On October 29, 2017 the Indianapolis Colts will take the short trip to Cincinnati. In this week eight match-up I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea for what we’re up against.
The Bengals finished 2016 with 6 wins, 9 losses, and 1 tie. The last time these two teams faced off our Colts came out victorious, winning 26 to 10 in a 2014 AFC Wildcard match up. That game featured a first quarter touchdown from Boom Herron and our boys never looked back. This time our Colts will have to face the Bengals without Luck and the majority of that 2014 roster, hopefully the result is no different this time around.
Let’s figure out what we can expect in week eight.
The 4-3 double A gap blitz existed long before longtime Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and longtime linebackers coach (and current defensive coordinator) Paul Guenther based their defense around it. The thing that sets their defense apart from the rest is the number of ways the Bengals approach this old idea.
In researching this defensive scheme I found a ton of information on Mike Zimmer and very little on Paul Guenther. With that said, this is the Bengals and we know how much head coach Marvin Lewis loves continuity. Once Mike Zimmer left the Bengals to go coach the Minnesota Vikings, Zimmer’s scheme stuck around. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it, right? So everything that follows is breaking down Zimmer and the Vikings, with that said it is applicable to the Bengals. The names and skill sets are different but the ideas are the same.
This is a great piece from Mark Bullock over at The Washington Post. He had this to say:
One of the trademarks of the Zimmer defense is the use of double-A-gap blitzes. A standard defense on an obvious passing down will line up with four down defensive lineman and two linebackers about five yards off the line of scrimmage. But Zimmer will spread the defensive linemen wider and put both linebackers in the A gaps either side of the center. Sometimes he’ll involve safety Harrison Smith as well, using him in place of one of the linebackers in the A gaps, or on the edge.
With so many players on the line of scrimmage, the offense has to be prepared to account for all of them, even if they don’t all blitz. This is where Zimmer is excellent at taking advantage of protection schemes. Sometimes he’ll blitz everyone, forcing extra blockers like tight ends and running backs to stay in to block. But there are plenty of times where Zimmer will only send four or five of the defenders lined up on the line of scrimmage, but it’s almost impossible to tell which ones. On this play in particular, Zimmer sends both inside linebackers and Smith, while dropping a defensive lineman into coverage.
The Panthers keep six blockers in, which should be able to account for the six rushers. But the running back steps up to the line of scrimmage, anticipating he’ll have to pick up one of the inside linebackers. But with a defensive lineman dropping into coverage, the right guard and center are able to pick up the linebackers. This leaves the safety free off the edge. Smith quickly turns the corner and brings down Panthers quarterback Cam Newton for the sack.
Occasionally, the Vikings will show this look and fall back out of it, rushing just four.
This time, they show Wentz the same blitz-heavy look, but actually bail out of it into a basic cover-three scheme with only four rushers.
Watch the reaction of the center after the snap. He works behind the left guard, expecting a blitzer to attack that gap. Instead, he’s left blocking air while the left guard struggles with a defender stunting inside to the area vacated by the center.
The Vikings profit off of creating havoc via panic and confusion. They do an excellent job disguising blitzes and hiding their true intentions. Often, they’ll move around the defenders on the line of scrimmage before the snap just to try and confuse the offense, hiding a blitz from elsewhere in the process.
Watch all of the movement from the Vikings defensive linemen and linebackers before the snap. They all switch gaps and depths from the line of scrimmage. They cause quarterback Eli Manning to walk up to the line of scrimmage and change the protection call, and then move around again. All of it is just to disguise the fact that Smith is coming on a safety blitz. After the snap, both linebackers drop into coverage and Smith blitzes.
The running back actually does a good job identifying the blitz from Smith and picking him up on that play. But it still meant the Giants couldn’t allow the back a free release into a route and it’s a good thing they didn’t because he appeared to be the only one that spotted Smith blitzing.
This is a good video of some of the blitz looks the Bengals like to run:
Credit to Daniel Behnken for the video.
So they will show some exotic looks, at times they will drop everyone down on the line and then drop into coverage with some at the snap and rushing the passer with some others, making life tough for quarterbacks. Adjusting protection schemes to match what the defense is doing is made more difficult with these looks.
