The Flaws That Could Sink the NFL's Top Contenders: Part III
Second-level problems in Cincy; receivers who can't unstick from man-coverage; an over-active defensive front; more
Earlier this season, I took a deeper look at how the Bengals were starting to add more stuff to Lou Anarumo’s bland scheme. They were using Vonn Bell in interesting ways. They were rotating coverages at an increased rate. They had added disguise elements, bringing a degree of sophistication to an otherwise pedestrian set-up.
Anarumo deserves a whole heaping of credit. He has done as fine a job as any assistant coach in the league this year. He ditched orthodoxy in favor of chasing a winning formula; building around the core talents of his group rather than trying to squeeze those players into a pre-ordained system. Plus, he’s learned, adapted, and evolved as the season has run along. For a guy who has a reputation as being stuck-in-his-ways coach, that’s commendable.
It’s a similar approach to that which the team has taken on the offensive side of the ball: It’s about players, not plays. And it’s been a success, the Bengals clinching the AFC North for the first time in half a decade.
As they head to the postseason, it seems likely that Anarumo will stick to his basic blueprint. The Bengals don’t run a whole lot, but they’ll mix and match packages depending on the opponent, and – like the best modern defenses – they use different presentations each week to get to the same overall ideas. They might jumble the blitz packages (one week it’s from an overloaded front; the next it’s the same blitz path but from a double mug look. Coaching, people! It’s fun); they might stick in two deep shells but switch from a traditional look to more inverted designs.
One issue they can’t hide or disguise, though: Linebackers in coverage. The Bengals have given up the third-most yards in coverage to tight ends this season and are tied for fifth in the highest number of touchdowns conceded to tight ends. The very fear of Travis Kelce doing Travis Kelce things in Week 17 against the Chiefs forced the Bengals’ five-man pressure group to implode, and for long stretches the rest of the defense with it.
I cast myself in the small minority: I like the Bengals linebackers! (Go easy on me, Cincy.)
Like all teams, the Bengals had to juggle a position group due to injuries and COVID. But when healthy and available, the Bengals’ linebackers are solid to good. In attack mode, Germaine Pratt and Markus Bailey are positively frisky -- Bailey has played each of the last four weeks, his snap count rising each week. I confess: the less said about Logan Wilson, be it as a downhill thumper or turn-to-find coverage man, the better.
The Bengals don’t run anything overly fancy at the second-level. You will find the same traditional cross-dog blitzes and loops in any playbook from high school up to the NFL. But they play hard. They play fast. And they fight like hell. That, in conjunction with a spicy down-four (depending on the package) is more than enough.
They ‘backers pop in the run-game, too, particularly when confronting pullers in the interior gaps. As a pulling-guard-crushers go, the Bengals core isn’t far behind the Patriots, league leaders in caving in interior gap-scheme runs. In fact, the Bengals ‘bear’ front package – five linemen up on the line of scrimmage – when they kick one of their linebackers down to the edge and roll a safety (typically Vonn Bell) into the second wall late in the action is one of the sneaky best early-down defensive packages in the league against the runs aimed inside the tackles.
Everything else can be firmly placed in the category of ‘yikes’: Playing out in space, turning and running in coverage, matching routes, reading then reacting. Since week 8, the Bengals rank 27th in early down EPA/Play, and 25th in dropback success – rate – a measure of how a team performs vs. the historical norm based on the down, distance, and field position. And you know how we feel about early down success in these parts.
You know the drill: Teams get into big, heavy sets, bait the run, and then try to target the Bengals linebackers in coverage. They lack an individual who can sort through the rubble and serve as a tight-end eraser whenever a big fella starts darting across the formation or challenging the seams:
You can count three individual busts on that play alone.
When working top-down, as the Bengals’ linebackers often do in their zones coverages, everything is a tick late. You get the sense the linebackers are reading it out correctly but getting to all the right conclusions a step too late.
Run that through a time or two. I can hear you yelling at the screen ‘Go on. Yes. Go. You’ve read it right. Go!” It’s a quarters look. The job of the off-ball linebacker to the in-breaking side is to slide out to anything ripping across in the underneath zone. The boundary corner has outside leverage. He’s funneling things inside. He’s funneling any receiver towards that underneath linebacker. But the ‘backer get across too late. The action in the backfield spooks him. Should pick up the back? Oh, yeah, the edge defender is going to drop out. ZIP. There goes the ball, whistling past the linebacker’s ear hole. The defensive call was right, the linebacker should have been there to undercut the route, and he whiffed.
When the linebackers are asked to drop, sit and scan, though, they can get into even trouble. In a zone-heavy scheme, where linebackers are shuffling backward or to the side before reading and reacting to whatever ever is coming out of the backfield, that’s an almighty issue – hyperbole intentional.
And yet if there was a credo for the Cincy linebackers I’m sure it would be: Look, man, we’re trying. It’s not an effort or willingness issue. It’s about a talent deficit on the roster.
Deigning to try matters, at least to football nerds and coaches. The Bengals need more talent, and a diversified set of skills at the second level. It’s why they’ve felt the need to shuffle Vonn Bell to so many different spots on the field. They lack stylistic divergence. The Bengals defense has one style of linebacker wrapped up in different body types: The downhill thumper who loves to inject chaos into run-plays. You calling a run blitz? BRING. IT. ON!
(Side Note: Germaine Pratt, the Cincy linebacker, is one of the most interesting players I’ve studied this year. He is constantly re-aligning the front, making slight amendments – widening an ends stance; sliding the ‘backers against motion – to get the Bengals into the best spot based on the opposition’s tendencies.
Pratt is constantly calling out plays, too. And if he’s been wrong more than twice within a game, you’d need to show the evidence. Against the 49ers, working in tandem with the overmatched Joe Batchie – now on injured reserves -- Pratt was forever moving and telling Batchie where to go pre- and – somehow -- post-snap, with Batchie winding up in the right places at the right time over and over again.
Pratt doesn’t make as many plays as you’d like given his head start. He’s typically two steps ahead. As a former safety, Pratt should have the athletic chops to match up with tight ends in coverage and the skills to read and react when dropping in coverage. But he just misses plays. He whiffs on coverages. On perimeter runs, he’ll trigger it, then slow his feet, then effort over to finish the play. He’s a classic high-five player: One who arrives just in time to high-five everyone else around the ball. It’s a fascinating dichotomy. Pratt should be better. Half the time, he appears to know where the ball is going before it’s snapped; he has all the physical tools; he often starts to move towards the play, before doubting himself, slowing, and then re-accelerating when he realizes the play is indeed on. Pratt makes everyone around him better against the run but is often ragged in coverage, be it matched up one on one or playing in retreat-and-react mode. Pratt has the innate athletic traits to be a top every-down backer. He’s a difference-maker, pre- and post-snap, as an on-the-field schemer. Everything is there to be one of the league’s upper-tier linebackers. What a wonky player. I’m buying stock.)
Anarmo deserves credit for trying to find workarounds. It’s hard to build a competent defense with a dodgy second-level without defaulting to four-deep looks try to get more depth in the defense. That, obviously, compromises a group closer to the line of scrimmage. Anarmo has run as quarters-match coverage as possible while trying to find ways to still stymie receivers and tight ends early in the action.
The Bengals have a ton of talent all over the field, on both sides of the ball. Their pass-rush is the real deal. Because of that, iffy linebackers in coverage is the kind of flaw that might not sink the team’s chances. It’s a problematic issue. It’s also matchup dependent; even then, you can come up with a one-off gameplan or have a player play above their typical level. It’s a good position to be in. The group isn’t a true sinkhole, it’s just under-manned.