Lessons Learned from 1-3

The Bengals‘ preseason is over. For perhaps the first time in the history of preseason, I kind of wish it wasn’t. Ordinarily, the call of the regular season is to me like a siren’s to a sailor. But this year, with no offseason to install our new offense with our rookie QB and rookie WR, I really wish there was a little more time.

But there isn’t so we may as well look at what we know after four preseason games in which the Bengals struggled by and large to score.

Andy Dalton is Unflappable
The most encouraging thing about this preseason is that the Bengals’ new franchise quarterback doesn’t seem to be fazed by anything that goes wrong. His first NFL pass was intercepted. He was repeatedly pressured by the Lions and Jets. Dalton didn’t seem to care. He just went back in the next time and did his best.

Sometimes, his best was more than adequate. Dalton responded to two turnovers against the Lions by coolly directing the team down the field to three points. Against the Jets, he recovered from an 0 for 6 start that included an interception and drove the Bengals to their first touchdown of the preseason. He followed up a fumble on a bad exchange against the Panthers with a 16-play drive that ended in the endzone and a tied score.

He doesn’t get rattled, and, for a rookie QB, that’s a very good thing. Because the Steelers, Ravens, and perhaps even the Browns will do everything necessary to discombobulate a young signal-caller. Dalton’s cool will serve him well once the games start to count.

It’s also a sharp contrast to his predecessor. In the waning days of his career, it became obvious Carson Palmer thought he had to do it all for the Bengals to win. He tried to fit passes where they wouldn’t go, and he wanted to go long on any down that was more than five yards. He didn’t have the patience to take what the defense gave him more often than not, and it cost him interceptions and the Bengals games. Dalton looks to have a different demeanor.

To Run and not to (allow the) Run
Cedric Benson wanted to get to the run-first formula that earned the Bengals a division championship in 2009. New offensive coordinator, Jay Gruden, is happy to oblige. The Bengals are running the ball effectively. Benson was about the only offensive bright spot against the Lions. Against the Panthers, he rushed for 68 yards and a touchdown while Bernard Scott went for 63 yards and a touch. Against the Colts, both rested while Brian Leonard went off for 57 yards and 4.6 per carry.

Meanwhile, no one ran the ball on the Bengals. The Lions averaged 2.2 yards per carry. The Jets, admittedly without Shonn Greene, did no better. The only player who got any yards running for Carolina was Cam Newton when he scrambled. The first-team defense held the Colts to -5 yards rushing. In a run-first division, this is a very good sign. The Bengals made it look like they could handle Rashard Mendenhall, Ray Rice, and Peyton Hillis.

The Bengals gave the ball away 10 times in the preseason. The last two agains the Colts happened in scoring position — one in the redzone. That’s better than two turnovers a game. By way of contrast, Cincinnati only had two takeaways the whole preseason, and only one was by the defense.

That just isn’t good enough on other side of the ball. With a rookie QB, Cincinnati cannot be giving the ball away. On numerous occasions, the opponent started on their side of the field, putting tremendous pressure on the defense. Likewise, they cannot deny themselves scoring opportunities. A young offense needs as many points as it can put up.

Similarly, the defense just has to make it easier on Dalton and company. It’s a lot harder to go 80 yards than 40. A few more takeways would make it much easier for the offense to generate some points. Starting at the opponents’ 40, Dalton would only need to generate one first down to put Mike Nugent in scoring position. He might only need five yards with Nugent’s leg. And he has to string together far fewer successful plays to get the team to paydirt.

Passing Fancy
As good as the Bengals were against the run, they were not nearly as strong against the pass. The Jets put together a 99-yard drive for a touchdown courtesy of a 40+ yard pass to Dustin Keller. Matt Stafford burned Leon Hall for two touchdown passes in less than two minutes. Most of the touchdowns the Bengals allowed this preseason were passing.

It doesn’t do any good to stop Mendenhall if Ben Roethlisberger can find Mike Dixon for 15 yards on 3rd and 11. It doesn’t matter if Ray Rice is held to 39 yards rushing if Anquan Boldin has 150 yards receiving and a couple of touchdowns.

Back it Up
Perhaps the worst stat of the preseason was this: 40-0. That’s how badly opponents outscored the Bengals in the second half of preseason games. Translation: there is no depth on this roster. The Bengals are going to have to pray everyone stays healthy. Otherwise, games are going to get away from them.

For the Record?
It’s hard to know what the Bengals final record will be. They have a soft schedule and a lot more talent than people give them credit for. But they also have a shocking lack of depth, a propensity to turn the ball over, and a rookie quarterback.

If they get a few breaks early on, win some games, and build some confidence, it’s conceivable the Bengals could be a late-season surprise. But if Andy Dalton is as slow to start in the season as he has been in games, it could get ugly. This is very much a wait-and-see season for Cincinnati.

I wish preseason was just a little longer.


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