On September 9, 2018 the Indianapolis Colts will host the old-look Cincinnati Bengals. In this week one match-up I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our new-look offense.
The Bengals finished 2017 with 7 wins and 9 losses, their second straight 9 loss effort. The last time these two teams faced off the Bengals came out victorious, winning 24 to 23 in week eight of 2017. Our Colts held a lead until the 7:05 mark of the fourth quarter when Jacoby Brissett threw a pass intended for Jack Doyle that was tipped, intercepted and returned for a touchdown by Carlos Dunlap. The Bengals moved ahead and the Chuck Pagano led Colts seemed uninterested in mounting a 1 point comeback in the final seven minutes of the game. Let’s hope 2018 yeilds different results.
Let’s figure out what we can expect in week one.
The Bengals Offensive Scheme
Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor runs the same (for the most part) Air Coryell system that was used by former Bengals OC and current Cleveland Browns head coach, Hue Jackson. Staples of the Air Coryell include:
- Single back sets
- Pass heavy
- Using a lot of pre-snap motion
- Option routes
- Pass catching TE’s
- Trips formations (3 receivers on one side of the field)
I know, you’re thinking that every team in the NFL uses all of those things. You’re correct. It’s why so many people credit Don Coryell with crafting the modern NFL game. The Bengals scheme uses a lot of the same principals that Coryell began using in the 1970’s.
The idea of the Air Coryell is to stretch the field with deep passing concepts while trying to exploit the called defense. It relies on timing and most called passes will have at least one deep route to really stretch the defense, opening throwing lanes and creating holes in zone coverage. Like all schemes in the NFL, no matter how perfect a play is designed, someone still has to go out on the field and execute it against a group of 11 professionals who are trying desperately to stop it.
All we know about the 2018 Colts defense is what they’ve told us and the very limited amount of what they’ve shown us in the preseason. We know they’re going back to a 4-3 base set and we’ve been told they’re going to play a boatload of cover 2 defense. I don’t trust anything we’ve seen because it was the preseason and you should never trust the preseason.
The challenge becomes predicting the concepts that the Bengals are planning to use to attack our cover 2 defense that fit in their Air Coryell based system. Looking for answers I went back to the Bengals 2016 match-up against the Dallas Cowboys. While the team has changed offensive coordinators, the system they use is largely the same as the one Jackson used all those years ago. So in theory, while the play calls may be different with Bill Lazor at the helm, the concepts used against the Cowboys who employed current Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, should be very similar.
The Bengals had a lot of plays designed specifically to beat cover 2 and they used them with mixed results.
Getting the tight ends involved:
There’s a lot going on here given the fact that it’s such a short gain, but make no mistake this play was designed to get someone open.
The defense ends up in a man cover 2 look. Pre-snap Andy Dalton sees that he has 2 high safeties so his read is pretty simple. If it’s man coverage a tight end is probably going to be open. If it’s cover 2 one of his wide receivers is going to fit nicely in a hole created by the zone between 10 and 20 yards down each sideline.
To start, both Bengals receivers start bunched near the line and run a vertical route with a mandatory outside release, it’s the outside release that gives the offense the spacing it needs to make this play happen.
If the defense is in cover 2 the hole between the corner and safety will be bigger given the release, if the defense is in man it means the corner will be running in the opposite direction, unable to make a play on the tight end who should always beat the linebacker in one-on-one coverage.
Again with the outside releases:
Dalton was able to extend this play and that extra second was just enough to get someone open.
Here we see the Cowboys come out in a Tampa 2 defense. The Bengals have dialed up a 4 verts concept designed to beat it. Once again both outside receivers are using an outside release in an effort to stretch the zones as wide as possible so that the Bengals receivers have bigger holes to sit down in. It’s a smart move.
If Dalton has more time he might have seen the receiver on the bottom of the screen come open deep. He came open deep because the safety started to make a choice (which 4 verts tends to do) to cover the middle of the field. Instead, Dalton noticed he had a window in the middle of the field because as good as a healthy Sean Lee is, he can’t cover 2 guys at once.
Ultimately someone was going to be open and barring a defender making a great play, or you know, Andy Dalton throwing a bad pass, this was going to be a completion.
Play action working like a charm:
You’ll notice, after the first two plays I looked at the receivers have an inside release and that was by design as well.
It means that A.J. Green will be open sooner if the play action pulls up the linebackers like it should. Working inside put him in position to box out the corner and safety and sit down in the zone.
