The Bengals’ issues at linebacker pre-date this season by a good amount. In the third round of this year’s NFL Draft they selected Germaine Pratt out of North Carolina State. Pratt represented the one meaningful addition to their linebacking corps, but despite the struggles that Nick Vigil and Preston Brown have had, the Bengals have been slow to work Pratt in on defense.
I’d like to say that the coaches finally decided to give the rookie a chance, but that is not the case. The decision to play Pratt more was a function of the team’s game plan. Against Baltimore, the Bengals had three linebackers on the field much more often than in previous weeks. This was to counter the use of a fullback and/or multiple tight ends by the Ravens. Pratt was generally the third linebacker on the field, but he was occasionally replaced by LaRoy Reynolds.
After playing no more than a dozen snaps in each of the team’s earlier games, Pratt was on the field for 31 plays, which accounted for nearly 40% of the team’s defensive snaps against the Ravens. Despite this still relatively low snap-count, Pratt was third on the team with six tackles, even beating out Brown who took more than 70% of defensive reps.
Let’s take a look at some of Pratt’s best plays.
The clip above was the first play of the game for the Ravens offensively and Pratt set the tone with a tackle for no gain.
Being a rookie, one argument against playing Pratt could be that he doesn’t know his reads and keys and as a result he won’t be able to play fast, but on this play it is Pratt, not Vigil or Brown who takes the steps first.
He fills the B-gap with speed and makes a sure tackle.
Cincinnati’s linebackers have been too tentative throughout the season. They need to make a quick read and move with speed to beat blocks. Pratt does an excellent job with this.
Throughout the beginning of the season, the linebackers have struggled to adapt to motion. They struggle to process how their reads and responsibilities change on the fly, but this does not seem to be an issue for Pratt.
In the clip above, the Ravens send a man in motion and Pratt, Brown, Vigil, and Shawn Williams all adjust. When the ball is snapped on the fly, Pratt doesn’t miss a beat. He reads the Power play and fills the gap with great speed.
Unfortunately, he gets tripped up and falls down in the hole. This could be the function of him playing a bit high, or it could simply be bad luck.
Once again Pratt shows that he is an excellent run defender on this play. He stays focused and adapts to the changing situation. Now he just needs to stay on his feet.
The Bengals have been extremely weak on the edges throughout the year with linebackers and defensive backs alike failing to engage properly on lead blockers and force the ball to cut back.
Pratt however does an excellent job at just that in the clip above. He sprints to the edge and engages with the tackle who has pulled to the outside. He keeps his outside arm free in case the ball bounces wide, but pressures the tackle to constrict the running lane.
Seeing that Pratt has penetrated the backfield and set a strong edge, the running back cuts back... way back. He heads all the way from the other sideline and is eventually tackled by a pair of Bengals
Notice who gets there just as the tackle is made? It’s Pratt who has come all the way from the other side of the field. This shows great hustle and speed on his part.
The clip above is a touchdown for the Ravens, which is obviously not good, but Pratt does an excellent job of playing assignment football.
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is running to the right, but that is no matter to Pratt. He is responsible for the dive on this option play. He looks to fill and engages with the offensive guard. When he sees that the ball is breaking to the outside, he shows an excellent burst of speed in pursuit, but unfortunately it is not enough.
In the clip above, Pratt takes a false step, and it slows him down just enough that the offensive lineman is able to get up to him.
He steps forward, almost hopping up, before making his read and pursuing to the left. Safety Brandon Wilson actually fills where Pratt should be, but being aligned wider than Pratt, he is too late. Pratt scrapes and chases down Ravens running back Mark Ingram tackling him after a 12-yard gain.
Pratt’s reactions and focus seem to be much better than his veteran counterparts at linebacker, but he still needs to work on consistency. The best way to do this is getting a lot of reps. One advantage to playing young guys, is that they tend to get better with time and practice.
Pass coverage is the area where the Bengals linebackers have struggled the most. While the strength of Pratt’s play is defending the run, he played safety for his first two seasons in college and is not without skill in coverage.
In the clip above, he does a good job of matching up man-to-man with the running back. He is certainly not ready to match up with Christian McCaffrey or Alvin Kamara, but he looks pretty good and certainly much better than any other Bengals linebacker.
The Bengals are winless and the season is all but lost. There is no reason not to give young players a chance. Linebacker was a huge need for the Bengals in the offseason and still is. Pratt could be the answer. He may make some mistakes and give up some plays, but Brown and Vigil are already doing that so why not go with the guy who is a better athlete and as a rookie is likely to improve with time and repetition.