The Cincinnati Bengals entered their bye week with a flawless 3-0 record, following wins over the Ravens, Falcons and Titans. In 2013, current Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer led a Bengal defense that finished third in the league in yards allowed per game, bested only by Seattle and Carolina. Newly promoted defensive coordinator Paul Guenther (a Bengals staffer since 2005, most recently as linebackers coach) leads a unit that has excelled against the pass in 2014, holding opponents to 5.4 yards per attempt, tied with New England as the best in the league.
In turn, Cincinnati has also held opposing quarterbacks to a QB rating of 56.9, the lowest by any defense in the National Football League. This is likely due to how their first three games have unfolded, as Marvin Lewis’s squad enjoyed a 15-point halftime advantage at Baltimore, a 14-point home cushion early in the 3rd quarter versus Atlanta, and a 19-point home halftime margin against Tennessee. These early double-digit leads allowed the Bengals to focus on pass defense and forced their opponents into desperation mode on passing situations. We reviewed the film from each game to ascertain if their pass defense, despite the numbers, has any weaknesses.
Soft Cover 2
Cincinnati uses a 4-3 as their base defensive alignment, yet employs a number of sub packages depending on offensive personnel or down-and-distance. In the secondary, Guenther’s men typically utilize a “soft” Cover 2 look, with the corners backed away from the line of scrimmage and the safeties aligned more than 15 yards off the ball. This still photo shows the pre-snap alignment of the Bengals defense:
Matt Ryan is in the shotgun and Atlanta has 11 personnel on the field with a slot formation to each side. Guenther’s defense has sent nickel personnel on the field. Focus on the depth of the two outside cornerbacks, Terence Newman (top of screen) and Adam “Pacman” Jones (bottom); both players are at least five yards removed from the line of scrimmage.
This “soft” Cover 2 can be attacked by offenses using safe throws to the outside flats, and creating opportunities for one-on-one matchups to gain yardage. The cornerbacks must maintain proper positioning because if they miss a tackle to the outside, the receiver is off to the races down the sideline. This play is an example of Ryan and Atlanta attacking the soft Cover 2 and picking up an easy six yards on first down. Roddy White is split wide to the right and runs a simple hitch route:
Ryan delivers a strong throw and Leon Hall, the slot corner, leaves his assignment to eliminate space inside and makes the tackle. Newman, the cornerback to that side of the field, maintains his depth in relation to White throughout, guarding against the big play.
Here, Jake Locker and the Titans face a 2nd and 9 late in the 3rd quarter. With 11 personnel, Tennessee’s offense has a slot formation to each side of the field. The Bengal nickel defense is on the field and the secondary is aligned in their soft Cover 2 look. Split wide to the left, Justin Hunter runs a 10-yard out and is open for his quarterback:
Jones is able to make the tackle, but not before Tennessee secures a new set of downs.
Even with this weakness in the short-to-intermediate outside zones, receivers have found space downfield against the Bengals’ secondary. In Week 1, Joe Flacco missed a chance for a big play against this coverage. Baltimore’s 11 personnel is on the field with a tight end and two receivers aligned to the left and a single receiver split to the right. Guenther calls upon his nickel personnel who show the soft Cover 2 in the defensive backfield. From his wide alignment Steve Smith runs a post route and the former Carolina Panther is open. Flacco’s throw is off-target behind the receiver and falls incomplete. The depth of the safety opened up the post route and provided Baltimore an opportunity for a big play:
If Cincinnati calls upon this soft Cover 2 scheme, New England’s offense will find chances to for positive gains of yardage in the flat and throws down the deep middle. Tom Brady and his receivers need to convert these chances when available.
Avoid Third and Long
It is impossible for a coaching staff to design a game plan based on avoiding third down plays, but Guenther utilizes special schemes and alignments for these situations. On this 3rd and 8 play from Week 3, Cincinnati is in a sub package with three down linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs. Just prior to the snap, the defense shows Cover 1 in the secondary and walks seven defenders into the box:
When the ball is snapped, these seven defenders blitz the quarterback. One of the Bengals on the edge is unblocked and forces Locker into a quick throw which falls incomplete:
From the end zone view, notice the confusion along the Titan offensive line before the snap. As the play develops, the tight end blocks nothing but air and the running back comes across the formation to block one edge player, gifting linebacker Emmanuel Lamur a free shot on Locker:
A similar posture nearly created a “pick six” situation later in the same game. Early in the 2nd quarter Tennessee faces another 3rd and 8, just outside the red zone. The Bengals counter with a nickel grouping and place 10 players at or near the line of scrimmage pre-snap:
Just prior to the hike, Jones drops away from the line of scrimmage and eventually Cincinnati drops nine players into coverage with a two deep look. Locker gets impatient and forces a throw to the sideline while Newman breaks on the route and nearly secures an interception with the entire field in front of him:
From the end zone view, you can see how the two defensive linemen cross on their pass rush, trying to contain the quarterback in the pocket:
The Patriots will face many third down situations on Sunday night, and thankfully Cincinnati has been exposed at times in these circumstances. In this clip, Locker misses a chance for a touchdown just before halftime. On 3rd and 12, Tennessee’s 11 personnel is on the field with Locker in the shotgun. Guenther’s sub package has eight defenders on the line of scrimmage just before the snap:
The Bengals blitz all eight players and play Cover 0 against the three receivers on the passing play:
The slot receiver to the left runs a wheel route up the field while the receiver split to the right runs a post, and both deep routes are open for Locker. Perhaps due to the pressure, the quarterback rushes the throw and the pass falls incomplete. If protection is solid on these plays, Brady will have opportunities for deep completions.
Throw at Pacman
When Guenther sends his nickel personnel on the field, he removes a linebacker and replaces him with Adam Jones. Starting cornerback Leon Hall then moves inside to cover a slot receiver. When this occurs, Brady must identify Jones and target him in the passing game. Through three games the formerly incorrigible West Virginia Mountaineer has been the weak link in the Bengal secondary:
Tennessee has trips to the left with Kenny Britt as the outside receiver in that formation. Britt runs a simple 8-yard curl and Jones stumbles on his break and then whiffs on the tackle. The receiver turns the miscue into a 12-yard gain.
On this next play, the Bengal secondary is aligned in Cover 2 and Jones is the cornerback at the bottom of the screen. The Titans have two receivers and a tight end to the right side of the formation and another wide receiver with a tight end split to Jones’s side of the field. As the play develops, Jones shadows his receiver and fails to gain width into his outside zone. Bishop Sankey runs a swing route to the outside and is wide open due to Jones’s slow recognition:
On these plays, Jones showed weaknesses in a man-to-man scheme as well as in a zone concept. Given these flaws, New England needs to locate Jones when he enters the game and utilize audibles if necessary to exploit his limitations.
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