The Cincinnati Bengals enter the playoffs with a backup quarterback under center, but – thanks to a talented roster and some excellent coaching – they still have a chance. Mark Schofield breaks down this touchdown connection from AJ McCarron to Tyler Eifert.
The Bengals enter the NFL playoffs as the AFC’s third seed, hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers in a Wild Card matchup. Despite losing starting quarterback Andy Dalton to an injury, backup AJ McCarron has made plays in the passing game, executing the well-crafted designs of offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. In their season finale against the Baltimore Ravens, this was on display during their first touchdown.
With less than 5 minutes left in the second quarter – during an eight-play drive – the Bengals found themselves facing 2nd and 10 at the Baltimore 22-yard line. The offense lines up with 11 offensive personnel. Wide receiver A.J. Green (#18) splits wide to the right, while three receivers deploy to the left: tight end Tyler Eifert (#85) and WR Mohamed Sanu (#12) are the two inside receivers set in a stack just outside the left tackle, with Marvin Jones (#82) split wide. The Ravens have their 4-2-5 nickel defense showing two-high safeties before the snap:
The Bengals run the four vertical concept:
Sanu’s route is crucial to the success of this play. When teams run the four verticals concept from a trips formation, the inside route from the trips needs to bend across the formation to the other side of the field. Not only does this separate the pass patterns (preventing three receivers clustered in the same area of the field) but it puts stress on the safeties, forcing them to read and react to receivers in different areas of the field. McCarron reads the defense and will choose between the vertical routes based on the Ravens Cover 6 look:
On the weakside the defense employs a Cover 2 scheme, with the corner staying with Green on his vertical route while safety Will Hill (#33) looks to cover the weakside half of the field. On the playside, cornerback Jimmy Smith (#22) drops into a quarters look, as does safety Kendrick Lewis (#23). In addition, linebacker Zach Orr (#54) drops into the middle as well, giving this coverage a Tampa 2 element.
As the play develops, watch how Sanu’s route freezes those three defenders (Orr, Smith and Lewis) and creates a throwing window for Eifert’s seam route:
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When Sanu hits the 15-yard line, he begins to bend across the field to the opposite hash mark. Orr is covering the WR, but Sanu has a step on the linebacker and appears to be breaking open. Because of this, Lewis stays home on the hashmark, even taking a step to the middle of the field. In addition, Hill keeps his eyes trained on the WR coming over the middle. But to the outside, both Eifert and Jones are running vertical routes, with Smith trying desperately to split the difference between them. But he cannot cover both receivers, and with the CB to the outside of Eifert, McCarron takes the easy throw to his TE on the seam route for the touchdown.
The Bengals face a stiff test this weekend when they host the Steelers, perhaps this season’s “#6 team nobody wants to play,” but with continued design and execution like this, Cincinnati might come away with its first playoff victory since before McCarron was born – 1990.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.
Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.