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Bengals’ defensive front to blame for Cowboys’ continual big plays

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Cincinnati’s defensive unit was uncharacteristically lackluster against the Cowboys’ offense on Sunday, and while all levels failed, the front seven is shouldering the blame for allowing big plays.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Most figured the defensive matchup the Bengals were gearing up for in Week 5 would be tough with two exciting rookies spearheading the Dallas offense, but few could have predicted just how dominant Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott were going to be on Sunday. Prescott had a 117.9 rating against Cincinnati’s defense, while Elliott charged on with a staggering 8.9 yards per carry average.

Every level of the defense was guilty of continuously allowing plays that led to a 28-14 loss, but the front seven, often viewed as the strength of the team, was horrific. Missed tackles, players getting totally out of position and the inability to shed blockers ended up spelling doom for the Bengals.

Much has been made of the Dallas offensive line, as owner Jerry Jones has wisely made the decision to add three first round players up front over the past six drafts. It was supposed to be a marquee matchup against the Bengals’ front seven, littered with veteran experience and Pro Bowl designations, but the Cowboys imposed their will up front.

Pressure was almost non-existent on Prescott, which is the antithesis of what defenses want to do to a rookie quarterback, while the entire unit often looked confused.

Familiar issues still not remedied:

Many veterans spoke on the Cowboys’ offense and what they were shown by Dallas after the game. Defensive end Michael Johnson, who had six total tackles in the game, mentioned something about the running game they faced, which should dubiously sound familiar.

“They are not a power running team. They were running a lot of zone stuff,” Johnson said after the game “(The) Broncos do it. Houston does it. They are not the only team that does it. They just did a better job executing that today than we did.”

Many of the same players who have starred on the defensive line were present when the Texans ran all over Cincinnati in two straight postseason losses in 2011 and 2012. It was widely-known that then-head coach Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking scheme gave the Bengals fits.

So, is it a coaching issue, or a personnel one? Linebacker Karlos Dansby pointed to possible scheme issues after the game, which obviously puts Paul Guenther, Jim Haslett and Jacob Burney under the microscope.

“They played a great game. I can’t take away anything from them,” Dansby said. “They did a great job. They schemed us up well and they made some big plays. That was the perfect call, at the perfect time, and they made a play,” he said of Elliot’s 60-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. “They caught us in the defensive look they hoped to catch us in. You can’t do anything but take your hat off to them.”

Cornerback Adam Jones, who had a rough game in the secondary, also had a vague statement referencing how the defense needs to get back to what is used to be. Might it be a reference to the rumor of the defensive backs clashing with Kevin Coyle?

“I am an honest person. And I will start with myself. I will look at the film and I will be the first one to stand up and say I could have done this better,” Jones said. “I know I missed the tackle early; I have to make the tackle. I think as a group, we need to sit down with the coaches and put it up on the board. That is the only way we are get back to how it has normally been. I don’t want to say too much.”

With issues in previous years against similar zone-blocking schemes, even under Mike Zimmer, you must think this defense just has trouble in against this type of rushing attack.

Defensive tackle attrition looming large?

Many believe the Bengals got a steal in the fourth round this year in grabbing Baylor behemoth, Andrew Billings. Unfortunately, his career was derailed this preseason with a knee injury, limiting the depth up front. Marcus Hardison and Brandon Thompson are also out of the lineup with injuries, which isn’t helping the depth.

It’s hard to say that having one or all three would have made a big difference on Sunday, but, you’d also have to assume it wouldn’t have been as bad as it was without them. From one standpoint, having more rotational tackles to spell the starters would have been helpful. Margus Hunt and Will Clarke have kicked inside at times and have played the best football of their careers in 2016, but Pat Sims was the only traditional defensive tackle active on Sunday behind Domata Peko and Geno Atkins.

The snap counts were also quite strange on Sunday. Sims, the team’s run-stopping specialist, played in 46% of the snaps, while Atkins and Peko were at 68% and 67%. Hunt played 34 snaps (60%), with Johnson playing 39 (68%) and Carlos Dunlap at 34 (60%). This is to show that Hunt was playing in the middle at times, which might not have been a solid game plan against the zone-blocking scheme.

Between having some possible better personnel fits and creating the rotation that has made them one of the best defensive fronts over the past handful of years, missing some of these defensive tackles isn’t helping a defense that hasn’t looked the same in 2016.