalanced line tactics that confused defenders at the point of attack. He frequently overloaded one side of the line with four or more offensive linemen to create a numerical advantage and used a series of power/counter plays to bludgeon defenses between the tackles. Additionally, Jackson crafted a respectable passing game in Oakland, despite lacking a marquee playmaker on the perimeter.
In Cincinnati, Jackson has one of the most impressive collection of perimeter playmakers in the NFL at his disposal. The Bengals have a franchise quarterback in Dalton, a potent 1-2 combination in the backfield (Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill) and a dynamic pass-catching corps (A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones and tight end Tyler Eifert) that can challenge defenses at every level. Jackson has found a way to take advantage of each of his playmakers' best attributes while crafting a scheme around the strengths of his quarterback.
Dalton is most comfortable working from the shotgun, based on his experience directing TCU's spread attack. Thus, Jackson has featured an offense that primarily operates out of the shotgun, with enough traditional two-back sets and power elements added to maximize his young running backs' skills in the backfield.
Bernard is most effective executing the zone running game from the shotgun. He spent most of his time at North Carolina as the feature back in a spread system. Thus, he has a natural feel for finding the seams and cutback alleys available on zone runs, particularly those executed with a zone-read fake from the quarterback. With fewer defenders in the box due to the pass-heavy nature of the spread formation and shotgun set-up, Bernard has enough space to slip out the back door when he spots a defender out of position at the point of attack.
In the play depicted below, taken from the win over the Chiefs, Bernard scores a touchdown on an inside zone from a shotgun formation. The Bengals are aligned in a left bunch formation, with Bernard positioned at halfback on the left. At the snap, Dalton hands the ball to Bernard heading into the A gap on the right. The slippery runner sees the crease created by the solid blocks of Clint Boling and Russell Bodine at the line. With a huge seam ahead, Bernard scoots into the end zone for a 13-yard score (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Hill is most effective running between the tackles on power-based plays from two-back sets. He spent the bulk of his college career as the "dot" back in LSU's I-formation, which is why he excels on hard-hitting plays between the tackles. Hill's explosiveness and physicality is ideal for the Bengals' power package (power-O and counter), especially in short-yardage or goal-line situations. But Hill is also adept at running the power or counter from shotgun formations. Thus, the Bengals can easily morph into a power team at the point by inserting Hill into the game with a variety of personnel packages on the field.
In the play depicted below, taken from the win over the Chiefs, Hill scores the first of his three touchdowns on the day on a counter play that showcases his balance, body control and explosiveness between the tackles. The Bengals are aligned in an ace wing slot formation, with Hill at the "dot" position. He will execute a counter step to allow the back-side guard (Boling) and tackle (Andrew Whitworth) to pull around and through the hole. With Boling perfectly executing a kick-out block and Whitworth climbing onto a second-level defender, Hill slips into an open crease, breaks a tackle and rumbles into the end zone on an 8-yard score (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Jackson's diversified approach has also shown up in the Bengals' passing game, with each receiver fitting a specified role. Green is a natural WR1 with the speed, burst and ball skills to deliver impact plays on short, intermediate and vertical routes. He is a movable chess piece on the field, and Jackson puts him in ideal spots to get the bulk of the passes in the passing game.
Jones and Sanu are nice complementary weapons on the perimeter. Sanu serves as a big-bodied possession receiver with strong hands and ball skills. He is capable of doing the dirty work between the hashes, but he's also a threat to snatch 50-50 balls in the red zone. Jones is a polished route runner with savvy and sneaky speed. He is adept executing double moves on the outside, resulting in big gains downfield.
With Green, Sanu and Jones creating headaches for defenders on the perimeter, Jackson has been able to use Eifert as a wild card in the passing game. The third-year pro is a natural pass catcher with outstanding ball skills and soft hands. He creates mismatches with his extraordinary size (6-foot-6, 250 pounds), athleticism and body control. Jackson takes advantage of his superior physical attributes by deploying Eifert as a hybrid TE/WR in various spread formations.
The All-22 Coaches Film revealed that Jackson frequently puts Eifert on the outside on spread and empty formations to create big-play opportunities. In the play depicted below, taken from Cincinnati's win over Oakland in Week 1, the Bengals are aligned in a trio formation, with Eifert aligned out wide on the right. Eifert is instructed to run a skinny post, with Bernard executing an angle route underneath. Dalton will read the reaction of Ray-Ray Armstrong to determine whether to go to the post or angle route. With Armstrong expanding to match Bernard, Dalton tosses the ball to Eifert between a pair of defenders. Notice how Dalton throws the ball high and away from the defenders, to take advantage of Eifert's superior size. This play results in a 13-yard touchdown for the Bengals(TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
3) The Bengals' offensive line is the best in the business.
No disrespect to the Dallas Cowboys and their star-studded offensive line, but the Bengals' O-line is playing the best football of any unit in the NFL. The unit has flown under the radar for the past two seasons, but the rugged quintet (Whitworth, Boling, Bodine, Kevin Zeitler and Andre Smith) has dominated at the point of attack, creating huge running lanes and providing excellent protection for Dalton. The unit, which surrendered the third-fewest sacks in the NFL in 2014 (23), has allowed just two sacks in 2015.
While numbers can be misleading, especially given the Bengals' offensive philosophy (quick-rhythm teams typically surrender fewer sacks, because the quarterback is expected to get the ball out of his hands quickly), the All-22 Coaches Film shows a unit that plays on the string at the line. The chemistry and communication between the unit is impeccable, resulting in few free rushers on passing downs. Most impressively, the O-line routinely provides Dalton with a clean pocket, which allows him to make precise throws without rushers in close proximity.
In the running game, the Bengals excel at blowing defenders off the ball, yet they're also athletic enough to execute movement blocks in a zone scheme. This provides Jackson with the flexibility to use a variety of tactics to attack various defensive fronts at the point of attack. The results have been outstanding for the Bengals since 2013, with the Bengals sporting a 19-3-1 record when rushing for 100 or more yards.
With a dominant front setting the tone at the line of scrimmage, the Bengals can line up and slug it out with any defense in a physical affair.