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Running The Numbers: Bengals Have Offensive Tendencies

Posted Dec 6, 2012

The Cincinnati Bengals don’t have a ton of playmakers on offense, but they do own one of the league’s premier offensive lines. Andrew Whitworth, Andre Smith & Co. provide Andy Dalton with time to find the team’s best player in wide receiver A.J. Green. Defenses typically have trouble reaching Dalton, giving the Bengals the ability to pass in order to set up the run.

57.1: Bengals’ overall pass rate.

The Bengals have passed the ball on nearly three out of five snaps this season, which is about average for an NFL team. However, Cincinnati’s pass rate through the first three quarters is 58.9 percent, meaning they fall on the slightly pass-heavy end of the play-calling spectrum in normal game situations.

45.2: Bengals’ first down pass rate.

The typical NFL team passes the ball 47.9 percent of the time on first down, so Cincinnati is a bit more run-heavy than the average offense with a new set of chains. Defenses may have caught on since the Bengals have totaled only 3.15 yards per carry (YPC) on first down in 2012. Even over the past three weeks, when the Bengals have really gotten their running game going, they’ve averaged only 3.06 YPC on first down. Compare that to 7.5 yards per attempt (YPA) and a 101.6 passer rating on first down for Andy Dalton this season.

The Bengals’ run-heavy philosophy on early downs is a major reason they have a low first down conversion rate. They’ve converted only 17.9 percent of their first downs, compared to a league average of 20.9 percent. The running game has helped Cincinnati set up manageable third downs; they’re average distance-to-go on third down (6.27 yards) is nearly a full yard superior to the league average.

Nonetheless, the Bengals would probably be a more potent offense if they sought more upside on first down. Sure, their third downs might become less “manageable,” but they’d also see fewer of them, meaning their overall offensive efficiency would improve. Plus, it isn’t like the Bengals are converting on a whole lot of third downs anyway; their 36.0 percent conversion rate is three percentage points below the league average. For the record, the Cowboys own one of the league’s best third down conversion rates at 43.1 percent.

12: Number of times Cincinnati has gone for it on fourth down in the first half.

This stat is quite remarkable. While the Bengals seem like a semi-conservative offense on early downs, their decision-making has been rather aggressive in 2012. They’ve averaged one fourth-down try per game in the first half alone this year. In comparison, the NFL average for first half fourth down attempts is only 2.9, meaning Cincinnati has attempted over four times as many as the typical team.

The Bengals’ aggressive fourth down play-calling is a good thing. NFL teams are far, far too conservative on fourth down. Actually, in certain areas of the field, coaches should statistically go for it on up to fourth-and-15 in normal game situations (and going for it on fourth-and-short is a no-brainer almost everywhere on the field, even deep in one’s own territory). Check out some of the Bengals’ more gutsy fourth down calls this year:

  • Fourth-and-3 at their own 29-yard line in the first quarter.
  • Fourth-and-1 at their own 34-yard line in the first quarter.
  • Fourth-and-7 at the opponent’s 36-yard line in the first quarter.
  • Fourth-and-goal at the opponent’s 5-yard line in the second quarter.

By the way, I label such calls as “gutsy” only in the sense that they fly in the face of conventional wisdom. The truth is that going for it on fourth down is often the safe play, while punting, a form of turning over the ball, is the true risk.

And as it stands right now, the Bengals have converted on 10 of their 12 first half fourth down attempts. Using historical data, we can determine the exact points the Bengals could be expected to score, on average, after going for it on fourth down; Cincinnati’s total gain in expected points on those 12 fourth down plays alone has been 29.2, meaning they’ve averaged an extra 2.4 points per game just from those 12 calls on fourth down. If you want to know why the Bengals, a team that’s really pretty average across the board, is in the AFC playoff hunt, look no further than their aggressive (and correct) fourth down decision-making.

16.3: Percentage of Andy Dalton’s dropbacks that show play-action.

The Bengals don’t run a whole lot of play-action, ranking just 20th in the NFL. Dalton is actually one of only four signal-callers in the league to have worse efficiency on play-action passes as compared to straight dropbacks.

11.8: Percentage of Dalton’s passes that have traveled 20-plus yards.

Dalton’s deep ball percentage ranks him 15th in the NFL. The Bengals like to go deep on early downs since they run so often in such situations, however. As you may have guessed, Green is often the target of those passes; 59.2 percent of all of Cincinnati’s deep passes have gone to Green.

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