Following an embarrassing performance against the Ravens, the Bengals’ defense faced a much different offensive attack in the Raiders. Under the direction of head coach Jon Gruden and his old school mentality, the Raiders’ offense institutes a plethora of heavy formations that don’t disguise their intentions: they want to run the football.
The Bengals’ preparations for this game likely matched how they prepared for their first game of this season against the Seahawks. Though the offenses aren’t exactly the same, their identities resemble each other. They want to run the ball with using as little deception as possible—clearly distinguishing themselves from the Ravens’ option attack that tore apart the Bengals twice this season.
In that game in Seattle, the Bengals deployed a 5-2 defensive front for the first time to combat the Seahawks’ downhill run-first offense. For most of the game, it was a successful endeavor, and provided role players along the defensive line opportunities to prove their worth, including Josh Tupou.
In his third season in Cincinnati, Tupou was one of the 11 defensive lineman and six defensive tackles to make the final roster. His stellar preseason performance made him a no-brainer for the Bengals to hold onto; the only issue became how to give him an appropriate amount of opportunities.
Tupou has primarily been a nose tackle in his professional career, and with Andrew Billings and rookie fourth-round pick Renell Wren, that already devalued position became quickly crowded over the offseason. Since they’ve been light on linebackers this season, the Bengals’ emphasis to maximize their defensive line talent became evident and opened new roles for players who have earned them. For Tupou, it’s been nothing short of a blessing.
In this new scheme, we’ve seen it place Tupou all over the defensive line. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, there isn’t a specific position on the line of scrimmage Tupou hasn’t played. True nose tackle over the center? Check. 2i inside the guard? Check. 3-technique? Check. 5-technique? Check. He’s not only been a versatile piece for this specialized odd-front, he’s been an asset at each position.
Sunday was no different for the third-year player as he went on to play 38 snaps and record five solo tackles, four defensive stops, and one tackle for loss. His outstanding performance even earned him the highest run defense grade given out by PFF for Week 11 (91.7). A game like that deserves further examination:
The quality of this outing is further supported by the quality of talent Tupou was facing. The Raiders have been an above average run blocking offensive line that still ranks 13th in power success (67%) a fifth in stuff percentage (15%) according to Football Outsiders. Names like Gabe Jackson, Rodney Hudson, Trent Brown and even Richie Incognito make up the unit and it has been paving the way for Josh Jacobs to run right into Rookie of the Year honors.
Tupou looked like a force they haven’t seen before this season. The only other defender to put up a PFF run defense grade of at least 90 against this line was J.J. Watt, and even he only had one defensive stop in that game.
The downside to Tupou’s game is that he doesn’t threaten any offensive lineman as a pass rusher, and that’s why he was only on the field for 11 passing downs. But with the way Carl Lawson and Geno Atkins were playing, they didn’t need Tupou to be any more than what he is.
And while this performance was by far the best of Tupou’s short career, it’s not like it came out of nowhere. Only Sam Hubbard has more defensive stops per snap than Tupou on the defensive line, and only nine others have a higher run defense grade this season for players with three or less years of experience.
Player development is not always linear, but for Tupou’s case, things are starting to consistently click right when they’re supposed to.