Wow. That’s all I can really say when I put on the Bengals tape this week. Just…wow. This definitely isn't the same team that came down to Reliant for the "We’re just happy to be here" Bowl in January 2012. Vicious front four? Check. Phenomenal run defense? Check. Great receiving corps headlined by a young Andre Johnson clone? Check. Peter Gallagher eyebrows? You’re damn right that’s a check. It is very, very hard to find a weakness in this young up and coming Cincinnati squad, and some would argue that they are a matchup nightmare for the Texans. After way too many delicious, affordable, surprisingly low calorie cans/servings of [insert future SB Nation sponsor here] and a week with NFL Game Rewind, however, I think that the Texans may be in fact a matchup nightmare for the Bengals as well.
If there is one thing that I’m certain of, it’s that since roughly week seven of the 2012 season, the Bengals' run defense has been stiffer than MDC in a room full of subservient Allison Brie clones. It’s just plain impossible to go anywhere, especially if your offense happens to run a power scheme. Zones, traps, and whams tend to have more success, but in my observation, for every twelve yard run there is an equally devastating five yard loss. Part (and by part, I mean most) of that defensive success in the run game has come from the stellar play of Geno Atkins, Domata Peko, and Vontaze Burfict. Both Atkins and Peko require double teams on pretty much every single snap, whether run or pass, and soak up the vast majority of a blocking scheme’s available bodies. Burfict, who has been a revelation as an undrafted rookie linebacker, plays on the strong side and thrives in space while the big bodies up front soak up blockers. On the weak side end position, you have Michael Johnson, who despite not putting up gaudy stats has had a superb season as both a pass rusher and run defender. Rey Maualuga, who could very easily be considered the "weak link" of the front seven for his lack of basic tackling ability, holds down the middle linebacker position.
While all of these pieces combine to form one of the best run stopping units in the NFL, the Bengals' defense does have one glaring weakness – tight ends. Part of the reason for opposing running backs’ lack of fortune against Cincy has been the propensity for the Bengals linebackers to hit first and ask questions later. If you so much as hint that the ball might be going to a running back, the Bengals' front seven will bite, and bite hard. Sometimes they are right and it will result in a huge tackle for loss, and sometimes they are wrong and will get absolutely torched by someone who has no business being open by ten yards in every direction.
Exempla gratia, in this still, the Redskins are in a single wing formation with two receivers on the outside. The Bengals are in a 4-3 "over" front, meaning the strength of their defensive line is on the strong side of the Redskins' offense, which is to the left. Peko is the nose tackle in the 1-tech in between the center and right guard. Atkins is in the 3-tech over the left guard, and Michael Johnson is over the tight end. Burfict is over the other tight end with Maualuga in the middle of the field.
The idea of this defense for the Bengals (which works very well for them I might add) is to have Dunlap draw the right tackle in blocking assignments, Peko draw the center and guard, Atkins draw the left guard and left tackle, and Johnson and Burfict draw the tight ends. With those two interior behemoths demanding so many resources, it forces single blocking all across the rest of the line and leaves Maualuga and the weak side backer, who at this point was Rey Vincent but is now Manny Lawson, free to roam and tackle ball carriers as they please. It’s a particularly lethal, albeit simple, scheme that relies more on individual brutality than anything else, and it has worked masterfully all season against power run schemes. The "go kill them before they kill you" mentality of the Cincy defense has instilled a sense of aggressiveness in this young unit, which although very effective can be taken advantage of at times. Traps, whams, and zone runs that are designed to use play side momentum against aggressive defenses and hit them against the grain can gash them at times if they get too undisciplined and don’t recognize blocking schemes pre-snap. Of course there are moments where the pure brilliance of Geno Atkins or Vontaze Burfict can overcome any blocking scheme set against them, but relying on such individual physical efforts on every play is not always the way to approach slow, suffocating, methodical offenses like the Houston Texans. The Redskins exposed this weakness in week three by throwing a never ending supply of zone runs and play action bootlegs at Cincinnati to great effectiveness, scoring 31 points and rushing for 213 yards. It all came from plays like this one.
After the ball is snapped, RG3 goes for a (fake) hand off on a weak side zone stretch to the right. Maualuga and Vincent immediately bite on the run action and start to flow towards the play side.
Adam Jones, the corner, peels off the receiver to float back into his zone towards the bottom of the screen. Maualuga and Vincent are still locked on to the run fake and don’t notice the receiver running behind them on the crossing route.
