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Bengals defense continues to struggle when covering running backs and tight ends

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While the defensive line stepped up in the Bengals’ 35-17 loss to the Patriots, the unit is still having issues covering ancillary offensive weapons.

Cincinnati Bengals v New England Patriots Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Under Mike Zimmer, the Cincinnati Bengals’ defense made strides in shedding the image of not being able to cover opposing teams’ tight ends. As is evidenced by the Vikings’ 5-0 start in 2016 under head coach Mike Zimmer and their top-five standing in both total defense and run defense, the former Bengals defensive coordinator finds ways to clamp down on opposing offenses’ security blankets.

With Zimmer’s departure to Minnesota, the Bengals’ defense has once again struggled with covering versatile running backs and star tight ends. It was known that Week 6 would provide a matchup nightmare for Zimmer’s successor, Paul Guenther, but Bill Belichick’s Patriots made the Cincinnati defense look silly in the second half of Sunday’s game.

The chain-mover gang of Patriots wide receivers fell down Tom Brady’s pecking order on Sunday, as the top three New England receiving options were two tight ends and a running back. Rob Gronkowski had a huge day, logging seven receptions for a career-high 162 yards and a touchdown. Gronk’s position mate, Martellus Bennett, added five catches for 48 yards.

As if their damage wasn’t enough, running back James White had eight catches for 47 yards and two touchdown catches. For the talent the Bengals’ defense employs in the middle and back ends of their defense, they looked confused and frustrated when trying to cover those three Patriots on Sunday afternoon.

When talking about the team’s defensive game plan and if paying attention to Gronkowski was of utmost importance, Marvin Lewis said “Oh yeah”, following the loss. And, for those who have become accustomed to a postgame presser with Lewis after a loss, terse answers like the “we didn’t do a good job covering him,” supplied afterward are part of his coaching resume.

Are speed and age issues?

The Bengals have preferred to employ big behemoths who make big hits on their defense, as opposed to some of the more athletic hybrid players. To the Bengals’ credit, they have invested recent picks who have versatility with the likes of George Iloka and Josh Shaw, but none have yet to become the dominant defenders the team hoped for.

This offseason, Andy Benoit of The Monday Morning Quarterback noted the effectiveness of Iloka and the value the Bengals received with the big contract he received. Ironically, it was the size and athleticism of Iloka that Benoit pointed to in his advantage against big tight ends like Gronkowski and Bennett.

It wasn’t just No. 43 who had issues on Sunday, though. Because of the shiftiness of Brady’s weapons and his use of tight ends and running backs in the passing game, Rey Maualuga wasn’t on the field often. Vontaze Burfict made a couple of nice plays on Sunday, and while he’s a pretty well-rounded linebacker, he still has trouble against the pass with those two positions at times.

One of the team’s biggest offseason acquisitions was savvy linebacker Karlos Dansby and his arrival has been met with lukewarm results. He’s made some plays, but he turns 35 in the middle of this year and it has to make you wonder if he’s still a sideline-to-sideline player.

White isn't the only example of a running back having their way in 2016 against the Bengals defense as a receiver. Matt Forte had five catches for 59 yards in the season opener, while DeAngelo Williams had a touchdown reception in Week 2.

Emmanuel Lamur left for the Vikings this past offseason after failing to live up to the expectations the team laid out for him, but his ranginess and athleticism is something the team could use, given Sunday’s results. Cincinnati did use a third round pick on agile Utah State linebacker Nick Vigil, but he has been nothing more than a special teams role player to this point.

Does the once-vaunted Bengals defense need more speed and athleticism on their unit? Are the vacancies left by Leon Hall and Reggie Nelson catching up to the team? If Sunday’s game against the Patriots was any indication, the answers to both might be yes.

Is the scheme to blame?

For a lot of teams, the 4-3 defense has become a bit irrelevant. Cincinnati does employ many nickel base sets, but they might not be giving as many diverse looks to opposing offenses as other squads. Confusing offenses is a critical aspect when going up against Hall of Fame quarterbacks like Brady.

As Sunday’s game wore on, you saw the difference between the Bengals’ and Patriots’ coaching staffs. Early on in Sunday’s contest, Cincinnati frustrated Brady with pressure and a lot of hits on the veteran signal-caller. However, as the Bengals got out to an improbable 14-10 lead in the third quarter, Belichick adjusted the game plan.

Brady began using quick-hitting passes and underneath routes to dink-and-dunk his way to a win. Sure, penalties helped, but Brady brought Cincinnati’s defense up and then found creases in their scheme to get big gains to guys like Gronkowski, Bennett and White, as the Bengal defenders were clearly on their toes.

Brady and Belichick have built their Canton-bound resumes on making adjustments and attacking weaknesses. However, one thing has been Brady’s kryptonite: pressure. The two losses in Super Bowls to the Giants were prime displays of this weakness and Lewis’ lone win against the Patriots as the Bengals head coach back in 2013 was another.

As Brady started to pick apart the Bengals defense with short completions, Guenther seemed to adjust to more of a coverage-based scheme instead of a pressure-based one. It’s no coincidence that Brady started playing at his best on Sunday once the Bengals’ defense eased up on the pressure.