The Bengals defensive line is held in very high regard by Bengals fans. Whereas the linebackers did their job and nothing more, and the secondary was considered a weakness, it was the defensive front that was the driving force of this top ten defense last year. The team finished fifth in the league in sacks and their run defense had been number one in the league through the first ten weeks of the season. It was "a front that nobody wanted to see", as NFL Network Analyst Brian Baldinger said yesterday.
So, why the heck did they rank only 18th in the league in pass rushing effeciency? How did the defense even rank so highly if they weren't even getting to the quarterback as efficiently as we all thought?
In the same Football Outsiders article, a few other numbers are provided that can help explain the exactly how the Bengals defense got the job done in 2011.
Feel free to try and interpret the full chart they provide yourself, but (as it always seems to be with Football Outsiders) that enormous chart of numbers is incredibly hard to decipher. We've pulled the most relevant numbers below.
|With Pass Pressure||Without Pass Pressure|
+ Explaining Why They Only Ranked 18th In Percentage Pressure
In the last few games of 2011, the Bengals' defensive front didn't deserve their esteemed reputation. They had earned it by holding the league's best run defense through the first ten weeks, but then they were absolutely steamrolled by the Ravens and Texans in all four games against them. In pass pressure, the high sack total was deceiving. They were fifth in the league with 45 sacks, but no one was consistently pressuring the quarterback other than defensive tackle Geno Atkins and defensive end Carlos Dunlap. These two were miles ahead of the others in quarterback hits and hurries.
By December, the threat of the Bengals front seven was a little more bark than bite. The loss of defensive tackle Pat Sims hurt the Bengals' rotation, and the loss of cornerback Leon Hall changed what schemes the defense could run. Rey Maualuga playing on an injured ankle wasn't helping either. There were flashes of dominance, but far too much inconsistency.
Next year, Carlos Dunlap must stay on the field, while defensive ends Michael Johnson and Robert Geathers need to show more as pass rushing threats. A lot of turnover came at the defensive line during the offseason, and now the current group of defensive tackles is one of the best in the league on paper. The league started to respect the Bengals' front seven early last year, but time will tell if they can build on that again this year.
+ Explaining Why They Only Ranked 23rd in Yards Per Play Allowed With Pass Pressure
Allowing 3.2 yards per play with pressure actually isn't very good. It's ninth worst in the league. It's almost perplexing, considering that the Bengals defense seemed to have been driven by it's pass rush.
The answer lies in allowing huge chunk plays. Many times, an opposing quarterback would narrowly avoid an arm tackle or get chased out of the pocket, only to launch a bomb to a wide open receiver fifty yards down field. Miscommunications and blown assignments. Chris Crocker, Reggie Nelson, Nate Clements, Kelly Jennings, Leon Hall, Adam Jones (yes, the entire secondary), as well as linebackers Rey Maualuga and Thomas Howard were all victimized by this type of mistake at some point last year.
Since we are all visual learners, here are a bunch of examples. Week 1 - Colt McCoy, pressured by Thomas Howard with Reggie Nelson in coverage. Week 2 - Kyle Orton, pressured by a seven man blitz, with Nate Clements in coverage. Week 3 - Alex Smith, hit by Michael Johnson and Domata Peko as he throws, with Reggie Nelson in coverage. Week 4 - Ryan Fizpatrick, pressured by Chris Crocker with Kelly Jennings in coverage. Week 8 - Tarvaris Jackson, pressured by Carlos Dunlap with Leon Hall in coverage.
Believe it or not, teams actually found it easier to pass on the Bengals when the opposing quarterback was being pressured. With extra men being sent in for the blitz, perhaps it points to a lack of ability to cover receivers deep one-on-one. It's even weirder when you realize that because the Bengals ranked as high as 5th in pass coverage when they didn't get pressure on the quarterback.
The article addresses this phenomena as well.
Of course, it's not just that the average defense was more efficient with pressure in 2011; every defense has been so for the two years we've been keeping track. Now, at this point you might be thinking, "Well, duh. Sacks are hugely positive plays for a defense, so of course a defense's DVOA with pressure is going to be awesome when sacks are included." And you'd be right. However, this phenomenon persists even if we remove sacks, intentional grounding calls (which are essentially sacks), and scrambles from the equation so as to focus solely on hurried throws. In that case, Cincinnati had the lone defense that was actually better without pressure last year (+1.4% DVOA difference), while only Jacksonville (+24.5%) and Seattle (+13.8%) bucked the trend in 2010. That's still 61 out of 64 possible teams that benefited from pressure having nothing to do with the yardage lost on sacks.
+ (Attempting To Explain) Why They Ranked As High As 5th In Yards Per Play Without Pass Pressure
For some reason, the Bengals secondary somehow tightened up when they weren't asked to blitz. Despite their penchance for giving up big plays, the defensive backs actually did their jobs for most of the game.
The difference in average yards allowed between throws with pressure and throws without pressure was fourth lowest in the league. It's a good thing, but it's mind boggling.
It means that the base defense was successful without relying on blitzes and exotic schemes and pressure from the defensive line. It means that, on your average play, the secondary and linebackers executed what they were supposed to do. When the quarterback got out of the pocket, and when extra men were sent in to rush the passer, that's when they got in trouble. That's when miscommunications happened and bad coverage was exposed.