By the time Maualuga finally recognizes the play, the receiver already has five yards of clearance. The safety over the top cannot risking driving down on the crossing route because he is the lone deep defender that can cover the fly route by the number two receiver (in yellow). This leaves the crossing route wide open in every direction.
Unfortunately the number two tight end, Paulson, released his block on Michael Johnson far too early and didn't give RG3 enough time to really go through his reads, but the deep crosser was available from start to finish. Luckily for the Bengals, Griffin settled for an ill-advised check down that fell incomplete.
On the very next play, the Redskins decided to take advantage of how well the play action game was working up to that point in the game and went for a zone running play through the A-gap. The left tackle takes on Dunlap one on one while the left guard and center double team Peko at the point of attack. The center then peels off of Peko to take on Maualuga and seal the lane for Evan Royster, who was in to give Alfred Morris a breather. On the backside of the play the right guard gets the daunting task of crossing the face of Atkins at the snap and sealing him out of the play while the right tackle moves to the second level to take on whichever defensive back gets in his way. The tight end, meanwhile, will pull across the back of the line and take on Johnson, the weak side defensive end.
The ball is snapped, but what I want to highlight here is that Maualuga has not moved a muscle. He isn't floating back into a zone nor is he biting on a run. He is completely frozen, not wanting to get taken advantage of by either the run or pass.
Griffin starts to go back for the hand off, and Maualuga still hasn't done much more than bend his knee. Not a single step has been taken in any direction.
So far so good up front. Griffin goes for the hand off, and Maualuga (circled in red) starts shifting his feet but has yet to commit against the run. Just like he failed to read the receiver on the play action fake one snap ago, he doesn't recognize that the defense around him already has every receiver covered based on the assignments of this particular set; thus he has no reason to freeze himself in the middle of the field. The corners are taking the receivers man to man while Vincent (circled in yellow) spies the tight end pulling across the line. The safeties are covering over the top, and Maualuga has absolutely zero reason not to drive on the A-gap, but he stays still anyway. That’s the power of a smoke and mirrors offense like the zone run. No matter what defenders do or don’t do, it will cause them to make crucial mental errors just out of frustration and fear of being wrong; Maualuga is simply its latest victim.
The hole is open and the center is peeling up field to make his block. Maualuga finally starts moving, but it is already far too late. The back is hitting the gap and has a one on one match up with the safety. Checkmate.
Just to make Royster’s job that much easier, the safety drives way too narrow on his angle and opens up an opportunity for him to cut outside and gain even more yardage.
What do you get when you combine good offensive play calling with poor defensive play recognition and even poorer tackling angles?
This still is taken from the Bengals' Week 16 game versus the Steelers. I watched several Cincy games from this season for this article, and it really surprised me how the issue of play recognition and tackling remained unfixed throughout the entire year. It was as if running play action against the Bengals was essentially getting free yards. No matter how well Cincinnati performs against 95% of offensive sets in the game, something about bootlegs and run fakes utterly disintegrates their whole unit. It would be really frustrating to watch if it weren't also so inherently fascinating. Here we see Pittsburgh on a 2nd and 17 in a three receiver set. Heath Miller, the tight end and Big Ben’s favorite chain mover, is on the right side of the line. The Bengals are in a 4-3 over front.
Maurice Pouncey, the Steelers' All-Pro center, takes on Peko. David DeCastro, Pitt’s shiny new first round pick at right guard, blocks Atkins with help from the right tackle. Max Starks takes the defensive end on the left side while the left guard pulls across the line for what looks like a block on a power run. If Heath Miller takes on Michael Johnson on the right side, then this would leave Maualuga alone against a guard in the hole while Vincent and the safeties try to tackle the running back. However, Heath Miller doesn't engages the defensive end and instead slips out into a route.
Ben Roethlisberger fakes the hand off (and I should note that it might have been the softest fake I've ever seen and in no way was it convincing). Maualuga bites hard after reading the pulling guard and doesn't cover Heath Miller, who is now in the process of running right by him into the seam. This should have been Maualuga’s first clue. Why would the Steelers leave a defensive end completely open to make a tackle for loss? Even if they did expect the guard to take the end, why was Miller not blocking him? The fact that these questions weren't raised in Maualuga’s head until after Miller was wide open is alarming and really telling of his poor overall play this year. He jumps at the first sign of run rather than reading the play, and then when he gets burned he suddenly becomes too timid to play the actual runs and ends up giving up yards anyway. It really speaks to how dominant the Bengals' front four has been this season that their defense has been so stellar in spite of Maualuga playing behind them.
