The Rookies Who Will Raise Andy Dalton’s Game

The Bengals are only as good as the supporting cast around their quarterback. With the addition of John Ross and Joe Mixon, Cincinnati’s offense will become unpredictable and possibly unstoppable
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The Bengals’ brass would never say this publicly, but they know exactly what Andy Dalton is: a cerebral QB whose arm, at its best, is good but not great. Dalton, in other words, must be your offense’s facilitator, not its playmaker. He’s not Brady, Roethlisberger or Rodgers. He can’t be asked to carry the show.

And so to win with Dalton, the 35th overall pick in 2011, you need a dynamic supporting cast. The Bengals have been providing just that. Every year since 2006, they’ve used at least one of their first two draft picks on an offensive player—and such picks came no later than the second round.

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Bengals director of player personnel, Duke Tobin, adhered to this approach last week, using his first-round selection on Washington receiver John Ross and his second-rounder on Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon. These two players strongly confirm Cincy’s commitment to surrounding Dalton with talent.

Neither Ross nor Mixon filled a hole; the Bengals were already in decent shape at wide receiver and running back. But both players can change the face of this offense. Ross, who set the 40-yard dash record at the combine (4.22 seconds), is a speed demon in the mold of DeSean Jackson. With Mixon, of course, there’s the off-field discussion. But on the field, he was arguably this draft’s most complete back. Unlike Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook, Mixon can be a significant contributor in the passing game. His arrival likely means curtains for Jeremy Hill, the 2014 second-round pick who rushed for 1,124 yards as a rookie and, strangely, has struggled to run with any sort of confidence since.

Mixon will be partnered with Giovani Bernard, who was drafted 37th overall in 2013. In them, the Bengals have two backs who can line up anywhere. On the field together, they’d present serious complications for a defense. But having one of them on the field can be enough, because it will allow for a wide variety of formations and play designs without changing personnel.

John Ross (l.) and Joe Mixon.

John Ross (l.) and Joe Mixon.

That multiplicity is very advantageous when your quarterback is as smart as Dalton in the presnap phase. When you reshuffle your formations, you force the defense to clarify its intentions. This is what makes the Ross selection even better. Though appearing to be a slot receiver, he was used diversely at Washington. His slight frame—5’11”, 188 pounds— means he might need the play design to give him clean access off the snap to avoid a corner’s press-jam. Think presnap motion, snaps in the slot or stack alignments. That’s easy to draw up. The Colts do it with T.Y. Hilton. Perhaps more aptly, the Cardinals do it with John Brown. Both are similar receivers who can run routes from anywhere. Ross, many believe, is even quicker than those two.

Unlike Hilton or Brown, Ross will play alongside one of the league’s true No. 1 receivers. (Brown plays with Larry Fitzgerald, a likely Hall of Famer but no longer enough of a vertical threat to be a true No. 1.) Not only does A.J. Green dictate what the defense can do, but like Ross, he can line up inside or outside. With Green and Ross, the Bengals now have two receivers who can regulate how the defense uses its safeties.

With safeties compelled to be reactionary deep defenders, Dalton and offensive coordinator Ken Zampese can dictate the terms of engagement. Impact the safeties and you limit everything a defense does. Coverage disguises are harder to employ. Blitzing is constricted, since you have fewer bodies in the box. Naturally, your run defense becomes more susceptible.

All of this serves to help Cincy’s offensive line. Understandably, that O-line is the only real concern with this team. If last year’s struggles continue, it can ruin this season. Third-year tackles Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbuehi have never been fulltime starters. (Ogbuehi had an opportunity in 2016 but was vulnerable to bull rushes.) The interior of the line was uncharacteristically incohesive in pass protection, but is now without its best member, guard Kevin Zeitler, who signed with Cleveland.

The Bengals will rely heavily on their two high-drafted rookies to hide shortcomings at quarterback and up front. But more than that, they’ll rely on them to create a much more advanced offense.

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