The Cincinnati Bengals remain unbeaten following a 31-10 win over the Cleveland Browns. Clinging to a seven point lead entering the fourth quarter against their AFC North rival, Brian Filipiak look at how the Bengals put the game away with consecutive touchdown drives ‒ the first of which was highlighted by a 25-yard touchdown run by wide receiver Mohamed Sanu on a reverse.
Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is no stranger to using unique formations and creative concepts to help jumpstart his talented offense, which ranks third in points per game. The play-caller for the Bengals attacks opposing defenses with constantly morphing alignments, late shifts that flip formational strength, and plenty of pre- and post- snap motion to force defenders to adjust on the fly.
Exploiting an often unsettled and overly aggressive Browns defense, Jackson again reached into his bag of tricks with the reverse for a back-breaking score.
Unsettled, You Say?
On the drive that eventually ended in Sanu’s touchdown run, the Bengals caught the Browns defense flat-footed on more than one occasion. Following a third down conversion by Cincinnati, the Browns deployed a defensive front so well disguised even they didn’t know exactly what they were doing:
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The Bengals take advantage of a Browns team in disarray by breaking the huddle quickly. The Browns insert some late defensive substitutions despite approximately 20 seconds passing between the end of the previous play and the start of this one. Quarterback Andy Dalton calls for the snap with 17 seconds left on the play clock and hands off to running back Jeremy Hill (#32). Cleveland’s out-of-position front severely overruns the play, exposing an enormous cutback lane between left tackle Andrew Whitworth (#77) and left guard Clint Boling (#65). Hill plants his foot and slices inside for 13 easy yards and a first down.
File This One Away
While the level of execution ultimately dictates the end result, good play calling can keep an opponent off-balance and guessing. Much like a magician does to spectators, an offensive coordinator can use misdirection to gauge reaction and potentially fool a defense with a similar look later on.
Taking possession of the ball near the end of the third quarter, the Bengals first play on the drive is a split zone run using ghost motion into the backfield from the Z receiver aligned out of a bunch formation:
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From his flanker position, wide receiver Marvin Jones (#82) arcs into the backfield after the snap while tight end Tyler Eifert (#85) pulls across the center to trap the backside defender ‒ defensive end Desmond Bryant (#92). However, Bryant crashes the B gap and manages to elude Eifert’s block, tracking down the ball carrier from behind. Hill gains no yardage on the run, but it isn’t a complete failure ‒ in one sense.
The aggressive play by Bryant, although successful in this case, as well as the general disregard for the motioning receiver by the rest of the defense doesn’t go unnoticed by the coaching staff. It’s the football version of dipping your toes into the water, feeling out a hot or cold reaction by the defense that is filed away for future use.
Snafu Defending Sanu
Cincinnati extends that same drive into the fourth quarter, setting up for a 1st and 10 at the Cleveland 25 yard line.
Using an 11 personnel group, the Bengals set up in the shotgun with wide receiver A.J. Green split out left and two receivers – Mohamed Sanu (in the slot) and Jones – aligned to the right, with Eifert tight to the formation on the same side. The Browns mobilize their nickel defense in a 4-2 front and a single-high safety patrolling deep.
Off the snap, the left guard pulls across center as the Bengals appear to be running a power scheme designed to have running back Giovani Bernard hit the C gap on the strong side. But appearances can be deceiving.
The linebackers key off the pull technique by Boling and flow toward the presumed run direction. Bernard takes the handoff from Dalton but instantly flips the ball to Sanu as the receiver arcs into the backfield. The reverse to Sanu (#12) completely dismantles the Browns defense, and their non-existent discipline on the backside essentially leaves the Bengals with a six-on-one edge down the sideline:
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The Cleveland defense has breakdowns at all three levels, starting with rookie defensive end Xavier Cooper (#96). The defender initially exhibits patience on his read rush, attempting to distinguish between play action or a QB option, but then starts to pursue the ball down the line ‒ after the running back has already pitched it to Sanu. This eliminates Cooper as a cutback defender, and allows Whitworth to sprint downfield as one of several lead blockers.
Compounding the issue for the Browns is the misplay by safety Tashaun Gipson (#39) at the second level. After seeing the initial handoff, the defensive back follows Bernard across the center, even as right guard Kevin Zeitler (#68) and the previously pulling Boling ignore him. Gipson removes himself as the secondary force / cutback defender on the reverse.
It’s also possible, however, that cornerback K’Waun Williams (#36) ‒ aligned in an off-man position over Sanu in the slot before the snap ‒ is the real culprit. The defensive back starts to fill the D gap on the purported Bernard run, ignoring Sanu’s motion altogether and eventually bails in coverage on the running back – perhaps fearful of a reverse pass.
No matter how the blame pie is divided, the result leaves Sanu completely unaccounted for, similar to how Jones was ignored on the earlier split zone run.
The last line of defense for Cleveland is the deep safety Ibraheim Campbell (#30), but, much like his teammates, the defender steps himself out of position and the play. By the time Campbell and the rest of the Browns defense figure it out, it’s far too late to make an impact. The safety manages to get past one blocker but not Whitworth.
From there, the path to the end zone is clear for Sanu. With Green releasing outside on the decoy fade, cornerback Tramon Williams plays the route in man coverage and turns his back to the run. When the time comes, Green pins the defensive back to the inside, leaving no one left to block for the hard-charging (and probably slightly relieved) Dalton.
Cincinnati would add another touchdown on their next possession, quickly turning a close game after three quarters into a laugher and another victory.
Misdirecting and Shapeshifting
The Bengals offense under Jackson – epitomized by the great Sanu reverse – continues to be an explosive unit that combines elite talent at the skill positions with a diverse, amoeba-like scheme that can change its shape as needed. Many of the oddball offensive line alignments, late formational shifts and post-snap movements in and out of backfield may not work against the defense each time. But each usage creates an extra decision for the defense to make, and a potential opportunity to exploit: stay put and be outmanned, or follow the shifts/motions and play against unfamiliar keys. There’s no better illusion an offense can create than one that focuses a defender’s eyes away from what is really going on. Few have been better at doing this than Jackson and the Bengals so far this season.
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Brian Filipiak knows about proper blocking technique, run defense, how to defeat an overload, and the point-of-attack.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.