Some in Cincinnati, not on this site, have opined that Thursday night's win over the New England Patriots was boring. A win shouldn't ever be boring, preseason or not. Second of all, preseason isn't about thrilling chucking bombs to wide receivers making one-handed diving catches; it's mostly coaches learning their personnel in game conditions. Such as how far can Chad Ochocinco kick the football on kickoff? Finally, while the game wasn't a dramatic high-scoring affair, it was an exciting defensive effort (isn't that one of the all-time complaints about the Bengals since Marvin Lewis took over?) and at any moment, either team could take the lead and win the game. That's what a competitive game is all about; a far cry from the three game stretch against the Ravens, Texans and Steelers in 2008 when the Bengals were outscored by 80 points. Now that is boring. And depressing. And aggravating.
Aside from the actual game, there were noteworthy items with individual performances that my colleagues have pointed out. Here is a cliff notes version of the defense. Pat Sims, in my opinion, is very close to being a very good defensive tackle; not just on this team, but in the league. If you sit back and actually watch Rashad Jeanty, the quietest linebacker on the team, he makes plays. And when he doesn't make plays, it seems like it's always more noticeable. However, it will be damned near impossible to keep Rey Maualuga from starting by the end of the year. Dhani Jones struggled to chip off blocks. Keith Rivers has unlimited potential and my only remark for his speed, aggression and strength is, wow. He has Pro Bowl potential. I didn't document Chase Coffman, thinking we'll see him on Hard Knocks anyway.
It's easy enough to understand how a game unfolds when you track the critical plays; like turnovers, touchdowns, time of possession, third down efficiency. A majority of the game is an uneventful mesh of 3-4 yard gains (or losses), field position, change of possession, first downs and commercial breaks. While uneventful, they set the critical plays that determine games, most of which, surprisingly, turns out to be luck or ingenious playcalling, as well as talent and overall skill.
All that aside, I still believe that the storyline is how the offensive line rebounds after 2008. The return of Carson Palmer, Keith Rivers, Chad Ochocinco, the amazing story of a reborn Chris Henry and the offseason acquisitions of Rey Maualuga, Michael Johnson, Tank Johnson and Roy Williams are close seconds. None of which holds the importance that the Bengals offensive line does. Furthermore, three guys are new; one changed positions. Furthermore part two, Reggie Kelly is out for the year and the line certainly becomes all the more critical.
It's no secret that New England's defense mixes schemes. However, head coach Bill Belichick is notorious for not showing too much during the preseason to save their best for the regular season, so opponents don't gain too much intelligence. In truth, the Patriots played a very bland defense, mixing basic 4-3 and 3-4 formations. They stacked the line several times using 4-4 and 6-2 formations, lining up the safety in the linebacker zones. However, the one criticism with this offensive line, which we noted last week, isn't so much talent, or being outperformed. It's the inability to adapt during the play and to correctly point out the blitz.
A perfect example, with 12:49 left in the first quarter, the Bengals line up at their own 24-yard line on second-and-21. The call is a play-action with Nate Livings pulling from left to right. Bobbie Williams, Anthony Collins and Daniel Coats all blocked down, neutralizing the defensive end and tackle, who were stunting in.
Focusing on the outside linebacker sprinting up field, Collins and Benson converged on the outside linebacker, which indirectly opened a massive gap on the line for any delayed blitz, shown in this figure.
Livings didn't acknowledge the possibility of a delayed blitz and worked with Benson to make sure the outside linebacker stayed down. Hell, he didn't even look back at the line of scrimmage. As a result, Mayo got the sack and the Bengals lost six yards.
On first-and-ten at their own 38-yard line, the Bengals took the first snap of their second possession with 4:09 left in the first quarter. New England lined up with a six-man front, using a base 4-3 with both outside linebackers on the edges and a safety moving up to put eight-man in the box.
The Bengals nearly made the blocks. Cook, Livings and Whitworth neutralized the left side while Bobbie Williams was assigned Vince Wilfork. Instead of taking him on, Bobbie Williams moved into the second level, allowing Wilfork to go unblocked at the line of scrimmage. We have to believe that this was just miscommunication. Perhaps Williams let Wilfork go believing that Jeremi Johnson would pick him up, or Cook, Livings and Whitworth were supposed to slide to their right. Instead Wilfork had an open shot at Benson, hitting him at the line of scrimmage for no gain.
Williams had a rough go of it. With 3:12 left in the second quarter, the Bengals line up at New England's 17-yard line on first and ten. Williams missed the block on #92 Ron Brace, who encountered Bernard Scott in the backfield. Scott sidestepped the tackle.
Fui Vakapuna, who lined up in the slot and motioned left, stopping behind Bobbie Williams in an off-set I formation, disregarded Brace and attempted to block linebacker Tedy Bruschi. The veteran linebacker sidestepped Vakapuna's block, who clearly lost his balance falling over. Along with safety Pat Chung, Bruschi assisted on the tackle for a one-yard loss.
