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Film Room: Bengals Defensive Backups Aren't Stepping Up

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Another week, another 500+ yards allowed by the Bengals defense. They now rank 31st in average yards allowed per game (416.7). Is this a personnel problem? Or a scheme problem? We'll dig deeper for answers in this week's film room.

Kirk Irwin

Going into this game, we knew it wasn't going to be easy to stop the number one offense in the league. With Vontaze Burfict knocking himself out of the game by lowering his head into Andrew Luck's chest, and the Bengals offense only putting up one drive longer than two minutes, it was made even harder.

The Bengals defense actually didn't play as poorly as one might think. They forced four 3-and-outs in the first half. They also recovered two fumbles (one was the lucky result of a botched handoff). But, when the Bengals offense converts only three first downs in the first three quarters, the back of the Bengals defense was inevitably going to break.

I studied all 82 defensive snaps to get a better understanding of what went wrong. This week, the Bengals were hurt by the abundance of backups on the field. Additionally, like last week, several of their best players weren't playing up to their normal standards.

Pass Rush

The Bengals got to Andrew Luck more than they did Cam Newton, but Luck still led the league last week with 31 throws at least 2.6 seconds after the snap. While Cam Newton often threw the ball quickly, Luck was nice enough to demonstrate how long he really could stand in the pocket without pressure.

On the play above, you can see Carlos Dunlap essentially "covering" the tight end, in case he went out for a route. A similar situation happened last week where Dunlap was "covering" Greg Olsen, who was just standing there. It seemed like an absolute waste of a pass rusher to me. At least Dunlap had only two coverage snaps this week compared to nine last week.

This week, Defensive Coordinator Paul Guenther also made an adjustment in the number of blitzes he sent. Against Carolina, linebackers and defensive backs combined for 39 snaps of pass rushing. Carolina picked these blitzes up extremely well, allowing only one hurry and two hits. Against Indianapolis, linebackers and defensive backs combined for only 10 snaps of pass rushing, earning one hit and one hurry.

At this point, it's clear who the best pass rushers are on the team - Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, & Wallace Gilberry. They get to the quarterback consistently, racking up hurries and hits. The problem is, after these three, there is an enormous drop off.

The four other players involved in the pass rushing rotation just aren't getting to the quarterback consistently.

# Rushes PFF Rush Rating QB Sacks QB Hits QB Hurries Positive Negative Neutral
Carlos Dunlap 26 +2.8 0.5 2 2 7 15 3
Domata Peko 37 +0.1 1 3 25 7
Geno Atkins 30 +3.4 0.5 2 2 9 13 4
Wallace Gilberry 28 -0.3 2 2 5 17 3
Robert Geathers 25 -1.1 1 1 2 16 5
Devon Still 17 -0.9 1 2 10 5
Margus Hunt 18 -1.5 0 14 3

The six columns on the right are my own numbers from a meticulous film review.

First off, I have to say how much I disagree with the PFF pass rush grades for both Wallace Gilberry and Domata Peko. Peko got close to the quarterback on three plays out of a whopping 37 pass rushes. On my pressure chart (the middle three columns), I chose to omit Peko's "sack". This occurred when Andrew Luck saw nothing, tried to run, and fell forward over Domata Peko for no gain. Meanwhile, Gilberry gets two hits and two hurries on Luck from 28 pass rushes, and somehow he has a lower grade than Peko. Absolutely mind-boggling.

The team's misuse of Domata Peko has me scratching my head as well. He leads the team with 73 pass rushes in the past two weeks. By my count, he has impacted the play positively on only four of them. Fortunately, Brandon Thompson has practiced fully this week and appears on track to play this Sunday. Thompson is known as a run-stuffer as well, but he can't be any worse than Peko at getting to the quarterback. Additionally, Thompson's snaps will help to reduce Peko's absurd pass rush snap count.

Carlos Dunlap, obviously, had a monster game. He recorded a half-sack, two hurries, two additional hits, and he was involved in two turnovers (forcing one fumble and recovering another). It was his most productive day rushing the passer in 2014 by far. Dunlap had earned a negative pass rushing grade by PFF in four of the first five games of the season, simply because he hadn't been consistent enough. In those games, he had a few snaps where it didn't look like he was going all out. He needs to keep this hot streak going, because frankly, some of the other linemen just can't get to the quarterback at all.