Ultimately this element of confusion isn’t much different from Dick LeBeau’s zone blitz principals. Anyone can blitz, anyone can drop and if you don’t correctly identify who is doing what before the snap, good luck. What differs is the fact that these Bengals only blitzed a total of 9.2% of their snaps in 2016, the lowest percentage in the league. They also lived in zone coverage playing zone 72.2% of the time, second highest in the league.
This Bengals defense under Paul Guenther is different, no doubt. In the five years before Guenther took over the Bengals defense only ranked out of the top 10 once, since taking over Guenther has never ranked higher than 11th for a season. So far this season the Bengals are ranked 2nd overall, far and away his best season to date. Further the Bengals only had 33 sacks in 2016 tied for 19th in the league (tied with our Colts). So far in 2017 they have racked up 18, good for 5th in the league, while our Colts have are tied for 21st.
Something else to note is the blitz percentage I listed above are based on the Bengals bringing 5 or more pass rushers, not on who the pass rushers are. So again, giving that double A gap look before the snap is still an effective way to confuse an offense while still only rushing 4. I haven’t found their percentage for 2017, but based on just watching a few of their games, they’re blitzing at a much higher rate this year.
Their front seven is going to be responsible for one gap each and their defensive backs are going to lean on zone coverage, specifically cover 2 and cover 4. With that said I have seen the ultra rare Bengals press man coverage, so that is something to watch for as well.
2016 was rough for a Bengals defense which has been historically strong. So far they’ve played well this season and getting the most of the talent they have on the roster. The have invested heavily on the defensive side of the ball and it is paying off.
Defensive Line: Geno Atkins Is Special
This defensive line is really good from top to bottom. It starts with Geno Atkins, a 5 time pro bowler and 2 time all pro, Atkins is coming off of a 9 sack performance a year ago and is currently on pace to finish 2017 with 13 sacks. Obviously that pace probably won’t continue but the fact remains, he’s among the best interior defensive linemen we will see all year.
Pat Sims, Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson round out the other starting spots on the line. All three are good players, Dunlap has gone to the last two pro bowls and is averaging more than a sack every other game (.61 sacks per game) for the past three years. Sims is a solid run stopper and gap filler, he may not fill up the stat sheet but when he’s at his best he’s giving his linebackers plenty of free runs at ball carriers.
Carl Lawson is listed as a linebacker in this 4-3 defense but so far I’ve only noticed him as a DE. He has been effective rushing the passer but I’ll have more on him in a minute.
Michael Johnson is interesting. He looked to have a one year wonder kind of performance in 2012 when he racked up 11.5 sacks in 15 starts, which he parlayed into a 5 year $43 million deal with $24 million guaranteed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs cut him a year into that deal which led him to re-sign with the Bengals with a much more full bank account. So far for his career Johnson has been paid $1,086,929.05 for every sack he’s produced in the NFL. Not bad work if you can get it. I say he’s confusing because despite everything I just said about the guy he’s on pace to finish 2017 with 10 sacks. PFF has him graded poorly, but that might not mean much. Johnson is a guy to watch, he might be in the backfield a lot, he might disappear. I really don’t know what to expect from the guy.
The last guy I want to talk about is Jordan Willis. Thus far in the season he hasn’t done much, 1 sack and a handful of tackles. With that said he does have the fewest snaps of any DE on their roster. So why am I talking about the guy? He was one of my favorite pass rushing prospects in the 2017 draft and I will be watching him closely. All early reports were that the Bengals found a good one in the third round. Hopefully he doesn’t start producing this weekend.
So normally I only give you excerpts from scheme breakdowns and I do my own position breakdowns but I came across two articles from John Sheeran over at Cincy Jungle that were just too good to not share. Here are a few highlights:
These two went from getting no push to a negative push. Su’a-Filo’s job is to work off the double team and advance to the second level to meet linebacker Nick Vigil, but Atkins and his aforementioned super-human lower leg drive wrecks this play design to shreds, and leads the charge for the stuff just past the line of scrimmage.
Two separate angles are needed for this one. You can notice the left guard is the first one off the ball (maybe even before the snap, but that doesn’t matter now) and Atkins mirrors his movement to a tee, so much that he’s the one to initiate the contact and gets immediate push. He penetrates so quickly that Martin can’t get over in time to slow him down and it becomes another stuffed run.
