The Bengals and the art of post-snap movement
Cincinnati's defense is moving and evolving. The results: Encouraging.
The Bengals are good. At this point, that is less an opinion and more a statement of fact. And while a whole bunch of the attention is — rightly — being dumped on Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, let’s reserve some time this morning for the Cincy defense.
Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo is on a heater. Most importantly: he’s adapting and changing through the course of the season, rather than arrogantly slipping into the play-what-we play cliché that has often followed him throughout his career.
The Bengals have embraced the NFL’s current trend, playing a bunch of spot-dropping, zone coverage from split-safety (two-deep) sets. But while that serves as the base, Anarumo has done a nice job of toggling from split (open) field looks to single-high (closed) field looks.
Issues have come on third downs and obvious passing situations, though. Against the Packers, the Bengals’ defense got strung out — a regular complaint of any Bengals fan this year. Anarumo is apt to cover as much vertical and horizontal space as possible, flooding the field deep and wide with defenders in zone coverage, which opens up all kinds of space for creative offensive guys to attack. Given that defenders are not relating their zones to the routes (a form of zone-match coverage), receivers (and OCs) need only find the gaps and they can pick up easy yards. Give the likes of Davante Adams, Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur that kind of space, and they’re going to feast.
Savvy split safety teams still compress the vertical part of the field. By having two deep safeties, they’re more apt to choke up closer to the line of scrimmage. Part of that is to ensure both defenders can fast flow to the run fit if need be, but it also allows a coach to build more rotations into the back end. If your safeties are super deep, but you push your corners up closer to the line of scrimmage to allow you to more effortlessly bounce between zone and man coverages, it’s tough to get really creative with secondary rotations, bluffs, and trap coverages. It’s hard to invert from that spot; if you’re trapping the backside to another a quick slant, you best have a safety flowing over the top at the NFL level to fill in the voided space.
For the majority of this season, Anarumo has relied on bouncing between simplistic structures, a tried-and-true NFL style. The Bengals can get exotic on the odd down, but the mere fact they bounce between man and zone and the blah two-deep coverages (two-man; quarters; cover-6) is the disguise. Most often, it’s zone coverage on early downs and man-coverage on third downs.
That generic style can work. But against the best of the best — particularly those using unorthodox formations or smart coverage identifiers — it’s fallible unless the team’s pass-rush plays out of its mind.
Heading into Week Seven, the Bengals ranked an impressive seventh in the NFL in expected points added per play (EPA/play). Even better: They were fourth in dropback success rate. Meaning they were winning a whole bunch of passing downs. They would get an offense behind the chains on early downs and then live (and hope) in man-coverage on third downs.
That’s where the issues kicked in. If you isolate third downs, the Bengals drop from being the fourth most successful pass defense in the league to the 18th. That’s a big gulf. None of the other top-four-in-success-rate sides slip below the fifth spot when you isolate just third downs. They’re great because they win on third downs; the Bengals’ defense has been excellent in spite of third-down struggles.
The point: When the situation dictates that Anarumo flips from zone to man, his unit flips from being one of the best in the league to being a below-average group.
How do you combat that? Bluff and disguised coverages, that’s the best answer.