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Bengals still searching for offense

The Cincinnati Bengals head into Saturday’s Wild Card playoff game against Houston having won seven of their last eight, but they are hardly rolling.

At least not offensively.

After averaging 356.8 yards through the first 12 games, the offense is producing 260.3 over the last four and has barely outscored the Cincinnati defense during that stretch, five touchdowns to three.

Third-down conversions (35 percent in first four games; 31.6 percent since), red-zone touchdown efficiency (59.1; 38.5) and first downs (19.1; 14.5) also are way down.

“Everybody’s just got to go out and relax and just do what they’ve been born to do and make plays,” offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. “We’ve left a lot of plays out there on the field. We miss a throw there, we drop a pass there, we miss a block here, whatever. You add all those up, if everybody has one time where they screw up, it’s a lot.

“We’ve just got to do a better job as coaches to get our guys in the best situations to succeed,” Gruden continued. “And when our guys are in those situations, they’ve got to make the plays.”

And they need to hurry, because defense used to win championships but offense is what drives success in the NFL these days.

In 22 postseason contests the last two seasons, there were an average of 48.8 points scored per game, with the winning team averaging 29.9.

The Bengals have topped that number once in the last five games against four teams without winning records and one (Baltimore) that was playing without three Pro Bowl defenders and sent the majority of its other starters to the bench by halftime.

“We definitely need to play better,” said quarterback Andy Dalton, who is averaging 198.4 passing yards in his last eight games. “We haven’t put our best games out there the last couple, but we’ve been getting wins. We obviously need to step up a little bit more offensively.”

It’s no coincidence the slip in production began when rookie wide receiver Mohamed Sanu went down with a season-ending stress fracture prior to the Dec. 2 game in San Diego.

Sanu had 11 catches for 98 yards with four touchdowns in the three games before his injury, and the Bengals have not been able to find anyone near as effective to help take some of the attention away from Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green.

Rookie Marvin Jones is starting to show signs he can be that guy with 10 catches for 110 yards in his last two games, including his first career touchdown Sunday against Baltimore.

“Balance is the key to all offenses,” Jones said. “As my snaps increase — I’m out there getting experience and catches — it’s obviously giving me experience and confidence between Andy and I. I just need to continue to get out there and do what I’m supposed to do.”

If Jones and slot receiver Andrew Hawkins, who has just six catches for 48 yards the last three games, can get more involved, it will not only free up Green some, it also will help a running game that has become stagnant.

“We just need to make adjustments on the fly,” said running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, held to 14 yards on 15 carries in his last game two weeks ago against Pittsburgh. “That’s going to be big for us going forward.”

As frustrating as the offensive struggles have been, the team is still finding a way to win while searching for a way to be more productive against a Houston defense that ranks seventh in the NFL.

“We’re working hard, and these guys have not lost confidence,” Gruden said. “The energy has been great at practice. We’re not down on anybody. We’re always going to coach, and we’re always going to try to get better and we just hope those plays start to happen, to hit some of the things we’re trying to hit.”

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