No, scratch that. The Bengals collected their first loss of the season in Week 3 on the legs of Christian McCaffrey. The second-year running back had a breakout performance running the ball 28 times for 184 yards. What really did the Bengals in though was the explosive plays.
In the running game, an explosive play is any run of 8 yards or more. McCaffrey had 9 explosive runs on the day, including one he took for 45 yards. In fact, if you removed these 9 plays from McCaffrey’s stat line, he would have had a very pedestrian 19 runs for 44 yards. This article will examine how the Bengals gave up so many explosive plays to McCaffrey.
The Bengals forced a three-and-out on the Panthers first drive, but on their second drive McCaffrey had two explosive runs. and quarterback Cam Newton topped the drive off with a touchdown run.
In the clip below, defensive linemen and linebackers are all in their proper run fits to the front side. Left defensive end Jordan Willis is the quarterback player. He is slow playing the run action because he has to contain Newton if he keeps the ball on the boot.
Once he sees that Newton doesn’t have the ball, he needs to pursue the run. He meanders in that direction but is not fast enough to prevent McCaffrey’s cut back and a 13-yard gain.
Obviously, this is a zone read play rather than a bootleg, but Sam Hubbard gives a good example of what Willis should have done above. Hubbard is responsible for the quarterback, but once he sees the ball is handed off he pursues and tackles the ball carrier. This is a short gain that could have turned into an explosive play if Hubbard had not played it so well.
This is really good by Hubbard pic.twitter.com/u2DeDEh4DZ— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) September 26, 2018
On the very next play, the Panthers put the Bengals defense in a difficult position. As the guard pulls around, the Bengals linebackers fill properly with Nick Vigil playing outside the puller and Hardy Nickerson inside the puller.
When Panthers tight end Ian Thomas comes around from his h-back position, it creates a gap that the Bengals defense cannot account for. Nickerson fits to Thomas’ outside, creating the cutback lane.
Ideally, Bengals nickelback Darqueze Dennard should slide into the box and become the cutback player, but he is the pitch player on the option, so that action keeps him outside. In this scenario, Nickerson needs to defeat his block and make a play and in a worse case scenario Shawn Williams needs to take a better angle and make the tackle for a 10-12 yard gain.
Instead, thanks to a great effort by Jessie Bates III, McCaffrey is pushed out of bounds after a career-high 45-yard run.
Once again the cutback player is not where he should be pic.twitter.com/6neRspiHmV— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) September 26, 2018
The Bengals defense fits up well on the front side of this play, and Nickerson does a great job of reading the cutback. Unfortunately, he his execution is poor. Nickerson is in good position to make the tackle for a short gain, but he stops his feet on contact and as a result he gets run over running back who he outweighs by 30 lbs. McCaffrey gains 11 yards on the run.
This is what happens when you stop your feet on contact pic.twitter.com/w74lIynv9r— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) September 26, 2018
This is unfortunate timing for the Bengals, as they have defensive tackle Geno Atkins stunting into the A gap, essentially blocking himself. This creates two open gaps side-by-side which breaks a cardinal rule of defense.
Presumably, Willis, who is lined up head up on the tight end, is supposed to be responsible for the C gap, but he is double teamed and does not get in the gap. This creates a perfect situation for the Panthers, who are pulling two blockers around on the counter play.
Nickerson should take on this block with outside leverage, because he doesn’t and Willis doesn’t get in the C gap, a seam opens up for McCaffrey. If he had, the Bengals still would have been in trouble because Vigil was getting destroyed on his block. Both backers need improvement disengaging from blocks. McCaffrey takes this carry for 11 yards.
Impressive cut by McCaffrey pic.twitter.com/QMUikWkrjN— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) September 26, 2018
On the very next play, McCaffrey runs for 19 yards. Likely frustrated and trying to make a play, Atkins works to the backside of the tackle’s reach block. This compromises the gap integrity of the entire defense and creates a huge cutback lane for McCaffrey.
Geno Atkins does his own thing here and it hurts the defense pic.twitter.com/OSUuBD0xmt— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) September 26, 2018
The game is now in the 4th quarter. So far, McCaffrey has rushed the ball 19 times and has had 5 explosive carries. He carries the ball 9 times in the 4th quarter, and 4 of them are explosive plays.
Clearly, the Panthers have worn down the Bengals’ defensive front during the course of the game. On this play, both Nickerson and Jordan Evans are not blocked and read the cutback well. Unfortunately, both lunge at McCaffrey rather than stepping in to the tackle and as a result he is able to stumble forward and gain 8 yards on the run. If either had taken another step, they may have been able to stop him for a 4 or 5-yard gain.
Nickerson and Evans need to bring him down for 4 here and not let him stumble for 4 more pic.twitter.com/PuLU4mNnJ4— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) September 26, 2018
The Panthers block this toss play very well. The Bengals set a strong edge defensively and due a pretty good job in pursuit. Defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow does a great job of getting out there on what would unfortunately be the last play of his season.
Vigil does a good job of pursuing from the backside but is just a step to slow to make the play, and McCaffrey is able to gain 8 yards on the run. Vigil, on this play, is paired with Evans, and Nickerson on the play above demonstrate that the Bengals' linebacking corps lacks the speed it needs.
If Vigil was a step quicker this would be a great play pic.twitter.com/e9z4Nu6adL— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) September 26, 2018
Nickerson takes a bad first step here and can’t seem to decide if he wants to play the front side A gap or the backside B gap here, so instead of doing either, he runs into the back of defensive tackle Andrew Billings. Nickerson should be filling the A gap, which is where McCaffrey runs the ball for a gain of 11 yards.
Vigil is the B gap player here. He steps to the gap but bounces out quickly to pursue Newton. This is not his play, as Willis is the quarterback player. This move gets Vigil blocked and prevents him from pursuing McCaffrey. If Nickerson had filled the A gap, McCaffrey likely would have cut back and Vigil would not have been there.
Nickerson and Vigil look lost on this play pic.twitter.com/blw9CNdmTz— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) September 26, 2018
This is exactly what Vigl did above, and this time, he pays for it as McCaffrey runs for 10 yards. Vigil loops outside to play the quarterback on the zone read, but this is not his responsibility, and he leaves the B gap wide open. Nickerson fills the A gap on the front side as he should, and McCaffrey cuts the ball back to the gap the Vigil has vacated.
Someone has to play the B gap pic.twitter.com/10sx6Cp0Bg— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) September 26, 2018
Without Vontaze Burfict and Preston Brown, the Bengals struggled greatly against the run in Week 3. The trio of Vigil, Nickerson, and Evans were defeated with strength and speed and made bad reads. The explosive plays that the Bengals gave up to McCaffrey were the difference in this game. The Bengals will need improved play from their linebackers if they hope to get back on track.