'We've got to be better': What's holding the Cincinnati Bengals offense back on third down

Charlie Goldsmith
Cincinnati Enquirer

Over the first five weeks of the season, the Cincinnati Bengals offense has had an all-or-nothing quality.

On one drive, quarterback Joe Burrow’s connection with wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and running back Joe Mixon’s efficiency will make scoring a touchdown look easy. And on the next drive, the Bengals will go three-and-out.

Through the first five games, the Bengals rank 18th in the NFL in points per game. The offense hasn’t been as dynamic as the team expected after surrounding Burrow with one of the best groups of skill position players in the NFL.

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“Really, to pinpoint one area, it's (because of) third down,” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said. “We've got to be better on third down."

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) looks to throw in the first half of the NFL football game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.

The Bengals rank 23rd in third down conversion rate (37.3%), and that’s been the reason for the slow starts against the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Green Bay Packers. Against the Jaguars, the Bengals first six drives averaged just four plays per drive. Against the Jaguars, the Bengals went three-and-out on five of their first six drives.

Even though the Bengals average third down is just 3rd-and-6, the Bengals have gone three-and-out more often than all but two NFL teams this season. Their issues on third down highlight some of the offense’s weaknesses.

This season, the Bengals have had 61 third downs. On 22 of those third downs, the Bengals got a first down. On eight of the 61 third downs, Burrow threw a check down pass on 3rd-and-10+ yards as the Bengals called a conservative play to improve their field position.

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That leaves 31 third down plays (23 passes and eight runs) where the Bengals tried and failed to get a first down. After logging the result of every play, the offensive line carries most of the responsibility for why the Bengals weren’t able to convert.

Green Bay Packers inside linebacker Krys Barnes (51) sacks Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) in the first half of the NFL football game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.

The offensive line was the reason for 12 of the 23 failed passing attempts on third down. Sacks, holding calls and lost matchups at the line of scrimmage forced Burrow to scramble out of the pocket, throw the ball away or take a sack on 12 different failed third down conversions. Among the 23 failed passing attempts that didn’t work, over half of them were due to a mistake on the offensive line.

Rookie offensive guard Jackson Carman allowed the pressure on three of those 12 plays. Center Trey Hopkins and left tackle Jonah Williams each have played a significant role on two failed third down conversions, and left guard Quinton Spain was a part of 1.5 of them.

Taylor said that even though the Bengals have struggled as a whole on third down, some un-ordinary plays carry bigger weight in the small five-game sample size.

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“It's a couple of different things we can improve on, and I feel very confident that we will,” Taylor said. “If it's a 17-game sample size you're concerned, but (after) five games some of those trends can quickly flip.”

Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor look on as the Bengals enter the red zone in the second half of the NFL football game on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. Cincinnati Bengals defeated Jacksonville Jaguars 24-21.

The more concerning trend is that the Bengals are 2-for-10 when they try to run the ball on third-and-short this year. The Bengals –– who throw the ball 83% of time on third down –– have never attempted a third down run from more than five yards away this season. 

The Bengals average third down run is 1.9 yards from the first down marker. They still have only converted two of them (a 1-yard run early against the Pittsburgh Steelers and a 1-yard touchdown run against the Jaguars). The Bengals have failed to get a first down on four 3rd-and-1 runs this season, and their struggles running the ball on third down were highlighted against the Packers. 

In both regulation and overtime, the Bengals ran the ball on 3rd-and-short, and they didn’t get the first down either time.

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“We weren't throwing at that point, and our guys had a lot of confidence in what we were doing,” Taylor said. “But at the end of day, we just didn't get enough points out of it."

Green Bay Packers inside linebacker De'Vondre Campbell (59) tackles Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon (28) in overtime of a Week 5 NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. The Green Bay Packers won, 25-22.

While the offensive line can be attributed to  12 of the 23 mistakes in passing situations and is also at fault for the 8 failed runs on third down and short, there isn’t another category of mistake on third down with at least five examples this season.

Burrow’s throw was the reason for five of the failed third downs, and drops from Chase and Tee Higgins are the reason for four of the failed conversions. Chase and Higgins have still been a net positive on third down, converting on their receptions more often than not.

The Bengals issues on third downs are more surprising considering that the Bengals have been one of the best teams in the NFL on fourth down conversions over the last two seasons. Taylor said that’s a reason he believes the third down offense is set to improve.

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“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."

Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon (28) is tackled by Jacksonville Jaguars defensive back Rudy Ford (5) in the first half of the NFL football game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.

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“(Evans) has earned it each week,” Taylor said. “He has been dependable for us. His work will continue to increase to help Joe.”

Cincinnati Bengals running back Chris Evans (25) catches catches a pass as Green Bay Packers safety Adrian Amos (31) tackles him in the second half of the NFL football game on Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. Green Bay Packers defeated Cincinnati Bengals 25-22 in overtime.

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Higgins said he feels 100% healthy, but he expects more production.

“If I was to grade myself, I (would) grade myself a ‘C’ right now,” Higgins said. “There’s definitely room for improvement and I plan on improving.”

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins (85) completes a catch in the second quarter of a Week 5 NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.