One thing was clear about the Bengals’ defense in their first preseason game: their first unit was not ready to play.
It was not that they were out of shape or didn’t know their scheme; it was that they seemed to be just walking through the motions. Lackadaisical is probably the best word for it and that is one of the worst things you can say about a team. There were definitely some good performances from some of their young players, but the first group was uninspiring.
There are several reasons why this may have happened. The first game can be tough for the defense (and the offensive line for that matter) because in practice they are constantly retrained and now they are being told to go all out.
They have a new head coach and defensive coordinator and were traveling for the first time as a group. Team travel throws off everyone’s schedule and the procedure for it could have changed under Zac Taylor. This was probably not the first thing that Taylor thought about when taking his first head coaching job, and may require adjustment.
Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo certainly failed to get his unit fired up on Saturday. This is not exactly an easy task in the preseason. How do you motivate a starter to go all out for one drive or one quarter? He needs to figure it out before the next game, because this defense is not going to improve without a better, more-focused effort.
Outside of a handful of guys, the Bengals defense looked disengaged. They were not focused and seemed to just be going through the motions.
Here is a great example of an infuriating clip. On this play, safety Shawn Williams is faced with the extremely difficult task of covering Travis Kelce. Even though it is the preseason, something like this should excite a player. This is a chance to compete against the league’s best; to prove your metal. Williams however is just going through the motions.
He seems to not even notice as the ball goes by him, and when he finally turns around he is in no rush to tackle Kelce. He just continues to jog alongside him without a trace of urgency.
It was concerning to see Clayton Fejedelem leave the game with an ankle injury. Fejedelem plays a huge role on special teams, but he is also a versatile safety who can play a lot of different roles on defense.
Brandon Wilson has also been very important to the special teams units, and in this game he showed versatility on defense that matched Fejedelem’s. Wilson lined up in the box, spread out wide cover a receiver man-to-man, and on this clip he gets an interception playing a deep field zone. If there was any question about the value that Wilson brings to this defense, it was silenced on Saturday.
Moving to the cornerback position, there were a few strong performances. B.W. Webb did some good things in his Bengals’ premiere, but it was Darius Phillips who really stood out.
Here he is in man coverage against wide receiver Byron Pringle. He is running stride for stride with Pringle, but what is most impressive are his eyes. This is a great film angle that shows his laser-focus on the receiver. As Pringle’s eye go up, Phillips turns to look for the ball and despite taking a shot to the face he is able to breakup the pass. This is a job well done by Phillips.
Darius Phillips had a really good night on defense— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) August 12, 2019
Great coverage to prevent the TD here pic.twitter.com/G0XxnO2I2x
Andrew Brown has gotten a lot of reps rushing the edge during camp, and he got a chance to do the same in live action during the Chiefs’ two-minute drill on Saturday. Not only did he get off the ball fast, he was extremely active with his pass rushes and was constantly moving his hands.
Here he uses a club/punch move to make short work of right tackle Pace Murphy but the quarterback is able to step forward and escape.
Andrew Brown rushing the edge pic.twitter.com/eys5jwnWOd— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) August 12, 2019
A little later in the game Brown got a chance to play on the inside. This is where he belongs. The team has been in need of an interior pass rusher to pair with Geno Atkins for a long time, and Brown could be that guy. He and Carl Lawson paired with Atkins and Carlos Dunlap could make for an excellent nickel package.
Brown shows great speed here, and is essentially in the gap before the guard can even react. This is exactly the kind of change up that you want from an interior pass rusher who will likely be subbing in for the much slower Andrew Billings. His speed is magnified by the offensive line having faced Billings previously. Brown gets the sack and forces the Chiefs to punt.
Linebacker is obviously the biggest question mark for the Bengals defensively. In recent years the Bengals linebackers have lacked athleticism and struggled in coverage. This year’s third-round selection Germaine Pratt did some good things, but did not stand out the way you hope he would (particularly after all the praise Pittsburgh’s Devin Bush got the night before).
In this clip, Hardy Nickerson does an excellent job in zone coverage. He reads the quarterback and makes an athletic play for an interception on an admittedly poorly thrown ball.
This next clip however was not a good look for Nickerson. He is in man coverage with running back Darwin Thompson and gives up a reception over the middle that results in a touchdown.
Hardy Nickerson gives up a TD pic.twitter.com/kv5O1UAjWS— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) August 12, 2019
His biggest problem here is his technique, not his athleticism. As the ball is snapped, Nickerson starts running to his left. As Thompson lowers his hips, indicating he is about to break, Nickerson does the same. The problem is that Thompson’s hips are square to the line of scrimmage and Nickerson’s are pointed to the sidelines. So Thompson could be cutting outside or in, but because Nickerson’s hips are pointed to the sideline, he is only prepared to cover an out-breaking route.
When Thompson cuts inside, Nickerson is slow to adjust. This is not about athletic ability or mental processing; it is because his hips are pointed in the wrong direction so instead of just turning 90 degrees to the right, he is turning all the way around.
He is able to use his left hand and get close to making a play on the ball, but he does not get his right hand around to secure the tackle. Nickerson loses the resulting footrace and gives up a touchdown.
A lot of people, myself included, had very high hopes for Malik Jefferson, but he continues to struggle to understand the game.
One important rule of playing underneath zone coverage is that if there is a route in front of you, there is a route behind you. Jefferson is the middle linebacker here and moves with the short crosser coming from the left side of the screen. Meanwhile. tight end Deon Yelder has come from the right side and hitched up over the middle.
Rather than chasing the crosser, Jefferson should have dropped off directly under this route and because he doesn’t the play results in a touchdown.
The Bengals had a lot of struggles defensively, but there were some bright spots as well. Phillips and Brown were definitely bright spots, but the team desperately needs their linebackers to step up. With a quick turnaround this week, they will need to get focused and excited to have a better outing in round two.