Geno Atkins had a quiet day if you just looked at the stat sheet. They only gave him credit for one QB hit, no sacks (which was later adjusted to a half-sack), and no tackles (which is true). As a pass rusher, he had a great day. I had him down for a half-sack, two hurries, and two hits on the quarterback. He had an additional four plays where he earned a positive grade because he was close to the quarterback. One such play is shown below.

Wallace Gilberry cooled off a bit from his monster game two weeks ago, as I highlighted in last week's article. He still earned two hits and two hurries, but he had a higher percentage of negative plays, where he simply wasn't anywhere close to the quarterback. Gilberry is a little more inconsistent than the two elite talents Dunlap and Atkins, but there's no denying that Gilberry is a playmaker who hustles to the ball every play.

Old man Geathers is the team's fifth rotational piece. He's been assigned the role as the fourth-best pass rusher when Peko comes off the field in pure pass rushing situations. Gilberry usually moves inside to one of the defensive tackle spots, but Geathers occasionally does this as well. Geathers' positive plays usually come when the quarterback holds onto the ball for too long. He's an unproductive pass rusher, as evidenced by his six positive pass rushing plays in 55 pass rushing snaps during the past two weeks. Unfortunately, there's no better choice on the roster.

Devon Still and Margus Hunt have been terribly unproductive in their limited snaps this year. In the Colts game, Still got close to Luck twice, but Hunt was completely invisible as a pass rusher. It's a big difference from preseason game 4, when Hunt abused the Colts' third string tackles to post three sacks in the game. Speaking optimistically, it could be a game flow issue where Hunt just can't get a rhythm going in his limited regular season snaps. But, from what I've seen in the last two games, Hunt has a long way to go.

Run Defense

This truly has been the biggest weakness on the team this year. The Bengals now rank third worst in rushing yards allowed per game (146.3) and fourth worst in rushing yards allowed per attempt (4.9). This has largely been due to the last three games, which can be summed up quickly.

In Week 5, without Vontaze Burfict, they were gashed by Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen for 203 rushing yards. In Week 6, with Vontaze Burfict, they shut down the Panthers' backup, running backs for 40 yards, but they were really hurt by Cam Newton's read options and scrambling ability for 107 yards, which I broke down last week. In Week 7, mostly without Vontaze Burfict, they were gashed by Trent Richardson, Ahmad Bradshaw, and Boom Herron for 166 yards.

Not only was it embarrassing watching a former Bengals castoff seal the game with repeated first down runs, but Trent Richardson posted a 5.5 yard/carry average. The last time he posted an average that high, with at least double digit carries, was in September of 2012, also against the Bengals.

The defensive line failed as a collective unit to clog running lanes, and the crew of backup linebackers were either running themselves out of the play, getting blocked by a lineman, or missing tackles.

Run Snaps PFF Rating Positive Negative Neutral Tackles Assists Missed Stops
Carlos Dunlap 29 -1.1 7 7 10 1 2 1 2
Domata Peko 30 -1.5 3 12 10 3 3
Geno Atkins 27 -2.9 0 8 16
Wallace Gilberry 26 +0.5 4 3 14 3 1 2
Robert Geathers 13 -1.2 0 5 8 1
Devon Still 13 +0.6 3 3 5 1
Margus Hunt 7 -0.1 1 2 4 1
Vinny Rey 36 -0.8 11 10 10 12 2 2 3
Marquis Flowers 24 -2.5 7 7 10 4 1 2 2
Jayson DiManche 26 -0.5 2 5 12 5 2 1
Reggie Nelson 36 +0.4 3 2 27 6 3 1
Adam Jones 28 +1.2 3 0 23 4 2
George Iloka 35 +0.4 3 1 25 2 1
Terence Newman 32 -0.8 2 2 26 3 1 1
Darqueze Dennard 4 0.0 2 1 3 3 1
Vontaze Burfict 10 -2.3 3 3 2 4 1 1
Leon Hall 14 -0.4 1 1 9 4 1 1

The worst row in this entire chart is the row of numbers next to Geno Atkins. He really did nothing in run defense all day. This year, Atkins ranks 66th out of 75 defensive/nose tackles in the league in run stop percentage. He finished fifth out of 82 qualifying players in 2012.

This is obviously the area where Geno Atkins is still affected by ACL surgery less than a year ago. He doesn't plant his feet in the ground firmly against double teams, he lets himself get pushed because he doesn't seem to trust his knee. It's a bit too much to ask for a 300+ pound man to tell him to hang in there with two more 300+ pound men pushing on him as well. To further illustrate my point, watch this play by Texans' nose tackle Ryan Pickett.