There are times, however, that the unbelievable is required. For the second week in a row, Andre Caldwell was asked to block either an outside linebacker or a defensive end with unproductive results. Against New Orleans, Caldwell made a diving attempt, trying to block the outside linebacker that eventually crushed Carson Palmer in the endzone just as the quarterback released the football.
On Thursday, the Bengals lined up first-and-twenty at their own 25-yard line with 13:26 left in the first. The play was designed to go up the middle. Cook, Williams and Collins made their blocks. Livings pulled left to right, in Power-O style, and neutralized the strong-side linebacker. It was the right defensive end (or four-point linebacker... we can never tell with New England) that made the play. Andre Caldwell was in motion, slowing one step behind and outside Whitworth. Caldwell didn't have a chance and the defensive end dropped Benson one-yard behind the line of scrimmage.
I think it's important to point out that the second sack on O'Sullivan and first sack on Jordan Palmer shouldn't be filed as offensive line issues -- I would simplify slightly calling them an issue with protection schemes. On the second sack, the Bengals decided to go for in on fourth down, with seven yards to go, at New England's 27-yard line with 14:52 left in the second quarter. The Bengals lined up with five wide receivers, while New England put four on the line with three linebackers -- the third linebacker on the strong-side (where three wide receivers lined up), roaming like a safety. The Patriots called a Cover Four -- where four defensive backs cover the four quarters of the field. Sending the middle linebacker between Livings and Whitworth, naturally opened a gap due to blocking assignments on a defensive tackle and defensive end respectively. Cook blocked towards the weak-side, helping Williams while Collins blocked the defensive end out.
You'll observe that the only correction that could be made is that Cook blocks to the left, allowing Livings to chip off on the blitzing linebacker. Since the Patriots brought five, the Bengals, who were blocking well enough, would have prevented the sack and allowed O'Sullivan the additional time to find something down field. However, that's one of those things where hindsight is always 20/20. In truth, the weak-side linebacker showed blitz and with the potential of six defensive players coming, there's just no way you can block six guys with only five linemen. The best protection would have been to keep a guy in; most likely Coats as a blocking tight end or an H-back, like Reggie Kelly.
On the sack against Jordan Palmer with 6:59 left in the second quarter, the linebacker blitzed on the left (from the offense's point of view), overloading the Bengals left. In other words, there just wasn't a man to block him, very similar to the defensive call that sacked O'Sullivan the second time. Jordan stepped up in the pocket, forcing the linebacker to miss. Unfortunately, as he stepped up, #76-S.Williams shed off Livings' block and Palmer didn't have a chance.
Where adaptability might be a serious weakness with this team, toughness is in good supply. With 1:10 left in the first quarter, the Bengals line-up with three yards to go on third down at the New England 34-yard line. The call was a handoff to Benson between Livings and Whitworth on the left. The defensive end was no trouble; Whitworth made sure of that blocking him out. The point of attack required a double-team on the right defensive tackle (left defensive tackle from the Bengals' point of view). Livings and Cook were tasked with that. Cook chipped off a second later, picking up the right inside linebacker. The play eventually broke down when the RDT broke off Livings block making initial contact with Benson around the line of scrimmage. Luckily, Benson lowered his shoulder in time, generating enough momentum to pick up four yards and the first down.
I certainly don't want to disregard the most critical play of the game. It's very simple. When everyone makes the block, when the quarterback makes the throw and the receivers run the best routes, the Bengals are as efficient as anyone else in the National Football League. It's basic fundamentals. The point is that the offense is close. They have the talent to do this, which wasn't the case last year. It should be pointed out that this offense can't make mistakes, at all. They have to be perfect in order to succeed -- something better offenses can get away with.
The team's lone touchdown was a mixture of all eleven men doing their job, great play-calling and sheer luck. It's the two minute warning at the New England 24-yard line. The situation is fourth-and-17. The Bengals line up with two receivers on the right, Chris Henry on the left and Jeremi Johnson and Daniel Coats flanking J.T. O'Sullivan in shotgun. The Patriots ran a standard four-man front with five defensive backs.
New England brings eight; four down linemen, two linebackers and two safeties. Along with the offensive line, Jeremi Johnson and Daniel Coats, the protection easily neutralized the eight man blitz. One broke free well after the three seconds O'Sullivan needed to complete the pass to Henry, running a seam route down the left hashmark.
The Bengals won the game because New England blitzed on fourth down in which Cincinnati needed 16 yards for the first. One would argue that a prevent zone defense would better serve New England because historically, and statistically, when blitzing eight guys, you allow the offense substantially better opportunities for bigger plays, such as 17-yard touchdown passes. High risk, high reward. In as much no one will want to acknowledge, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski called the perfect play, anticipating the blitz and calling for the best wide receiver, statistically in the NFL during the preseason, to go vertical.
I still believe this offensive line is very close. The issue isn't that they're being overpowered. It isn't being beaten man-on-man. The first team offensive line just isn't adjusting as quickly as you'd like, allowing rather mundane blitzing schemes to work. It's something that can be fixed, easily. Once that happens, I believe the protection will be solid and that the rushing offense, along with Cedric Benson, will vastly improve on their 30th ranked yards-per-rush average.