Bengals look for missing offense during bye week
CINCINNATI (AP) — Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden had bleary eyes as he analyzed video of the Bengals’ latest meltdown.
A few hours later, it was still hard to take.
“You don’t sleep,” Gruden said. “There’s not much sleep last night, that’s for sure.”
A 24-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday set up that sleepless night in Cincinnati, one that yielded a few clues about where the Bengals (3-4) are headed next. The main one: Either they fix the offense or they can forget about another playoff season.
And it has to happen fast.
The Bengals went into their bye on a three-game losing streak that pushed them in the direction of another lost season. They’re just starting the tough part of the schedule — up next are Denver and the New York Giants — and they seem to be regressing by the week.
Especially on offense.
Cincinnati invested a lot of its hopes in the Dalton-to-Green connection. First-round pick A.J. Green and second-rounder Andy Dalton led the Bengals to a 9-7 record and a wild card berth as rookies, such an impressive showing that they both reached the Pro Bowl.
They expected to be even better the second time around.
“I feel like I’m more advanced in this offense than I was last year,” Dalton said this week. “I feel like I’ve got a better understanding of what’s all going on.”
In the last three games, he’s looked a little lost.
Dalton has thrown six interceptions during Cincinnati’s longest losing streak in two years. Dalton had a pair of INTs, including one that ended the game, in a loss to Miami. He threw three more in a loss at Cleveland, including one that was returned for a touchdown.
Dalton had the ball slip out of his hand as he tried to pull up on a throw against Pittsburgh, resulting in an interception that turned the game around. That gave him at least one in each of the first seven games.
His strength is making quick decisions and getting rid of the ball. The Steelers took away the quick throws — Green wound up with only one catch — and Dalton struggled.
“Sometimes I feel like I should slow down a little bit and let things happen,” Dalton said.
That’s one of the main things the Bengals are looking to change during the bye week.
They were good at creating big plays on the run during their 3-1 start. Dalton would hold onto the ball, scramble away from pressure and complete a short pass that a receiver would then turn into a long touchdown. They haven’t gotten as many of those lately.
“We are not creating any unscripted things,” coach Marvin Lewis said.
“That is our job as coaches, and for our players to be able to make some of the unscripted plays, whether it be on offense or defense. We have to make some that affect the game. We did that early in the season. We haven’t done it over the last three weeks.”
A lot of it rests with Dalton, who is good at avoiding sacks because of his quick release — he’s been dropped only five times in the last four games — but sometimes throws the ball too readily rather than letting a play develop.
“He’s got to do a better job of that,” Gruden said. “Comes with time. He’s still in his second year. He’s programmed to being such a great rhythm, timing quarterback, but sometimes defenses can take away initial reads. He’s going to have to wait for somebody else.”
It’s not only the offense. The defense got run over by a Steelers team missing two starting offensive linemen and its top two running backs. Special teams gave up some good kick returns.
There’s a lot to fix.
The loss at Pittsburgh stung the most of the last three. The Bengals have been trying to reach the level of the Steelers and the Ravens in the AFC North and contend for a division title. They went 0-4 against them last season and are 0-2 this year.
The loss to Pittsburgh struck a nerve with fans who thought the Bengals were finally growing into a consistent contender. They reached the playoffs last season in part because of a favorable schedule. Lewis got a contract extension as a reward for the unexpected success.
With a more typical schedule, they’re back to losing more often than they win. The first three games at Paul Brown Stadium were sold out — an improvement over last season, when the Bengals managed to sell out only two home games.
The three straight losses will make it tougher to fill the 65,000 seats the rest of the way. They play the Broncos and Giants at home coming out of their bye, needing a couple of wins to re-establish themselves.
“We’re going to be playing some really good teams,” Dalton said. “For us, it’s going to be a good test. We’re really going to find out what this team’s made of now. We’ve kind of dug ourselves in a little bit of a hole, and we’ve got to find a way to get out of it.”
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