Notice at one point, he has all of his weight on one leg. This is the kind of trust you need to have in your knees to take on double teams in the NFL.

In one-on-one match ups, Atkins doesn't drive the lineman backward like he used to. He just holds his ground and hopes the running back comes his way. Watch Geno Atkins just get washed away in this play below. Old Geno would have shed the block and crashed down on the block to make the tackle.

It's sad to see really. And quite odd when juxtaposed with how well he is doing as a pass rusher. I don't know how long it will be until Geno feels confident enough in himself to take on double teams fully again. Weeks, maybe months? Whatever pace he chooses to accept is fine with me. We can't afford him suffering another serious knee injury.

Meanwhile, the other DTs simply can't stop the run consistently either. This is the heart of the problem. Peko is ranked 34th out of 75 qualifying players in run stop percentage, while Still is ranked 73rd. Still simply gets washed away and knocked over at the point of attack. Peko at least can hold his ground and get in the way to make a tackle. He didn't do much of it in the Colts game, but I saw him put up an 8:6 ratio of positive to negative plays in the Panthers game. Peko is the best we have at defending the run right now.

When Brandon Thompson returns this week, it's not like we are getting an elite player or even a starter back, but he is a decent run-stopper and an aggressive player. He can get upfield and make explosive plays. We'll see what kind of ripple effect he has on the rotation around him.

After a week where the Panthers seemed to be avoiding Dunlap completely on run plays, Dunlap got his fair share of runs this week, and he didn't perform as well as he could have. He was pushed out of the play just as many times as he held his ground. He can play better against the run. Again, we need him to be more consistent. On the play below, he makes his trademark tomahawk chop from behind to force a fumble.

Having Vontaze Burfict healthy is obviously a huge plus for the run defense. We all know how good he is at diagnosing plays, shedding blockers, and flying to the ball. You don't need to watch me drool over Burfict's ability here. But, even Burfict made some bad plays in the Colts game in his 25 snaps.

Getting some of these backup linebackers off the field is just as important as getting Burfict on the field. I'm talking specifically about Vinny Rey, Jayson DiManche, and Marquis Flowers.

It doesn't help with the line play in front of them, but they are constantly getting caught out of position in run defense. They either jump to the wrong gap or let themselves get blocked out of the play completely. DiManche in particular has trouble sealing the edge on the outside.

All three of them also struggled in coverage. They either allowed completions in their zones or missed tackles when they had to make a play.

Flowers actually surprised me with a few nice solo tackles. He got blocked too easily in the run game and allowed some receptions, but it was a good sign that he was already playing almost as well as Vinny Rey, and he's just a rookie.

It's a bit unfair to group Vinny Rey with the other two, because Rey actually was in the right position a decent amount of times. But, when no one around him can get off a block, Rey is left in an unfair situation where he has to take on a free blocker and make the tackle himself in the hole. Several times, Rey was dragged by the ballcarrier for a few extra yards. Rey isn't physical talented enough to be a hero or game changer. He's a smart, complementary player who needs the players around him to do their jobs for him to play well.

Getting Emmanuel Lamur back healthy this week will help ease the burden on Vinny Rey, who will now take the role of Rey Maualuga as the middle linebacker in the base package. So, Lamur will play the whole game and Rey will play less than 50 percent of the teams' snaps. Lamur's coverage this week on tight end Owen Daniels will be a key matchup.

As far as as the secondary goes, they usually aren't asked to do much in the run game. Terence Newman and Darqueze Dennard each missed a tackle. Reggie Nelson allowed two catches, and Leon Hall allowed four to T.Y. Hilton. He simply couldn't keep up with T.Y., but what corner in the league can? Dre Kirkpatrick came in briefly for Terence Newman and was immediately victimized by Hilton, who turned Kirkpatrick around for an easy 15 yard completion and then smiled (knowing Kirkpatrick simply couldn't cover him). Newman's coverage has been good all year, but he needs to be more physical in the run game. Perhaps a rotation should be installed to keep Newman's snap count down and get the two idling first rounders on the field somehow.

In reality, the secondary isn't the problem. Andrew Luck will tear apart anyone's secondary when he has the time to throw it. The heart of the problem, again, lies up front. Too many players are playing too many snaps. The return of Lamur, Burfict, and Brandon Thompson should have a huge ripple effect across the entire defense. Pass rushing, run defense, and coverage should all improve.