If I’m the coach, I wish Dalton had this ball out just a touch earlier but he found the open man regardless. Also if you notice the corner on the bottom of the play he was in cover 2 but was able to go deep with his receiver as no one ran a route underneath on his side of the field. I have to believe that was due to the max protect look they gave, but you would think getting one of the two tight ends lined up on that side of the field into that flat would create room to hit the deep out.
The bottom line is, this Bengals team understands what they need to do, scheme wise, to win against cover 2 looks. I don’t think it’s a secret what the Indianapolis Colts are going to do, nor is it a secret how the Bengals are going to try to attack it. Ultimately it’s going to come down to who executes their plays better and as much as I hate to say it, anytime your defense is starting a lot of first and second year players, execution probably isn’t going to be as good as it could be.
Quarterback: The definition of average
No one is going to confuse Andy Dalton with an elite quarterback, few will confuse him with being a good quarterback and many will wrongly call him a bad quarterback. Dalton is none of those things, he’s the definition of average. If you have a very good supporting cast, the guy can do enough to get your team to the finish line more often than not. If his supporting cast isn’t full of all pros, well you better plan on drafting well because you’re probably going to be picking early.
For every nice ball he throws there always seems to be one like this:
Andy Dalton throws an errant pass into the waiting arms of Quandre Diggs for the INT!!! pic.twitter.com/x8dq8Nu55e— TheRenderNFL (@TheRenderNFL) December 24, 2017
Running Back: They hope to have a bellcow
In 2017 Joe Mixon took a beating behind an offensive line that was somehow worse than the Indianapolis Colts line. Mixon looks like a fluid athlete that flashes the ability to break long runs. He’s big, he’s fast, but he isn’t Barry Sanders and due to that fact, he struggled to gain positive yardage while consistently getting hit 2-3 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Mixon at his best:
Joe Mixon destroys Jabrill Peppers. pic.twitter.com/UDTXc3Jmx9— Fusue Vue (@lifesyourcup) November 26, 2017
2018 is going to tell us a lot about Mixon. We’ll talk more about the Bengals overhauled offensive line in a moment but let’s just say if Mixon doesn’t produce this year he’ll be out of excuses.
I believe Mixon is in for a big day, he has a lot to prove and I don’t think the Colts defense is up to the task of slowing down the talented back.
Pass Catchers: We’ve seen these guys before
You’ve heard of A.J. Green. He’s big (6’4”), he’s fast, and the seven year pro has made seven pro bowls. For his career he averages 5.5 catches and 80 yards per game. He has also averages a TD catch in every other game he’s played. These numbers, by themselves, are impressive for any wide receiver over a 7 year career. When you consider that he’s done it with Andy Dalton as the starting quarterback for all but three games for his entire career and then it becomes more clear how amazing those numbers are.
This is actually a nice play from both Green and Dalton:
Tyler Eifert’s career has been decimated by injury. When healthy Eifert is a great target for Dalton. There’s only one thing he can’t seem to do; stay on the football field. During his five year career Eifert has played in fewer than 50% of his teams games. If he can stay healthy and play against our Colts we’re going to see our young linebackers test their athleticism.
firsr tyler eifert play is i think an RPO but with half the line run blocking but with the other half pass protecting, we don’t know if it’s just play action or not. pic.twitter.com/Iya9xMjh9w— John Sheeran (@John__Sheeran) August 27, 2018
Here we see Eifert line up as a wide receiver, he clearly still has the athleticism to make plays catching the football.
The rest of the receiving corps is hit or miss (leaning heavily towards miss). 2017 first round pick John Ross ran the 40 yard dash in a record 4.22 seconds at the combine, he’s really fast, but that’s about it. It isn’t often that teams select a wide receiver in the top 20 picks of the draft only to consider moving him to cornerback less than a year later, but that was reportedly something the Bengals considered doing with Ross. With that said Ross has had a good preseason and might be someone who breaks out this year. He will be interesting to watch to see if the lights start to come on for him in year 2.
