Lack of third-down efficiency in short yardage has stalled Bengals offense

CINCINNATI -- Zac Taylor believes his Cincinnati Bengals offense could be much better than what it has shown through the first five games.

The Bengals are doing all the hard things well: Connecting on deep balls, scoring in the red zone and moving the ball well on first and second downs. Converting third downs, especially in a lot of short-distance situations, is the key missing ingredient.

As Cincinnati (3-2) prepares to play the winless Detroit Lions (0-5) on Sunday at Ford Field, that will continue to be the area of emphasis. The Bengals rank 23rd in third-down conversion rate (37.3 percent), while the Lions rank second in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert on just 30.6 percent of chances.

“Our third down efficiency hasn’t been where it needs to be, particularly third-and-one to five,” Taylor said this week. “We’re pretty good on third and medium, continuing drives. So, on first and second down we’re putting ourselves in good position. Obviously, we want to get the first down on first and second down, that’s the easiest way to do it, but typically the offense has the advantage on third-and-one to five. We’ve put ourselves in those positions, particularly in the first half and haven’t taken advantage of them. And so that’s something we’ve got to analyze and make sure we’re putting our guys in the best position and executing.”

Taylor said the main stat the Bengals look at to assess where they are offensively is how many points per drive they are getting because that shows how well they are maximizing each possession.

Cincinnati ranks 18th with 2.04 points per drive, which is up from 1.77 (26th) last year, but still well below where Taylor would like it to be. The league average is 2.20 points per drive, and Kansas City leads the NFL at 3.34.

Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said sitting below league average ties into to not being able to convert third downs to sustain drives, but the Bengals can’t just point to one issue to fix there. Each time it seems to be a different player or different problem preventing them from converting.

“We’ve been in spots that we feel like should be spots that we should convert at a high rate, and then we haven’t for a number of different reasons,” Callahan said. “Some of it’s been protection related, some of it’s been execution related, some of it has been throws and drops and all those things. It’s not one thing we can point to and say if we fix this, we’ll be better. So, it’s a continued effort to be better in those spots, those third-and-two to fives, that we have not been successful enough at converting. We’ve been pretty good as you get deeper into the third downs. You know, six plus has been a decent area for us. But in order to continue to get points for drive, we’ve got to have the ball longer, and we just haven’t been able to do that early in games, like I said, for quite a number of different reasons.”

Taylor is confident the Bengals can improve on those things and flip the trend so they are getting into scoring position more often. Cincinnati ranks 25th in net offense with 333.8 yards per game and 18th in scoring offense with 22.8 points per game.

Once the Bengals do get to the red zone, they’ve scored points every time. On 10 trips inside the 20-yard line, they’ve gotten touchdowns on eight and field goals on the other two. The 80 percent touchdown mark ranks third.

“We get punished for kicking two game-winning field goals in the red zone and scoring from the 21 and the 22, but I know that on third down we’ve got to improve on those short situations,” Taylor said. “But, our guys have a high degree of confidence in the red zone producing what few plays we’ve had down there. They’ve produced and scored touchdowns.”

Wide receiver Tee Higgins said he isn’t necessarily surprised by the slow start because he knew the offense “would have to build up to it.”

Much has been made about the weapons on the Bengals offense, though, with quarterback Joe Burrow having guys like Higgins, Ja’Marr Chase and Tyler Boyd to throw to and a top running back in Joe Mixon, who should be back to a full workload this week after easing back from an ankle injury last week. Even the offensive line has been better than expected, though the right guard spot has changed from injured Xavier Su’a-Filo to rookie Jackson Carman. After missing practices all week, Carman was cleared Friday from the COVID-19 list just in time with D’Ante Smith expected to go on injured reserve with a knee injury.

“We’re just not connecting like we want to,” Higgins said. “We don’t plan on starting slow every game. Our plan is to start and stay on a team’s head the whole game. Hopefully we can do that in these (upcoming) weeks.”

Tight end C.J. Uzomah said some weeks the emphasis is a little heavier on getting into third-and-manageable situations, but then it’s frustrating when the offense does well with that and doesn’t convert.

Taylor said it’s not that the team isn’t being more aggressive on first or second down to get larger chunks and move the chains more quickly. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out the way the play is planned.

“Just because the ball doesn’t sail down the field doesn’t mean that we didn’t call it and it wasn’t there,” Taylor said. “There are a lot of different things that happen. I think people always look at conservative and think because the ball didn’t travel somewhere, well sometimes the coverage takes that away and you check it down and you move on and you wait for a shot later in the game. We might call the same play twice and one time we check it down and one time we take a shot. We’re just being smart about our approach, but we’ve got to score more points early in the game.”


Bengals at Lions, 1 p.m., Fox, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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