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Bengals can exploit Saints’ secondary, even without A.J. Green

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The Saints may be trying to improve the secondary, but the unit is still a liability.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals’ bye week was well-timed as multiple offensive players should be returning to the field after a week of rest. Unfortunately, they will be far from whole as the unit’s top player, A.J. Green, will be sidelined with his foot injury for at least the next two weeks.

Green’s absence will undoubtedly be felt, and the Bengals offense will have to go blow for blow against a potent Saints offense without him. Luckily, the Saints’ defense still has some vulnerabilities that Andy Dalton and the rest of the offensive unit can take advantage of.

The Saints run a lot of man coverage with cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who remains one of the most talented defensive backs in the NFL. Running man coverage requires more than one talented defender in the secondary, and outside of Lattimore, the Saints have issues in their pass defense.

Injury and desperation forced them to move P.J. Williams to the slot cornerback position and trade for an underperforming Eli Apple. Both have had major issues, and they showed when the Saints played the Minnesota Vikings in Week 8.

Williams and Apple struggled all day against the Vikings as the Saints allowed quarterback Kirk Cousins to throw for 359 yards and two touchdowns. Both touchdowns were thrown to Williams’ coverage responsibility in man coverage. Williams also caught Cousins’ only interception, which he returned for a touchdown, but it was a gift that resulted from a miscommunication between the quarterback and wide receiver Stefon Diggs.

Both Williams and Apple had penalty issues throughout the game as well, as Williams was flagged for illegal contact and pass interference once and Apple was called for pass interference twice.

The clip below is Williams’ attempt to cover wide receiver Adam Thielen on the goal line. Simply put, this is all kinds of bad. His feet instantly get wide, which impairs him from being able to change direction. He bites hard on Thielen’s first move allowing him to come wide open in the middle for an easy touchdown. Williams can be easily manipulated and allows receivers to get quick separation on cuts. The Bengals can take advantage of him.

Apple is always playing loose, which may be an indicator that he lacks confidence that he can stay on top of routes. On the clip below, he is really high in his back pedal and has to adjust to make a cut. He reads the receiver’s break, but rather than cutting with the receiver, he basically catches him on his stem.

This allows Aldrick Robinson to get plenty of separation to make the catch. His poor technique makes him susceptible to fast breaking routes. He plays loose, opening him up to deep comeback routes, but he can also get beat vertically.

Wide receiver John Ross is back in practice this week and could have a field day against Apple. The Bengals can also use Tyler Boyd and C.J. Uzomah in the slot to get a size mismatch against the 6’0” Williams.

A quick wide receiver like Alex Erickson will have a major advantage over either of these defenders — as would running backs Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard if they positioned them out wide.

The Bengals can get the matchups they want in a number of ways, but the Saints adjusting to this shift will give the Bengals an interesting option. As the Vikings shift their running backs out, Lattimore goes to the outside leaving Diggs in the slot in order to cover a running back.

Lattimore does not adjust this way when a play motions outside from a receiver position, but this shift to empty bumps him out. The Bengals could utilize a similar shift to waste the Saints best pass defender and create multiple favorable matchups in other areas.

The Bengals can exploit Williams and Apple with a wide variety of routes including slants, whips, digs, and deep comebacks. They should also utilize man coverage-beating concepts such as the mesh concept and getting their running backs involved in the passing game.

The Saints are first in the league in rushing defense, but they can also be exploited with the use of deception. The Saints often bite hard on play action. The clip below is a flea-flicker in which that the entire left side of the Saints defense commits to the run and Thielen is wide open.

The Saints have only one loss this season and it came in Week 1, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense put up 48 points on them. This team is beatable, but it will take an incredible offensive performance. If they capitalize on these glaring issues in their defense, we could see a shootout in Cincinnati this Sunday.