How a practice tweak helped jump-start Bengals offense

CINCINNATI -- The offense knew it needed to shake things up after a pair of poor performances in the Cincinnati Bengals' opening two losses.

So the Bengals made a subtle but significant tweak at practice leading up to last week’s game against the New York Jets. Instead of various position groups taking the field for drills separately, they entered as a unit. It was part of a weeklong effort to create a sense of urgency and avoid an 0-3 start.

Wide receiver Tyler Boyd said that it underscored the need to start fast and get ready so the team plays with confidence.

“Even if we didn’t lose, we should have been doing that as a team,” Boyd said inside the visiting locker room at MetLife Stadium on Sunday. “We feel like we’re the best team. We've got to prepare that way.”

Starting with the team’s first game-week practice last Wednesday, the offense changed how it entered the field for team drills. Instead of the unit standing behind teammates on one end of the field, they ran over to the sideline before running onto the field for the start of the practice period, simulating what they would do in-game.

It wasn’t a new concept for the Bengals. Tight end Mitchell Wilcox said the offense had done the same at points during training camp and late in the 2021 season.

Boyd and Higgins said the offense took the field with a sense of purpose during practices. But the tweak emphasized the need to carry a game-like focus at practice and sought to create the urgency that was lacking in the team’s first two losses.

And it worked. Cincinnati scored a pair of touchdowns early and never looked back in a 27-12 win over the Jets. Ahead of a prime-time showdown against the Miami Dolphins (3-0) on Thursday (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video), Bengals coach Zac Taylor cited the “little things at practice” when talking about the urgency created after the 0-2 start.

“You want the guys to have some confidence and talk about it a little bit more,” Taylor said. “I have so much confidence in our group.”

The practice tweak wasn’t the only thing the Bengals did to facilitate a fast start against the Jets.

Wilcox said urgency and energy were topics that were hammered home in meetings throughout the week. When the Bengals (1-2) won the coin toss, Cincinnati opted to start the game with the ball, instead of deferring, for the first possession of the second half. Normally, Taylor likes being able to end the first half strong and then pounce on an opponent right after halftime.

Against the Jets (1-2), Cincinnati opened the game with an 11-play, 90-yard drive capped by a touchdown pass from quarterback Joe Burrow to running back Samaje Perine. It was the start the Bengals wanted to manifest earlier in the week.

“I feel like by us being able to go out and score the first drive, that boosted our defense as well and gave them way more momentum than they would have started [with],” Higgins said. “It just helped out, and we played complementary football.”

Even the first few plays of the drive are important to establishing a good rhythm, Wilcox said. In Cincinnati’s Week 2 loss against the Dallas Cowboys, first-down penalties provided setbacks for a Bengals offense that lacked explosive plays.

Cincinnati opened its game against the Jets with a 13-yard completion to Boyd that was shortly followed by a 19-yard grab by Higgins.

“If we can stay on schedule and attack the field with some energy, we can get a drive going,” Wilcox said. “We've just got to get it started.”

The Bengals are looking to replicate that success when they host the Dolphins. Taylor said the process that yielded good results against the Jets shouldn’t be hard to replicate the rest of the way.

“We didn’t do anything crazy,” Taylor said. “It wasn’t just like a hype thing that we did, that we get up for one week and we’re able to do it once. I think it’s just a weakness that we realized that we had the first couple of weeks.”

It turns out that something as small as how a team enters the field can make a massive difference, especially when a team like the Bengals needed it the most.