The biggest issue the Bengals’ offense has had this year (and last year really) is an ever-unclear identity.
They fired their offensive coordinator less than two calendar-weeks into the regular season. They’ve tried to be power-oriented some weeks and zone-focused other games. They don’t have the personnel up front to do whatever they desire any given week.
Their overall inconsistency has led to overall underwhelming results, specifically in the second-half of games when the play-calling goes off script. They’ve had minimal success because it took them so long to figure what they’re good at and utilize it. The Bengals defense, on the other hand, has had its strengths down from the get-go.
Up until recently, Paul Guenther’s unit on the other side of the ball was really good at bending and not breaking. They create a lot of pressure with just four rushers, they’re an extremely efficient pass defense, and they don’t allow big runs.
These have been the critical factors of a defense that was fourth in the league in points per play and third in yards per play leading up to this matchup against the Chicago Bears.
For the first 11 weeks of the year, the most rushes of 10 yards or more the Bengals defense allowed in one game was four, against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 7 and the Tennessee Titans in Week 10.
They were tied for sixth in the league in limiting these runs. In Week 12 against the Cleveland Browns, they allowed a season-high of eight. They bounced against the Steelers the following week by only allowing two, but the proverbial camel’s back was broke this past Sunday against the Bears, as running backs Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen had 11 rushes of 10 yards or more.
The duo accounted for 227 of the Bears’ 232 rushing yards, the most the Bengals allowed this year by far. How were they able to do it?
The answers aren’t pretty:
It doesn’t get more simple than this. The Bears are in 21 personnel; two tight ends and one running back. The Bengals are in 4-3 under alignment with the SAM linebacker Jordan Evans playing just off the line of scrimmage. Each box defender has a gap to fill and a run fit responsibility upon reading the offense’s initial movement.
The running back, Cohen, gets the handoff on a wide zone stretch and surveys his reads from the outside-in. If the edge is being occupied by the force defender, he makes his way back inside.
At the point where Cohen cuts back, Evans and MIKE linebacker Kevin Minter accomplish their run fits by getting out in front of their blocks and showing color in their gaps.
The two issues occur when Minter loses sight of the small tailback and Michael Johnson fails to fill his gap. Johnson managed to keep his outside shoulder clean while stacking the tackle throughout the play, but never got out in front of the block and was sealed off.
That gap was Johnson’s responsibility, but Minter could’ve scraped over the top of the play and filled it had he not gotten fooled by Cohen’s hesitation.
The very next play, the Bears use an RPO as quarterback Mitchell Trubisky has an option to pull the ball back with double slants on the field side, and an inside zone run with a trap block from the right guard.
As left defensive end Carlos Dunlap is going to be in the passing lane, Trubisky hands the ball off to Howard. The point of attack is where defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow was pre-snap at 3-technique.
Glasgow read the first steps of the left tackle and reacted accordingly. The Bears actually had a mix of zone and gap blocking which is what cleared the point of attack open.
The play is going for positive yards, that’s inevitable at this point, but Vincent Rey makes the play go from bad to worse, as he flows way too far out of his gap and ends up on the edge where William Jackson is already present.
The middle of the field is completely vacant and Howard scampers in for the score.
The Bears had the advantage at the point of attack all game long and this may’ve been the most glaring example. Here they run split zone against a six-man box from the Bengals. Nose tackle Pat Sims is completely annihilated by the deuce block and Rey is reading where Howard is going.
The deuce block generates so much movement off the ball that Sims is being run back into Rey. Howard wisely waits just a second before cutting into the A-gap Rey is responsible for, getting Rey to decide between both A-gaps as Sims is taken out of the play.
Safety George Iloka is forced to come down hill and stop Howard past the first-down marker.
Here’s where you want your defenders to be more than just robots. Rey is responsible for the C-gap between Dunlap and Glasgow and upon reading the fullback, follows him to the edge. Dunlap sets a great edge and Glasgow fills his fit, a cutback is imminent from Cohen. Glasgow stacks the reach block but fails to shed back inside, the A-gap is wider than the Grand Canyon.
But the MVP of the play was center Cody Whitehair. His task is to meet Minter in the second level, but knows his teammate at right guard is going to have to reach nose tackle Andrew Billings.
Off the snap with his snap-hand, Whitehair gives Billings a long arm shove that allows the right guard to turn him away. Whitehair manages to climb in time to Minter, who tries to cut behind Whitehair into the backfield.
This tactic is dangerous because your only chance of making the play is if the point of attack is stonewalled. in this case, it isn’t, and Cohen blazes by Minter for another first-down.
More split zone from the first play out of half-time. Howard takes one step with the ball in his hand and every fill defender is sealed off in some way. Instead of taking on the kick out block head on like Jadeveon Clowney, he tries to swim around it, only clearing himself out of the play even more.
The deuce block on Andrew Billings gives Howard room to manipulate Evans into one gap while he bounces back to the unoccupied gap where Rey is sealed off with ease. This is what movement at the line of scrimmage can give your running back.
If it ain’t broke, go back to it. Billings is completely washed out of his gap, and both second level defenders, Rey and Josh Shaw are sealed off. The Bengals really, really missed Geno Atkins at full strength with how easy they were getting blown off the ball.
Atkins, Aaron Donald, Gerald McCoy, Fletcher Cox could do what Pat Sims attempted to do here because they all have an ounce of flexibility at the hips. Sims’s attempt to undercut the wide zone run in the backfield completely opened up his gap of which there was no one behind to fill it.
The Bears would score four plays later that would extend their lead to three scores, effectively ending all hope for the Bengals if that point didn’t occur sooner.
One of my favorite Bengals games I ever attended was the last time the Bengals and Bears played in Cincinnati back in 2009. The Bengals won 45-10 off five Carson Palmer touchdowns, but what I vividly remember was the Bears inability to stop Cedric Benson on the ground. He rushed for 189 yards on 37 carries and scored a touchdown as well.
It was such an imposing performance against a run defense that looked virtually helpless. This past Sunday was an exact case of role reversal, as the Bears physically dominated the Bengals on the ground and their passing game fed off that performance, and put on a clinic of how not to stop the run.