Maualuga realizes he was duped, but it is already too late.
Even more frustrating for Bengals fans (and scintillating for Texans fans) is that even when Maualuga did try to cover Miller, he completely lost the receiver behind him and didn't know which way to turn his hips. As Miller ran by him, he started to play the route as if it was breaking out towards the sideline (which it wasn't) and gave Big Ben an opening to zing it to his tight end in the seam for 16 yards. Maualuga had struggles like this all season, and it was not a rare sight to see him lose routes deep down field by allowing himself to be looked off by the quarterback, and more often than not these mistakes resulted in huge gains. For a fourth year middle linebacker, the lack of on-field awareness and understanding of his own defense is staggering (and for me personally, exciting).
Like I said, free yards.
In this final play, I want to illustrate how despite the Bengals' secondary playing better towards the end of the season, they are still prone to huge mistakes at inopportune times. The Steelers are in a 3-wide set with Miller on the left side of the line and the running back standing next to Big Ben in the shotgun formation. Reggie Nelson reads a run to the right and adjusts the secondary to give them better numbers to the weak side of the formation.
Nelson moves back to be the lone safety in the deep middle of the field as a security blanket against the two Steelers receivers at the top of the screen. Jones is playing way off the line of scrimmage against Mike Wallace now that he has no safety help. Chris Crocker, the other safety, creeps down towards the line of scrimmage to cover the off tackle run.
The Steelers fake it to the running back, so Jones keeps his hips towards the middle of the field (red arrow) in order to play the crossing route (orange) if he needs to. He does this, and I think it's particularly smart by him, because play action passes are designed to open up crossing routes, so it only makes sense to play that as his primary read. By sending the safety up to stop the run and keeping himself available to play the fake, he has effectively covered as many bases as he can from his position. Jones also has enough room and his hips are open enough to play the fly route (yellow) if Wallace does not break to the inside of the field; it’s excellent positioning and an excellent play call by the veteran safety.
However, as all Bengals fans know, Adam Jones can giveth and he can taketh away. Despite his great call, he flips his hips far too early to play the fly route because he doesn't want to get beat for a huge play. This is a technique that corners use when put on an island called "stacking", which is essentially running over the top of their receiver to cut off their route and impede their progress. It tends to work best, however, when the corner is no more than a couple of feet off of his man and shaded towards the inside of the field. This forces the receiver to stem their route to the sideline and helps the corner box them out of position to make the catch. Not only is Jones five yards off his man, but he is not shaded towards the inside and is out of position to play basically every route Wallace can possibly throw at him – terrible, terrible technique.
Wallace cuts underneath of Jones and instantly becomes wide open by virtue of horrible coverage.
This might have been the easiest first down the Steelers made all day.
It’s an easy cop out to call this game for either one of these teams for some arbitrary reason. The Bengals are on a hot streak and their defense is playing well. The Texans have home field advantage and the most dominant defensive player in the NFL. A.J. Green is the best young receiver in the game. Andre Johnson is the best "old" receiver in the game. Matt Schaub’s hairline is receding. Andy Dalton has murderous eyes. It’s pointless to call out this stat or that stat and instantly declare a winner, but here’s what I can tell you - both of these teams are matchup nightmares...for each other.
Houston is on their 3rd and 4th string linebackers and have to somehow defend Andrew Hawkins and Jermaine Gresham over the middle. Cincinnati can’t stop play action to save their lives and have to face an offense based entirely on play action. Quintin Demps is arguably the worst safety in the league and he’ll be over the top of A.J. Green whenever the Bengals go into 3-wide sets (yikes). Michael Johnson gets to learn a lesson in futility across from Duane Brown. You can point to so many things on both sides of the ball that can swing this game one way or another, but I can’t help but think that somehow, someway, Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham will expose the Bengals linebackers just enough to pull out a win. Geno Atkins will get his sacks, A.J. Green will get his catches, and Andy Dalton will get his yards. At the end of the day, however, I just don’t see the Bengals capitalizing on Houston’s flaws as much as the Texans capitalize on theirs. For a club that has play action as an Achilles' heel, I just don’t see how playing against a team that lives off of play action can be of any benefit to their Super Bowl hopes.
I've changed this prediction five times now, but I think I've finally settled on it. Houston 23-17.