5 things the Bengals need to improve to return to playoffs

BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 31: Running back Joe Mixon #28 of the Cincinnati Bengals fumbles the ball in the second quarter against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on December 31, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

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BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 31: Running back Joe Mixon #28 of the Cincinnati Bengals fumbles the ball in the second quarter against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on December 31, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Only once in Marvin Lewis’ tenure as Cincinnati Bengals head coach has the team failed to make the playoffs in three consecutive years, doing so from 2006-08.

But unless there are some major improvements in a number of key areas, the Bengals could be facing another trifecta of terrible in 2018 after falling short of the postseason in 2016 and 2017.

Each player will have specific areas they work on this offseason, but looking at the team through a broader lens, there are some key areas where the Bengals need to improve if they want to continue playing into January next season.

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Here are five areas where improvement is most needed:

Forcing turnovers

Taking care of the football is one of the biggest keys to winning football games, so it follows that a failure to force turnovers hampers a team’s ability to successful.

Only the 0-16 Cleveland Browns had fewer takeaways (13) than the 14 the Bengals had in 2017.

The 14 turnovers were the fewest in the history of the Bengals franchise, four less than the previous mark of 18 set in 1994.

In fact, only 19 teams in the Super Bowl era have forced 14 or fewer turnovers in a season, and only two of them overcame that lack of defensive production to finish with winning records (Detroit went 9-7 in 2016, and Kansas City went 9-7 in 2014).

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While interceptions have been sparse, recovering fumbles has been the biggest deficiency. And it wasn’t unique to 2017. Six times in franchise history have the Bengals recovered seven or fewer opponent fumbles in a season, and four of them have been since former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer left to be the head coach in Minnesota – 2014 (six fumble recoveries), 2015 (seven), 2016 (three), 2017 (three).

Earlier this season the Bengals set an NFL record by going 19 consecutive games without recovering an opponent fumble.

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Second-half surge

Much of the talk after a disappointing 2016 season centered on Lewis wanting to find "closers" after the Bengals ranked 31st in scoring in the fourth quarter and 27th in second-half scoring.

But that didn’t happen at all.

The Bengals scored 68 points in the fourth quarter in 2017, ranking 29th in the league. And they scored 112 second-half points, ranking 30th.

The lack of second-half production on offense took its toll on the defense as well in the form of fatigue. The Bengals were outscored 62-44 in the third quarter and things got even worse in the fourth quarter/overtime, where they were dominated 108-68 for a second-half differential of 170 to 112.

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In 2015 when the Bengals won the division, they outscored their opponents 200-169 in the second half.

Run the ball

Yes, the NFL has evolved into a pass-first league, but finishing 31st in rushing offense is going to leave any team sitting home in January, regardless of how strong its passing game may or may not be.

Of the 12 playoff teams, only Pittsburgh ranked in the bottom half of the league in rush offense (19th). Jacksonville (1), Philadelphia (2), New Orleans (3), Carolina (7), Minnesota (8) and the Los Angeles Rams (9) were all in the Top 10.

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Hamstrung early by offensive line woes and a lack of production from “starter” Jeremy Hill, the Bengals run game fell in an early hole from which it could never escape despite an impressive finish to the season.

Over the final six games, the Bengals averaged 4.6 yards per carry, sixth best in the league.

Giovani Bernard had the second best average of his career, and rookie Joe Mixon overcame injuries and inexperience to finish strong. With offensive coordinator Bill Lazor learning on the fly to understand which run plays worked better than others, a new offensive line coach on the way, the Bengals should have a much stronger ground attack in 2018.

Third downs

The key to sustaining drives on offense and stopping them on defense is third down, and the Bengals were abysmal at both.

Only Tampa Bay gave up more third-down conversions (104) than the Bengals’ 98. And offensively, only Washington (66) and Miami (64) had fewer third down conversions than the Bengals’ 67.

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Dalton completed just 54.3 percent of his third-down passes with 11 touchdowns, six interceptions and 22 sacks. Bengals converted 33.7 percent (67 of 199) of their third downs, which ranked 29th in the league.

Defensively, they allowed opponents to convert 40.7 percent (98 of 241), which ranked 25th. Opposing quarterbacks completed 62. Percent of their third-down passes against the Bengals with nine touchdowns and five interceptions for a 91.5 rating.

The pass rush wasn’t good enough and the middle of the field was wide open too often, especially in the six games linebacker Vontaze Burfict missed.

Incremental improvement on third down will not be enough to get the Bengals back in the postseason. It has to be substantial.

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Lead the way

The absence of Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who signed a free-agent deal with the Los Angeles Rams, was felt well beyond the playing field.

Whitworth was a leader in every sense, and he left a gaping vacancy in the department.

Dalton has grown in his role, and he’s liked and respected in the locker room, but he doesn’t have the fiery personality or commanding presence so many others who play the position possess. A.J. Green falls in that same category.

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On defense, the two best players lack leadership qualities. Six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins not only hasn’t talked to the media in three years, he barley talks to his teammates and coaches. And linebacker Vontaze Burfict can’t stay on the field due to suspensions and injuries, playing just 36 of a possible 64 games the last four years.

The Bengals need for Dalton or Green to show some growth as leaders, or some of the younger players on the roster need to step into the role.

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