Backup offensive tackle Kyle Murphy is a young player himself at just 23-years-old, and the second year player was doing fine against Lawson up until Lawson’s first sack of the day, midway through the second quarter. You can see the process Lawson goes through well in slow motion. He sells the speed rush outside and gets Murphy to commit to closing him off the edge. Lawson uses all 31 1⁄2 inches of his inside arm to land a strike right near Murphy’s inside shoulder, which is helped out by Murphy’s missed punch with his inside arm. At this point, Murphy’s backside is facing upfield, and Lawson is under his pad level. Game over.
Same general principles here. The landing point of Lawson’s hump is so crucial because it prohibits Murphy from utilizing his length to keep Lawson at bay. Going in with a plan and timing your moves are the differences between washed reps and tangible production.
Lawson had a third sack in the game but it was wiped out by 12 men on the field. So far he looks like a powerful pass rusher that plays with excellent leverage.
This defensive line is tough to plan for, who do you double team? You can’t double everyone. You have to account for Geno, you have to give your tackles a chip as often as you can. Ryan Kelly is going to have his hands full helping the guards and paying attention to possible double A gap blitzes all day. Yikes.
Linebackers: More Than Just Burfict
When I think of the Bengals linebackers I think of Vontaze Burfict. Which really isn’t fair because he’s usually not playing due to suspension. (small joke) But seriously most casual fans probably don’t even know who Nick Vigil is, but they should, he’s played all but a hand full of snaps for the Bengals this year.
It is true Burfict spent the first three games unable to participate due to suspension. Personally, I didn’t understand the suspension he got, I still don’t believe anyone else in the league would have sat out three games had they done the same. Burfict has earned the target on his back that the league office is always looking for, he isn’t what I would call a “clean” player. The opposite of clean is dirty and while I wouldn’t directly call someone “dirty” I will say Burfict isn’t clean.
- Not a big deal but considering who is involved the internet freaked out over this:
I never want anyone to get hurt and I want every single Colts player to play within the rules of the game, but if Vontaze Burfict were to catch a big block right under his chin, lets just say he’s earned it.
While Burfict was out Vincent Rey filled in and Kevin Minter has had some burn as well. Let’s take a look.
- Burfict, taking a chance and making a play:
In what has to be surprising to the league office a Bengals player was called for a late hit on this play and his initials aren’t VB. Burfict did leave his zone to come make a play and get the sack (that was wiped by the late hit)
- They tend to give up shallow passes over the middle:
Which isn’t an indictment. It’s just a part of zone coverage. You’ll see this a lot on 3rd down, they will give up the shallow middle and then they punish you for daring to make a catch in front of them, preventing the first down. Running routes short of the sticks, in the middle of the field on third down isn’t going to work. It will boost the 3rd down completion percentage of Jacoby Brissett, but it’s not going to help us win this game.
We need to stretch the linebackers deep and wide, make them choose who they’re going to cover and give our QB multiple options with a single, simple read on 3rd and long. Or you know, something like that.
- Called back:
Weird thing about holding defensive ends on runs to the outside, they’re effective and they often result in a flag. This one was no different. With that said, this play does give me some hope for Marlon Mack to bounce a run or two. This run looked to be designed to go up the middle, in fact if LeSean McCoy could have channeled his inner Le'Veon Bell and waited for a split second he hits the hole in the middle of the field.
The reason this gives me hope is how much the Bengals defense sells out to attack that hole. If they over pursue Mack has the ability to bounce it and make them pay.
- The next two clips are back to back plays:
The two plays together netted zero yards. If I’m the Browns after that first clip, I’m feeling pretty good. We opened a big hole, we picked up 5. I would want to do the same thing, run it again and be physical!
Then we lose 5 yards and are in 3rd and 10. I could have just had Kizer throw two bad passes, it would have resulted in the exact same thing.
- No YAC:
Due to the nature of most of their zone looks they’re going to give up passes like this underneath from time to time, especially in 3rd and long situations. The key is to not allow yards after the catch. This week I hope, for the first time, they don’t get Mack involved in the passing game.
