As it’s often said, when something goes wrong, everything goes wrong. The Bengals defense surrendered 28 points in just more than two quarters of play in Dallas, and the issues that appeared are concerning.
The Cowboys have probably the best offensive line in football, loaded with former first-round picks, and one of the most promising running backs in recent time, Ezekiel Elliott. They gashed the Bengals defense, taking advantage of a front seven that had its hands full on Sunday. But not only did they ran at will against Paul Guenther’s unit, quarterback Dak Prescott was able to find underneath targets like tight end Jason Witten and wide receiver Cole Beasley with ease.
One of the worst, if not the worst, offenders was linebacker Rey Maualuga. The seven-year veteran has always struggled in space and fans have been clamoring for a reduction in his role for years. Yet he played the most snaps on the unit on Sunday despite the return of Vontaze Burfict, which gave Guenther a lot of options with Karlos Dansby and Vincent Rey also in the mix.
The Cowboys targeted the most glaring weakness the Bengals defense presents. Cincy’s linebackers are not athletic and often are a liability in coverage, as we saw early on during the game with Prescott’s first completion to Terrance Williams on a curl route for a first down.
The Bengals were playing zone, yes, but Maualuga could have made the tackle instead of letting Williams scramble for a few extra yards and force a third down. He looks lost and his feet are slow in the open field.
Later on in Dallas’ first drive of the game we saw a couple of key players where his effort was really poor, something that stood out during a day to forget for the Bengals defense.
Rey Maualuga might have had the worst game in run support I've seen all season.Yes, it's the Cowboys but his effort was horrendous. #NFL1000— Jerod Brown (@jerodbrown62) October 11, 2016
One of the reasons why many wanted Maualuga out of the mike position is because he’s at his best when he can just pound the line of scrimmage and not think too much. He’s slow to react and doesn’t have the speed to make up for his hesitations.
This is generally what you want Maualuga to do: attack the gap and collapse the lane.
Vincent Rey is not a perfect solution to the lack of athleticism at the position, but he’s still better in coverage and just showed against the Dolphins in Week 4 that he can be a good nickel linebacker. He only played 13 snaps on Sunday, while Maualuga was on the field 81% of them. If the reason for that was to stop the run, it backfired.
With Maualuga on the field, the Cowboys were free to use the middle of the field for their passing game. The play below is a good example of this. Prescott manipulated Maualuga easily despite the fact that there was another defender closer to the receiver headed for the flat, and the Bengals’ linebacker vacated the middle. It was a third down and short with Cincy down "only" 14-0, and the 31-yard completion put Dallas in a great position to score again.
Then the Cowboys scored attacking Maualuga, again. This might be the most frustrating play, because despite the fact that the Cowboys went with an empty backfield, Maualuga stayed on the field. He was matched up against Beasley and it went as, you could guess, badly.
It wasn’t his fault that Beasley beat him, but you have to wonder why Cincinnati insisted on playing him that much despite having two better coverage linebackers and his poor outing on Sunday against the run.
Combined, they managed only four stops in 54 snaps, regularly finding themselves washed yards from the intended point of attack. In coverage, the pair was targeted six times, surrendered six completions, allowed 72 yards, and gave up a touchdown.
It was not a pretty day in the office for Maualuga. The Bengals staff needs to better distribute playing time in the coming games, because what we saw on Sunday isn’t a recipe for success.