Rested and refreshed off their bye week, Cincinnati travels to Foxboro this week for Sunday Night Football. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther leads a unit that has benefitted from early leads each week this season, allowing them to “pin their ears back” and attack the pocket while applying blanket coverage downfield. Guenther employs a 4-3 as their base defense, but they use a number of sub packages, some of them rather exotic as outlined in the Bengals Passing Preview. Their ability to force offenses into unfavorable down-and-distance situations and exploit those opportunities is a cause for concern for Josh McDaniels and the Patriot offense.
The Defensive Line
Similar to the Minnesota Vikings, Cincinnati uses a four-man defensive line on most snaps, with one nose tackle and one defensive tackle. On the majority of plays, Domata Peko is aligned to one side or the other of the offensive center and Geno Atkins takes his stance to the strong-side of the offensive formation in the gap between the guard and tackle.
Left Defensive End – Carlos Dunlap (#96)
A second-round selection in the 2010 Draft, Dunlap has developed into one of the premier 4-3 defensive ends in the National Football League. This product of the University of Florida has 10 tackles and three sacks to his credit in 2014. Through three contests Dunlap has been the most disruptive player on the Bengals’ defensive front. He is a bulwark against the run, where he can use his agility and quickness to get into the backfield quickly and wreak havoc on an offense, as demonstrated on this play from Week 1:
The Bengals are in their nickel package with the defensive line positioned in an under front. Baltimore tries to run Bernard Pierce off the left tackle, but Dunlap’s explosive swim move against left tackle Eugene Monroe forces Pierce to make a quick cut in the backfield. Pierce is able to burst through a hole and gain six yards, but the defensive end demonstrates his ability to disrupt an offensive play. If the Patriot blockers cannot handle the rest of the line as the Ravens do on this play, this move by Dunlap could result in a big tackle for a loss.
Dunlap has had a sack in each game this season, most impressively this 3rd-quarter effort to bag Jake Locker in Week 3. Facing 3rd and 14, the Titans have Locker in the shotgun using their 11 personnel. With their nickel personnel, Cincinnati has Dunlap to the right of the offense playing wide 9 technique outside the right tackle, Michael Oher. Off the snap, Oher is very quick to gain depth and width in his attempt to block Dunlap, but the former Gator is quicker. Dunlap beats Oher with a very quick speed rush and is on Locker before the quarterback has a chance to make a throw:
The Patriots need to be cognizant of Dunlap’s alignment on every snap, and make sure he is accounted for in protection schemes. Otherwise, Dunlap will follow in the footsteps of Cameron Wake, Khalil Mack, and Tamba Hali and get to Tom Brady early and often. (The Patriots line and Nate Solder have had trouble with that same trio of Wake, Mack, and Hali, as detailed in the links.)
Nose Tackle – Domata Peko (#94)
Peko is another big body in the middle of a defensive line that has the potential to cause problems for the young New England interior line. On most snaps, Guenther uses the former Michigan State Spartan to work through a double team from the center and guard and allow linebackers to flow freely to ball carriers. Even when facing double teams, Peko is a stout run defender, as demonstrated on this play:
Cincinnati’s nickel package is on the field and Peko is lined up across from the Ravens’ left guard. Baltimore runs Justin Forsett on a delayed handoff and the left guard and center double-team Peko on the play. The duo does not finish the block on the big nose tackle, and Peko comes off the double team to trip Forsett and limit the carry to a three-yard gain.
Peko worked through another double-team on the first play of the Bengals’ Week 2 contest against Atlanta. Shown below, Cincinnati’s base 4-3 defense is on the field and the defensive line is set up in an over front. Off the snap, both the center and left guard attempt to block Peko in tandem, and the Falcons run Steven Jackson to the right side, away from the nose tackle. Peko forces his way down the line of scrimmage, beating both blockers, and drags down Jackson after a minimal gain:
Finally, Peko is a hard-working player who is able to play “sideline-to-sideline,” an impressive ability for a player of his size. In the 3rd quarter Atlanta attempts a play-action pass. Matt Ryan finds Jackson out of the backfield on a swing route:
Peko again faces a double team from the guard and center, but identifies the throw downfield and flows to Jackson, making the tackle on the play.