Here the linebackers do a good job working against everyone who comes into their zone, giving Kizer nowhere to throw the ball underneath.
The key to working against them in coverage is to get them spread out and make them choose who they’re going to cover and exploit that. If we can manipulate them in that way, we’ll beat them all day. If we take what they give, you’re going to see a lot of 4th and 2’s and we’re going to give Rigoberto Sanchez a full workout.
Defensive Backs: Some Guy Think’s He’s An Arcade Game
You’ve heard of Adam “Pacman” Jones. You’ve probably also heard that he doesn’t want to go by “Pacman” anymore, but at this point it’s too late. It’s like Snoop Dogg wanting to be called “Snoop Lion”. Sorry man, you’ll always be Pacman Jones to me. He’s been in and out of the NFL for more than a decade and he has become the ultra rare 34 year old cornerback.
Jones’ story is absolutely one of success and displays how someone can turn their life around, with that said, it’s sad to think how many years of his playing prime he squandered. Had he made different decisions, this paragraph probably would have been talking about future hall of fame, greatest cornerback of the last generation, Pacman Jones. Instead he’s 34, has turned his life around, isn’t a Hall of Famer and sat out last week with a back injury.
You’ve probably also heard of Dre Kirkpatrick, the tall corner from Alabama, drafted in the first round in 2012. His career to this point has been up and down. This season he hasn’t played well, but against the Ghost, he may not need to.
A guy I forgot about is Darqueze Dennard. He was taken in the first round in 2014 and all reports indicate that despite his early play, the lights have come on for Dennard this season. He’s played 84% of the Bengals snaps this year and he’s played well.
I remembered Josh Shaw as soon as I heard this story from his days at USC. It seemed too stupid to be anything other than some Madden story line but, it happened. Anyway, Shaw doesn’t play much, he was just an idiot in college.
George Iloka will see almost all defensive snaps on Sunday and the free safety will do so at a high level. The guy next to him, strong safety Shawn Williams has played just under 60% of their defensive snaps and is generally a solid player.
Someone else to watch is William Jackson III. Jackson was a 1st round pick in 2016 who tore his pectoral muscle in his very first NFL training camp. Essentially 2017 is his rookie year and he’s seen the field a lot on both special teams and defense.
- Single High Pattern Matching:
I’ll just start by saying I’m taking my best guess as to what this coverage is. My semi-educated guess is it’s a pattern matching cover one. A lot of the time with pattern matching you’re going to have more help than a single high safety on the back end. The Bengals clearly aren’t worried about Kizer here. This is just an interesting look at something we might see on Sunday. These guys are completely content to give up short catches.
- Press Man:
I saw a lot more man than I expected to going into watching these games. They still run more zone than man (everyone does) but I was expecting something similar to the 72.2% that they were in zone in 2016 and it isn’t close to that.
Based on what I’ve seen these guys are good in man coverage and are likely to work in a lot of looks for Brissett to stand in the pocket and admire for 5 seconds.
Tyrod Taylor has nowhere to throw this ball and I expect Sunday to have this happen a lot. We’ll blame the offensive line for it and yeah, some of it will be on them but we’ll dial up a bunch of slow developing deep passes and Jacoby will wait, and wait and wait and take a ton of hits. Can’t wait.
- “Sometimes we all do things that, well, just don't make no sense.” -Forrest Gump:
Why was this ball thrown there? No idea. Iokla didn’t ask questions he just covered a lot of ground and got the easy pick.
The Bengals secondary isn’t the best we’ll see this year, but they’re generally solid. Their corners are beatable and we should have success throwing underneath when they’re in zone. The match-up between our wide outs and their defensive backs could go either way. Based on the effort and performance we saw last week. I’m going to go ahead and give the advantage to the Bengals.
This defense is good. They laid an egg against a Steelers team that seems to be finding their way at the halfway point in the year. All-in-all they play well as a unit, they aren’t as talented as the Jags (never thought I would type that and not use sarcasm font) but they should give us fits all day.
We’re going to struggle to move the ball. We’re not going to give the ball to the only offensive play maker we have on offense and T.Y. Hilton probably wont do anything either.
Tune in tomorrow to see my special teams breakdown and the prediction that will shock no one based on these “final thoughts”.