#NFLPartner #NFLGamepass You can’t teach speed, and John Ross has as much of it as any player in the NFL. A healthy John Ross is going to really open things up for Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati offense. See his speed on display at https://t.co/fGpg5mSEeu pic.twitter.com/Rl2pAHIl3Q— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) August 31, 2018
Another guy to watch out for is Auden Tate, a seventh round pick out of Florida State. Tate was an odd guy to follow during the pre-draft process. Draftniks liked his tape but his 4.68 40 yard dash time hurt his stock. Ultimately Tate dropped to the final round where the Bengals took a flier on the 6’5” target. Tate had a good camp and preseason and while Tate may not be ready to shine in week one, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him draw some red zone targets early on.
Offensive Line: Draft Picks, Trades and Hope
The 2017 Cincinnati Bengals had one of the worst offensive lines in football. The 2018 Cincinnati Bengals have tried desperately to improve upon that. They were able to bring in left tackle Cordy Glenn in a trade with the Buffalo Bills. Glenn isn’t going to be confused for Anthony Munoz, but he is absolutely an upgrade along the Bengals front if he can stay healthy.
The team also went out and used it’s first round pick (number 18 overall) on Ohio State product Billy Price. At the time Price was recovering from a torn pec sustained at the combine while doing the bench press. Price has recovered and is penciled in as the day one starter at center. Watching the rookie should be interesting as the Colts defensive tackles will be debuting Matt Eberflus’ new 4-3 one gap scheme. This should be a favorable matchup for a group of veteran players, with that said, the talent level of those vets is questionable and watching Price, a rookie, battle should be an entertaining subplot to the game (that literally no one who isn’t named Chris Shepherd will likely care or talk about).
This is the kind of play I expect from their oline:
It’s not awful but someone is getting pressure somewhere, that seems to be the current Bengals talent level on the offensive line.
Outside of those two players the Bengals have been locked in a three way battle for the starting right tackle spot. Bobby Hart, a free agent addition whose a career has been, what I will generously call, unspectacular, Jake Fisher a former 2nd round pick and career underachiever and draft bust Cedric Ogbuehi. All three men will have ample opportunity to play this season but as of right now it seems that Hart will get the start on Sunday. I do hope, regardless of what Bengals player lines up on the right side of the line, the Colts rotate every pass rushing option they have directly at the right side of the Bengals line because while they’ve improved in some area’s up front, I’m not sure they should be comfortable with the right side of that offensive line.
What to Expect from the Colts Defense:
This is a hard question to answer given all of the question marks the team has on defense. if somehow, against all odds, all of the first and second year players turn into legitimate NFL caliber defenders, then this will be a much better defense than anyone expected.
Based on what I believe the strengths and weaknesses of the defense will be I expect Joe Mixon and A.J. Green to have big days, That’s not to say there won’t be any exciting plays or forced turnovers, because I think there is a great opportunity for that. It’s the first game of the year against Andy Dalton. If Malik Hooker is completely healthy (he looks like he is), I’m not going to guarantee an interception because there are so many factors that go into creating an INT, but I will say I wouldn’t be shocked to see several passes broken up and a turnover created by #29.
What to Notice About the Colts Defense this Week:
The One Gap Defense is Back:
This is a very simplistic look at what a one gap defensive system is. I’m not going to take the time to get into all the variations that may come, not right now anyway. The bottom line is, I believe the difference you’re going to notice right away is the speed of the defense, much of that will be due to the one gap scheme. If you notice above, every gap, A-D has a defender who is responsible for it.
In the picture above I took a basic look at what gap responsibilities may look like with an inline TE on the right side of the offensive line. From 2012 to 2017 the Indianapolis Colts used, primarily a two gap system. In a two gap system the picture above would look different, to start there would probably only be three defensive linemen and each of those linemen would have two lines pointing to the two gaps they were responsible, a two gap system requires the defensive linemen to read the play and defend the appropriate gap. This is something that Henry Anderson excelled at, though I believe he could have done well as a 3-tech in this system as well.
Instead each arrow above points to a gap that is being filled and every gap has a defender assigned. There are dozens of reasons a coach would prefer a one gap or two gap system but ultimately I feel the biggest selling point for a one gap system is speed and penetration. By only having one gap to focus on the defensive player isn’t wasting time processing what he’s seeing in front of him, instead he’s focused on controlling his gap and getting up field in a hurry. Creating penetration is key for this defense, the idea is, if you can make a running back change course in the backfield and everyone has done their job, filling their gaps, the back will have no where to go.
We can debate the merits of each system but we can’t debate that a fast system is back in place in Indianapolis and I feel this will be the thing (schematically) you notice the most about the Colts defense in week one.