Bengals look to fix big-play element that was broken in 2017

CINCINNATI -- Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green should have had a touchdown connection in the second quarter of their Week 13 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers last season.

Dalton had good protection and dropped back to his own 45-yard line to make the throw, finding Green one-on-one racing down the sideline. The ball flew 50 yards through the air.

As Green reached the Steelers’ 5-yard line, the defensive back had fallen down and the Bengals had a chance to extend their lead to 17-0.

Instead, the ball sailed somewhere over Green’s head right and out of bounds. Cameras caught both players grimacing over the missed opportunity.

This type of missed opportunity became routine during 2017, and the answers aren’t so clear as to why. It would be easy to point to the offensive line struggles or the change in coordinators after Ken Zampese was fired after the team failed to score a touchdown in the first two weeks.

Sometimes Dalton just plain missed. At other times, it was clear the protection had broken down. Sometimes the receivers simply didn’t run crisp enough routes or get open in time to make the catch.

“It’s a two-way street,” new quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said. “Obviously, we don’t want to throw them out of bounds, but we also have to have the space out there.”

It's not that Dalton doesn’t have the arm or the capabilities to make the deep pass. He routinely has found Green in stride for a touchdown or watched John Ross turn on the jets to shoot past defenders for a big gain in training camp.

In the Bengals’ scrimmage earlier in camp, Dalton hit Green for a 50-yard bomb that probably would’ve been an 85-yard touchdown had they been playing by the rules of a normal game.

But it’s easy to do those things in August when the quarterback knows he won’t get hit and the star receiver routinely gets single coverage. The real test comes in September, and the Bengals’ clearly failed that test last season.

So what was the problem? Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor smiled slightly one day when he was asked if he could pinpoint that answer.

“Yeah [I can], but I won't,” he said to a reporter. “Statistically, it looks just like it felt. You were there.”

Lazor is expected to put his stamp on the offense after taking over for the fired Zampese. The Bengals’ offense hasn’t been the same since Hue Jackson left after the 2015 season, and Lazor is under a lot of pressure to right the ship.

The Bengals were third in the league that season with 7.3 passing yards per attempt. That number dropped to 5.7 yards last year, good enough for 19th.

The list of unflattering statistics is long. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Dalton was pressured or under duress for 24.3 percent of his dropbacks in 2015. That number climbed to 26.2 percent in 2017.

At the same time, the average amount of yards the ball was in the air dropped from 8.37 yards in 2015 to 7.88 last year. Perhaps that’s why the Bengals attempted passes of 20 yards or more only 10.4 percent of the time last season, also down from the 2015 season.

It just wasn’t working.

Maybe things just fell into place in 2015. Dalton said he figured it all came together.

“Guys did a good job of making tough, contested catches,” he said. “I was being accurate with the ball, and guys were catching and running. I think there were probably some broken tackles in the run game and different things. So there's not one thing that has caused it.”

Another part falls largely on his decision-making and knowing when to take shots instead of forcing them.

“For me, it's just being accurate with the ball, knowing when you can take shots down the field and when you can check it down,” Dalton said. “You can get those plays on checkdowns, too. So I think that's the big thing, being smart and going through my progressions and hitting the open guy."

But just because it hasn’t come together lately doesn’t mean the Bengals are giving up. They’re rewriting the script with an emphasis to bring back the big play that has eluded them.

“I think it's a big thing we want to do -- we want to try to get more chunk plays and make it easier to get in the red zone because we were pretty good in the red zone last year, minus the first two weeks," Dalton said.

The Bengals think they’ve come a long way toward fixing the offensive line and adding some talent in the receiving room. If that’s truly the case, then the fix lies on Dalton’s shoulders.

Van Pelt, who worked with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, didn’t come in and see a need to overhaul Dalton’s throwing motion or the way he played. But he did watch last year’s tape with the other assistants to try to see what happened to the deep ball.

One of his conclusions was that they simply were taking too many chances that led the receivers or the ball to go out of bounds.

“A lot of the issues we thought were that we were getting too close to the boundary as the receiver,” Van Pelt said. “The balls were taking them out of bounds. There’s a real emphasis in trying to stay on that red line and saving green so that we can throw the ball on the outside shoulder and not lead the receivers out of bounds…

“So that’s really what we addressed. We looked at all the ones we had success on and all the ones we did not and came to that conclusion. If we can keep the ball in play and give those guys a chance to make a play on the ball, we’ll be better.”