Defensive Tackle – Geno Atkins (#97)
The former Georgia Bulldog had a monster season in 2012, with 12.5 sacks from his defensive tackle position. Atkins was in position to duplicate that number last year until he suffered a torn ACL that required reconstructive surgery. Through three games this year, Atkins seems to still be working his way back from the injury. He only has three tackles to his credit and film from each game illustrates how opponents have been able to contain him up front. Here is one example:
On the opening play of the game, Atkins is aligned to the outside shoulder of Chance Warmack, the second-year right guard. Off the snap of the ball, Warmack engages Atkins and rides the big defensive tackle down the line of scrimmage, completely taking Atkins out of the play. Two plays later, left guard Andy Levitre similarly erases Atkins from a play:
The defensive tackle is lined up to Levitre’s outside shoulder. The Titans run a stretch play to the offense’s right, and Levitre is able to handle Atkins and with a slight assist from left tackle Michael Roos, Atkins is taken to the turf and is a non-factor on the play.
It will be interesting to see how Atkins looks following the bye week. With extra rest he may be in better form come Sunday night.
Right Defensive End – Wallace Gilberry (#95)
The solid veteran from the University of Alabama rounds out the Bengals’ defensive front. Gilberry benefits from the attention paid to the other three more well-known members of the Cincinnati defensive line. A reserve player throughout most of his career, Gilberry has started each game for the Bengals in 2014. He can be handled one-on-one in the running game, as Michael Roos illustrated in this clip:
The Titans run a stretch play behind their big left tackle and right at Gilberry. Roos engages the defensive end and takes him for a ride, nearly all the way to the sideline. Gilberry is simply unable to disengage from his blocker, and the play goes for a big gain of 20 yards.
On occasion, Cincinnati drops Gilberry inside, as they do on this play:
Gilberry is lined up at defensive tackle, between the right guard and right tackle on this play. Off the snap of the ball, the right tackle executes a perfect cut block on Gilberry as Jackson takes the handoff. The defender does not quit on the play and scrambles to his feet, tracking down the ball carrier from behind. Patriots players need to be aware of this and finish every block on Gilberry until the whistle.
Cincinnati employs a solid, if not spectacular, trio of linebackers.
Strong-Side Linebacker – Emmanuel Lamur (#59)
Of the three linebackers, Lamur might be the least known but the most well-rounded. Lamur has been quietly spectacular this season. In evaluating the Bengals on film, Lamur’s ability to flow to the ball carrier on either side of the field, shed blockers on run plays and stay with his assignment in man-to-man pass coverage is impressive. Here is an example of the Kansas State product working downhill against the run:
The Ravens attempt a stretch run to Lamur’s side of the formation and rely on the tight end to handle Lamur one-on-one. Lamur is able to stand up his blocker, shed the block and hold Pierce to a short gain.
Here is Lamur in man-to-man coverage against Atlanta:
The Falcons begin this play with an inverted-slot formation. They have Julio Jones inside and tight end Levine Toilolo split outside. Atlanta brings Toilolo in motion towards the ball and Lamur covers the tight end one-on-one during the play. Toilolo runs a quick out and Lamur stays right with him, closing down on the receiver as the ball is thrown and holding Toilolo to zero yards after the catch. New England cannot underestimate Lamur because of his inexperience. Yes, Sunday night will be only the fourth start of his career, but the former undrafted free agent is a very underrated player.
Middle Linebacker – Rey Maualuga (#58)
On the opposite end of the football fame spectrum lies Maualuga, a very well-known and accomplished linebacker. Following a career at the University of Southern California Maualuga has been a constant starter inside for the Bengals. He was originally drafted to play inside in their 3-4 scheme and converted to a 4-3 middle linebacker when Cincinnati made a switch in defensive ideology. The linebacker amassed 122 tackles in 2012, and 75 in 13 games during 2013. He is a very stout defender against the run, as demonstrated on this play against Atlanta:
As the ball is snapped, Maualuga provides an example of nearly flawless linebacker technique. The play looks like a clear run to his left but the linebacker hesitates for a step and holds his ground, an example of the counter step idea previously discussed with respect to Oakland’s Sio Moore. Once Maualuga is certain that Atlanta is not going to run a counter play, he explodes down the line of scrimmage and tracks down the ball carrier, holding Jackson to no gain. If the Patriots are to have success on the ground, they cannot allow Maualuga to run freely to the ball carrier like Atlanta does on this play.
Weak-Side Linebacker – Vontaze Burfict (#55)
The third member of the linebacking corps, Burfict is a third-year player from Arizona State University. The former Sun Devil missed the week three contest against Tennessee due to a concussion, and is questionable for Sunday night. When he is on the field, Burfict is a very capable player, particularly in run support. Here is one example:
Baltimore attempts the stretch play to the left and they pull the left guard around to block Burfict. The guard stumbles on his route, and the linebacker blows up both the lineman and the running back in the backfield, turning this play into a four-yard loss.
