For the first time since 2006, the Bengals have won their first three games of the year. Sitting at 3-0 before last Sunday’s bye, Cincinnati racked up victories against Baltimore, Atlanta, and Tennessee ‒ teams that collectively won five of their other six games through Week 3. The team’s hot start has inevitably drawn comparisons to last season when, under departed defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer (now head coach in Minnesota), the Bengal defense ranked 3rd in fewest total yards allowed despite facing the 10th-most offensive drives in the National Football League. That Cincinnati team stifled opposing running games and air attacks to similar degrees, ranking 5th in the league against both rushers (96.5 yards per game) and passers (209 yards per game).
While the Bengals have excelled against the pass in its early contests this year, new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther directs a unit that has struggled to stop the run. Enemy rushers have picked up 5.1 yards per carry, which through three games ranked among the worst averages in the NFL. For Cincinnati’s sake, they enjoyed early double-digit leads in each of their games, forcing their opponents to concentrate on the aerial attack as each contest progressed. We reviewed the film from each game to evaluate the weaknesses in the Bengals’ run defense.
Power Against Their Front
One facet of the Bengals’ run defense stands out immediately: Their front four looks vulnerable against the run. This is likely due in part to Geno Atkins’s ongoing recovery from a knee injury sustained on Halloween in 2013. As outlined in the TWIP/TWIR pieces before the Patriots-Vikings game, the defensive tackle – when healthy – is a formidable defender against both the run and the pass. However, Atkins is coming off an ACL reconstruction and opponents have taken advantage of this weakness in their run defense.
On this 1st and 10 play from Week 1, the Ravens are in an i-formation against Cincinnati’s base 4-3 defense. The Bengals are in an over front with Atkins to the outside shoulder of the right guard:
Baltimore runs a simple lead play behind the left tackle. To the play-side, the blocking is executed perfectly. Center Jeremy Zuttah does a tremendous job of opening up with a hard first step, gaining leverage on Domata Peko and handling the nose guard at the point of attack. With no need to help contain Peko, left guard Kelechi Osemele is free to work up to the middle linebacker, driving Rey Maualuga seven yards into the defensive secondary. Left tackle Eugene Monroe handles the defensive end one-on-one, allowing the fullback a free run at weak-side linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
The job done on backside blocking is just as tremendous. Off the snap, right guard Marshal Yanda initiates contact on Atkins, then releases to work up towards Emmanuel Lamur, the strong-side linebacker. As the guard disengages from Atkins, the right tackle then cuts the defensive tackle down, eliminating him from the play. With a path cleared superbly by his line, Bernard Pierce rips off an easy six-yard gain, putting the Ravens in an ideal 2nd and 4 situation.
Here is a similar concept used by the Falcons in Week 2. Atlanta is set up in an offset i with the fullback shaded to the strong side of the formation. Cincinnati’s base 4-3 defense is on the field with the defensive line shaded to an over front. Atkins is lined up to the outside shoulder of the right guard:
Matt Ryan and the offense run a counter lead on this play and Steven Jackson’s 13-yard gain begins with the work done by the center after the snap. Joe Hawley gains instant leverage on Peko and is able to turn the nose guard, isolating him from the play. His unaided handling of Peko allows the right guard and right tackle to employ a combination block on Atkins, which they execute with precision. At the start of the play, both linemen initiate contact on Atkins forcing the defender to the turf. With Atkins on the ground the tackle now works to the next level where he handles Maualuga with ease. Meanwhile, tight end Levine Toilolo is able to control defensive end Carlos Dunlap on his own.
Jackson has two lead blockers on this play, fullback Patrick DiMarco and left guard Justin Blalock. While the fullback’s effort is uninspiring, the left guard’s block is crucial. Blalock pulls through the hole and stones strong-side linebacker Burfict. While the work on the front is fantastic, the exertion on the next level against Burfict and Maualuga allows this play to go for double-digit yardage.
Run v. Sub, Redux
The slow start of the Cincinnati defensive front is compounded in the run game when Guenther employs sub packages. When the Bengals remove a linebacker for an extra defensive back, it creates an opportunity for opponents to run the ball against an even less formidable defensive front.
In Week 3, Tennessee kept the ball on the ground a number of times against a sub package and experienced a great deal of success. On this 1st and 10 play, the Titans have Jake Locker in the shotgun with their 11 personnel on the field. The Bengals have their nickel grouping in the game with only six defenders in the box:
Tennessee runs a little delay against this defense and running back Bishop Sankey bursts through the hole for a nine-yard gain. The success of this play starts again over the ball, with left guard Andy Levitre and center Brian Schwenke on a strong double-team of Peko. Left tackle Michael Roos’s cut block takes defensive end Robert Geathers out of the play. These blocks open up a large hole for the running back, and Sankey is able to juke Burfict and continue for more yardage.
In TWIP, we illustrated how Guenther likes to employ exotic looks and packages in advantageous down-and-distance situations. On this 2nd and 7 play, Cincinnati has their nickel defense on the field, but with seven defenders in the box. They show a double A-gap blitz, as well as a corner blitz to the right of the offense. Tennessee’s 11 personnel is on the field with Sankey in the pistol formation behind his quarterback:
The Titans run a simple stretch play to the left against this front and Sankey’s carry goes for 11 yards. Levitre and Schwenke are again crucial to this play; they double-team backup lineman Devon Still off the snap and once he is contained, Schwenke disengages and works up to Maualuga. Because of the linebacker’s proximity to the line of scrimmage, the center does not have to travel far to execute his block. When Sankey cuts up the field behind Schwenke, notice tight end Delanie Walker who is 15 yards downfield and in perfect position to block the free safety. Were it not for the individual effort from Lamur tripping up the running back, this play goes for huge yards.
While no team wants to be in a difficult down-and-distance situation, New England can take advantage of these circumstances on Sunday night. Given the difficulties in throwing against the exotic looks the Bengals employ in these contexts, the Patriots may choose to stay on the ground and exploit the Cincinnati defensive front.
Run At Pacman
Building off of the previous point, when Cincinnati utilizes sub personnel, there is another reason to run the ball: Adam “Pacman” Jones will be on the field. The Bengals typically move Leon Hall into the slot in their nickel and put Jones on the outside, where his work in run support has been less than inspiring this season.
Here, the Titans run a simple stretch play towards Jones’s side of the field:
Tennessee’s blocking scheme illustrates all there is to know about Jones against the run: They do not even block him. The outside receiver across from Jones immediately cuts inside to block down on a safety, ignoring Pacman. If New England calls upon the first two concepts highlighted in this article, then their fans can anticipate Jones diving at Stevan Ridley’s ankles early and often on Sunday Night Football.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.