Anyone who has even casually followed the Bengals through the first four games of 2017 knows there is a bright yellow dividing line in the middle—BFZ and AFZ (Before Firing Zampese and After Firing Zampese). Since Ken Zampese was mercifully relieved of his duties as offensive coordinator, the Cincy offense under his replacement, Bill Lazor, has improved from disastrous to competent. As I pointed out last week, the loss to Green Bay may well have cost the team any crack at a playoff berth, but at least there is hope the Bengals will be watchable, and perhaps even lean toward the electrifying offense we all hoped to see this season.
I figured the season’s first quarter would be a good time to dive deep into the stats kept by Football Outsiders (for whom I contribute) and analyze how the advanced metrics illuminate how the team has performed beyond the simple dichotomy of BF/AF. And perhaps we can figure out whether or not the Bengals can build on Sunday’s whipping of Cleveland when the frisky Bills come to town this weekend.
Alas, the Bills strength is in the front seven, and of course, Cincy’s offensive line has been horrendous through four games. How bad? By FO’s metric, Adjusted Line Yards (explanation of the numbers here), only the Chargers’ line has been worse in run blocking. By Adjusted Sack Rate (sacks per pass attempt faced, and weighted for down, distance and opponent), only four teams are worse in keeping their quarterback upright. Certainly, the quicker passing game, and heightened execution of it under Lazor, has mitigated the pressure on Andy Dalton somewhat, but there is little doubt that the team is completely hamstrung by the horror show up front.
That spells trouble for the Bengals. The Bills defense, especially the front seven, has been sensational under new coach Sean McDermott, who built the snarling defenses in Carolina and has eliminated the Ryan Bros. nonsense that permeated the franchise over the last couple of seasons. After besting Atlanta last Sunday, Buffalo is now the top-ranked defense by FO’s efficiency metric, DVOA. To break them down further, they are third vs. the run and ninth vs. the pass (overall, Buffalo is sixth—23rd on offense and 11th in special teams to go with the first-place defense).
If there is one place the Bills D has struggled (relatively), it is in covering #1 wideouts, who average 64 yards per game, putting the Bills smack in the middle of the NFL. Cornerbacks E.J. Gaines and rookie Tre’Davious White have been solid, but there is space for A.J. Green to carry the Bengals to a win, as he so often has, provided the line allows Dalton time to throw. The Bills are tied for eighth in the league with 11 sacks, which sounds good, but Adjusted Sack Rate drops Buffalo down to 22nd overall. The Bengals would do well do pull a Belichickian gambit and gameplan almost exclusively for passes in this one—running the ball just plays into Buffalo’s strength and Cincy’s weakness.
In case you were worried about Joe Mixon, rest assured that he is keeping up his end of the bargain thus far. A good way to judge this is a stat from a different source, RBScout.com, which tracks running backs and how many yards they achieve pre-and post-initial tackle point. Mixon averages a paltry 0.23 YPC before running into his first potential tackler. By contrast, Tevin Coleman of the Falcons gets 4.55 yards downfield before anyone is in position to grab him; Kareem Hunt of the Chiefs (a rookie doing what we thought Mixon would) is at 4.66 yards.
But it’s not like Mixon is going down easily. He’s averaging 2.38 “running back yards,” i.e. yards he creates after the first tackler gets a shot at him. That’s good for 12th in the league (Dalvin Cook, another rookie, sadly now out for the season, is tops at 2.97). So the talent is clearly there, but there are too many plays like the one Sunday where the Browns stacked the box, sent a run blitz, and though Mixon eluded the blitzer, Jake Fisher’s man knocked him several yards backwards and made the tackle. Mixon can’t function in that environment.
Of course, most games turn on quarterback play. Dalton’s excellent stats the last couple of weeks have called off the wolves baying for his job, but he is still quite low on the tables (25th in DVOA, 27th in ESPN’s QBR). If your hope is that at least Bills QB Tyrod Taylor isn’t any better, think again, at least this season. Taylor is 9th in DVOA, 16 spots ahead of Dalton. Taylor has played two defenses highly comparable to Cincy’s, Denver and Carolina—those teams bracket the Bengals on the defensive efficiency charts, with Denver 8th, Cincy 9th, and Carolina 10th. Taylor was brutal against the Panthers (just 5 yards per attempt in a 9-3 loss), but was the picture of efficiency against Denver’s excellent defense. TT’s legs offer an extra dimension that can plague the Bengals’ D (remember DeShaun Watson’s big scramble?), and he’s proven adept at luring opponents into the old “too slow” penalty.
Cincy’s superb pass defense has been undone by a couple of big plays to third and fourth wideouts, which is why their coverage numbers are top ten against all manner of receivers except those “other guys” (where the Bengals rank 31st). This is a place where Cincinnati has a major advantage. The top-ranked receiver on the charts wearing Buffalo colors is Zay Jones, way down at 79th in the league. Jordan Matthews is injured, so the likes of Andre Holmes and our old friend Brandon Tate figure to get plenty of snaps. Buffalo’s running game is no great shakes either. The Bills found a way against Denver and Atlanta, helped mightily by turnovers. Take care of the ball, and Buffalo could struggle to score.
This one could be even lower-scoring than last year’s encounter, when Buffalo outlasted the Bengals 16-12, thanks in large part to Mike Nugent missing a pair of PATs and Green getting hurt early. Keep A.J. healthy, and kick it true, and the Bengals have a good shot at reversing the result. Get another W, and the team’s playoff odds, which are now 17% (up from 5.5% last week), would get another bump.
Hey, it’s something.
Robert Weintraub is a Fulcher 2 Stay contributor and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. He is also the author of three books. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.