If Burfict is unable to play Sunday night, Cincinnati will turn to Vincent Rey, a fifth-year player from Duke University. Rey started in place of Burfict in Week 3, and recorded three solo tackles, and is also effective against the run, as evidenced on this play:
Left Cornerback – Terence Newman (#23)
The 36-year old veteran is still a very solid defensive back who excels in both man-to-man and zone coverage. On this 3rd and 12 play in Week 2, Matt Ryan throws a quick out towards Newman against the Bengals’ Cover 3:
The cornerback reads the route correctly, breaks on the throw, and delivers a solid tackle holding the receiver to no gain after the catch.
Newman does have a tendency to keep his eyes in the backfield, especially when playing press coverage in Cover 2. On this play, pay attention to how Newman handles the receiver vacating his zone:
Locker has a chance to make the throw down the sideline, thanks in part to Newman coming off the outside receiver too early on the deep route. Here is a still:
The quarterback has the ball in a clean pocket and Newman’s eyes are in the backfield. That, coupled with the gap between him and the safety, has opened up a big throwing window for Locker. The quarterback, however, takes the checkdown route, with Newman closing quickly to make the tackle. If these opportunities are available on Sunday night, Tom Brady and the Patriots need to capitalize.
Right Cornerback / Slot Cornerback – Leon Hall (#20)
The former Michigan Wolverine and 2008 first-round draft pick forms the other half of Cincinnati’s veteran cornerback tandem. Now in his eighth NFL season, Hall missed 11 games last year with a torn left Achilles tendon (he was also sidelined for the final 5 games in 2011 after tearing the same tendon in his right leg). Those injuries aside, he’s been the Bengals’ regular starter throughout his career. Hall lines up on the outside in Guenther’s base defense but shifts inside to the slot when Cincinnati utilizes a sub package. Hall is a tremendous asset for Cincinnati from this position. Here against Atlanta, Hall holds a swing route to a minimal gain:
Lined up over the slot receiver as Cincinnati shows a Cover 2 Man Under coverage, the slot cornerback quickly recognizes the checkdown throw from Ryan and comes up to make a solid tackle on Steven Jackson. Hall makes a similar play here against Jacquizz Rodgers out of the backfield:
On 3rd and 2, Hall is again lined up in the slot. He does a tremendous job of covering the slot receiver until passing him off to the linebacker, then breaks back to his zone and recognizes the running back on a swing route. Hall breaks on the throw and holds Rodgers to a two-yard gain.
Of particular importance to Patriots fans is what Hall can do against the bubble screen, as exemplified by this play against Tennessee:
The Titans have Kendall Wright in the slot and use in-and-out motion with him before the snap. Hall is lined up in the slot over Wright and stays with his motion prior to the play. Locker delivers the ball to Wright on the wide receiver screen and Tennessee pulls Michael Roos out in front of the receiver in an attempt to block Hall. The veteran defensive back evades the left tackle and brings Wright down for a minimal gain.
Third Cornerback – Adam “Pacman” Jones (#24)
One other aspect of Pacman that we should mention is this: Through three games, he leads the Bengals in penalties with three. Two defensive holding calls and one illegal contact call. The Patriots would be wise to put a physical receiver on the outside towards Jones and look to draw a penalty or two on Sunday night.
Strong Safety – George Iloka (#43)
Iloka earned the starting strong safety spot on the basis of a solid stretch run in 2013 and a great training camp. As we have seen with other teams, although the former Boise State Bronco is listed as the strong safety he plays both down near the line of scrimmage and in the deep center field position in Cover 3. Iloka has 12 tackles and two interceptions through three games, picking off Matt Ryan twice in Week 2.
Free Safety – Reggie Nelson (#20)
Fearless in run support, the former Florida Gator already has 13 tackles in 2014. While listed as the starting free safety, Nelson spends a great deal of time down near the line of scrimmage, interchanging with Iloka, and has 1.5 sacks to his name this season. Here is an example of Nelson against the run:
Against Atlanta’s singleback formation, the Bengals have their nickel package on the field and show Cover 2 in the secondary. Nelson is the deep safety to the bottom of the screen. He immediately recognizes run and explodes into the hole to meet Jackson head-on. His eagerness in the run game is a potential opportunity for New England in the play-action passing game.
While there are ways to attack this defense and the defensive line is off to a slower start due to Atkins’s recovery, this is the best defense the Patriots have seen this season. It will take near flawless execution of a well-crafted game plan for New England to leave the field Sunday night with a winning record.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.