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Bengals’ pass rush falls short yet again in loss to Giants

Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap can only do so much.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at New York Giants Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals’ lack of a pass rush was visibly evident in the team’s loss to the New York Giants on Monday night. And while Geno Atkins tallied a huge sack on a fourth down, potentially saving the Bengals points which could’ve been on the board, Cincinnati didn’t do a good job at getting after Eli Manning, one of the most erratic quarterbacks in the NFL.

Even though the quarterback threw two interceptions on Monday night, he still managed to connect with Odell Beckham on 10 passes. The receiver managed 97 yards and a touchdown on the night, yet his longest reception of the evening went for just 21 yards. Rather than surrendering any big plays, the Bengals consistently allowed the Giants short passes, and New York made them pay for it.

There’s a distinct formula for beating the Bengals’ defense: throw quick passes toward the middle of the field on intermediate routes. We’ve discussed this problem before, but Cincinnati’s personnel at the linebacker position simply isn’t fit to match up against opposing offenses in today’s NFL. And despite boasting an incredibly instinctive linebacking unit, the Bengals’ linebackers make mistakes (like all players do). On New York’s first drive, Manning toyed with Vontaze Burfict, connecting with a wide-open Sterling Shepard in Burfict’s blown coverage. On the next play, Manning fooled Vincent Rey on a play-action pass, connecting with a wide-open Jerell Adams for an easy touchdown.

The Bengals no longer boasts the personnel needed to run the staple defense the team has run for so long under Mike Zimmer and now Paul Guenther. There are certain factors advanced metrics systems inexplicably value higher than others, which is why guys like Rey and Shawn Williams — both of whom have been incredibly inconsistent throughout the season — grade out so well in certain rankings.

Paul Guenther’s defense is predicated on the Bengals’ signature double A-gap blitz concept. Cincinnati has seen tremendous success running these types of blitzes, generating pressure despite opponents’ knowledge that a blitz would more than likely be coming, in many circumstances. But today, in an NFL which is more pass-happy than ever, the Bengals’ vanilla defensive scheme is no longer as effective as it was when opponents were running more often than they do today. And even putting that aside, the Bengals just allowed over 100 all-purpose yards (87 rushing) to Rashad Jennings, who picked up a critical third down on the Giants’ last drive, something that shouldn’t have ever happened, regardless of how well the Giants’ passing game may have been clicking.

The drafting of Nick Vigil was the first move the Bengals made which showed they’re at least considering adapting to today’s NFL, but the team still has a long ways to go in that regard. Even if Vigil pans out and Burfict fully returns to pre-injury form, the Bengals will need more versatile linebackers on the roster.

Last week, the Bengals went back and forth about whether Vigil and other young guys could see more snaps. This is something I think will happen if Cincinnati continues to lose games, regardless of how well the veterans are playing. But prior to making these statements, Guenther explained how he trusts his players on the field and, essentially, how the flaws of his defense are on his players for not executing rather than on the coordinator for poor play-calling.

I don’t think Guenther is wrong. Let’s face it; the defensive coordinator was put in a difficult position this year, with a depleted roster on defense — he doesn’t have any athletic linebackers and only has two players capable of even generating an occasional pressure or two in obvious passing situations. Plus, consider the turnover among the coaching staff.

It’s also hard to blame the defensive coordinator for trusting his guys to make plays. After all, Cincinnati had a top-three scoring defense last season. It’s not like Guenther’s scheme changed over the offseason; his players just haven’t been executing as well as they did last year.

But on Monday night, we saw the Giants expose the fatal flaw of Guenther’s defense. The Bengals don’t have a reliable pass rush despite boasting an elite player at the defensive tackle position and a borderline elite defensive end. What makes matters worse is that the Bengals’ secondary simply isn’t talented enough to force turnovers. Dre Kirkpatrick and George Iloka both made nice interceptions under the lights, but that hasn’t been happening on a consistent basis this season. And while some could blame Reggie Nelson’s departure to Oakland for why the Bengals haven’t forced many turnovers this season, it’s important to note that most — if not all — of the safety’s eight 2015 interceptions came on overthrows rather than instinctive plays. In other words, those interceptions wouldn’t have been possible without the Bengals’ pass rush.

Playing with a defense that can’t generate a pass rush or stop the run, it’s now time for Guenther to get creative. Sending the younger players out onto the field or employing different schematic concepts this late in the season will more than likely make the Bengals’ defense even more susceptible, but at this point, what does Guenther have to lose? Cincinnati would need a near-miracle to finish anywhere near eligible for the playoffs, and it’s hard to imagine the Bengals’ defense can get much worse.