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Film Room: Bengals run defense remains concerning

Hue Jackson was running at will on his former club until his fourth quarterback of the season had to leave with a concussion and the fifth QB stepped in.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals beat the Browns on Sunday, as expected. The offense was able to run at will and A.J. Green proved why he is the best wide receiver this side of the Jupiter. The defense, though, barely stopped a team that was playing its fifth different quarterback in seven games.

The most glaring issue for the Bengals’ defense was an inability to stop the run. Hue Jackson, former Bengals offensive coordinator and one of the brightest minds in the NFL, had to be aware of Cincinnati’s problems. That meant attacking their linebackers in space, with a handful of counters, misdirections and later read option plays.

A good example of this was the very first play ran by Cleveland, an Isaiah Crowell carry for a two yard gain. Here Vontaze Burfict and nickel cornerback Josh Shaw are well positioned to make the stop. The latter collapsed the lane and forced Crowell to go straight at Burfict, who couldn’t be blocked by Gary Barnidge, who’s much better at catching than blocking.

Burfict did a great job at reading the play, but it was clear early on that the Browns’ game-plan was to go after the Bengals’ lack of athleticism at the linebacker position. (This will likely be every team’s game-plan until the Bengals fix their issues.)

Cleveland produced a lot of its rushing yards through their backup quarterback, Kevin Hogan, who ran for 104 yards on seven carries and scored a 28-yard rushing touchdown. But their running back also managed to deliver, as Crowell added 63 yards in 12 attempts for a 5.3 average and a touchdown. That after being held to 38 yards in 22 carries by the Patriots and the Titans in his last two games. He had a nice gain on their second drive in which the Browns took advantage of the Bengals keeping both safeties high, running a cover 2 zone defense. With the numbers on their side, Crowell went on to record his longest run of the day.

It is safe to wonder why Cincy didn’t load the box on this play considering the troubles the Browns had moving the football through the air and their best receiver being banged up. As you can see though, the Browns ran another misdirection through the middle.

Cleveland also went straight up close to the goal line when Crowell made a fine play to gain eight yards on second-and-10. They double-teamed the entire Bengals defensive line and pushed them three or four yards forward. The running back then made a great effort to go through the small hole between his offensive linemen, but I still don’t understand what Rey Maualuga was doing. Had he sticked with his gap responsibility, Crowell would have gotten just three yards. The view is far away from clear, but on the aerial shot he didn’t seem to get pushed by the center Cameron Erving.

Here in slow motion. Notice how Burfict contained a possible bounce to the left side but Maualuga just stepped away from the middle and into the offensive lineman.

On that same drive though, Cincinnati ended up surrendering only three points thanks to this play by Domata Peko, who managed to stop running back Duke Johnson Jr. despite how unlikely it looked.

When the Browns didn’t run the read option with Hogan, they mostly stayed with the misdirection. This is something the Cowboys also took advantage of in their win against Cincy in Dallas, but of course that was with a loaded offensive line and Ezekiel Elliott at running back. Cleveland did it with backups and some struggling players like Erving or right tackle Austin Pasztor.

Joe Goodberry on ESPN 1530 made a good point about the Bengals linebackers, as it seems like if the defensive line doesn’t make the tackle, it will be the safeties. Either by design, by athletic limitations, by awareness or by getting outsmarted by opposing offensive coordinators, the second level of Cincinnati’s defense is clearly the most troubling issue right now.

Going back to the read option, it is not that the Bengals looked unprepared for it, as Jackson had run it through the season with wide receiver Terrell Pryor. If they didn’t have a clue, you know where to point the finger.

On the first chance Hogan had, Michael Johnson seemed to be alert though. Problem is, he’s also not very athletic anymore and simply couldn’t catch up with Hogan. He saw the quarterback keeping the football, but it took him so long to react that Hogan was far gone.

You could argue that after seeing Hogan keep it once, the defense would be at least more ready for it. But with the rookie out of Stanford again on the field, the Bengals were again unable to stop him.

On his second carry, the Browns again spread the formation forcing Cincinnati to go nickel. Hogan gained 15 yards while the entire front six of the Bengals stayed with Crowell. The commentators said they were doing the right thing, that they wanted the quarterback to keep the football. I am not sure you can say that when the Bengals didn’t leave anybody in between the line and George Iloka was 20 yards further.

Two plays later, the Browns went back with Hogan, this time with Barnidge in the backfield as well as the lead blocker for him. Carlos Dunlap keyed on the running back and neither Shawn Williams nor Karlos Dansby could stop Hogan before he gained 15 more yards. The key block was the right tackle on Dansby as it cleared the second level for Hogan. Barnidge had no trouble with Williams either.

Cincinnati couldn’t stop this play on Sunday until the Browns gave it up with their starting quarterback out with a concussion. When they did, just right before the Browns first touchdown of the game, Crowell gained four yards through the middle.

Dunlap stayed with Hogan, but he made the perfect read as the defense was shifting to the weak side, despite no other player aligned to that side other than Crowell. Vincent Rey made a good effort to get a piece of the running back, but the angle wasn’t great coming off the left side and the Browns gained four yards. This play, by the way, shows why Rey has been the best linebacker on the Bengals thus far, despite his lack of size.

In the second half, without Kessler, Hogan couldn’t run the read option much at all, but on the first chance, Crowell gained 13 yards with Johnson staying with the quarterback and later, when the Bengals defensive end went after the running back on another play, Hogan added 16 yards himself.

The Browns were down to a bunch of unproven rookies on offense and played relentlessly despite that. Cincinnati beat Cleveland, but the defensive performance was far from righting the ship.