Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers coaching staff should be given a lot of credit. They created a game plan that took advantage of flaws in the Bengals defense scheme and personnel.
The linebackers’ failure to read the offense and react with speed and the inability of the defense to contain the edge played a big part in the team’s demise.
Let’s take a look at what went wrong, shall we?
A TE and a Wing to the right with WJIII’s out there apparently responsible for both gaps— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) September 17, 2019
Not surprisingly the cutback goes for 34 yards pic.twitter.com/gSLFBKbNhJ
This picture is from the first half when the 49ers found themselves in a 3rd and 1 situation. The Bengals have compressed their defensive line, selling out to stop the run in the A and B Gaps. The problem is that this makes their edges extremely soft. The linebackers can flow, to a wide run, but there is nobody there to set a hard edge, so the ball carrier is free to run as wide as he’s like.
Running back Matt Breida runs to the left initially, and the defense crashes in to stop it. Then the running back cuts back to the right. There are two gaps outside of the tight end and the only defender is William Jackson III whose shadow is barely viable in this picture. He is not the type of player who should be holding an edge, and proves it by missing the tackle. Breida takes the ball 34 yards before he is brought down.
There are a few major problems with this. The first is how unsound the defense is. A basic run of defense is that there must be someone to defend every gap. The presence of the h-back creates a gap that they are not defending.
The second is how poor their edges are. They need someone there who can be physical and prevent the ball from going outside. It is best to have a defensive end and an off-the-ball player there, but that is not always possible.
Here, they only have an off-the-ball player, and it is not one who is suited for this role. Jackson and Dre Kirkpatrick were put into this position multiple times and were unsurprisingly unsuccessful. Even safety Shawn Williams struggled on the edge.
Finally it is 3rd and 1 in the 1st half. They should not be selling out defensively to prevent the first down. Why? Because exactly what happened could happen.
On 3rd and 1 the offense has the advantage. It is highly likely that they will be able to pick up the first down. Obviously, the defense should try to prevent it, but they can’t overcommit to preventing a 1-yard gain and give up a touchdown (or in this case a 34-yard gain). They need to play sound defense and if they give up the first down, come back and compete for 3 more downs.
The Bengals’ defensive edge looked particularly bad against single width formations (formations with no one split out wide on one side) and it hurt them more than once.
This clip is a great example. George Kittle is the tight end at the top of the screen. He is standing up, but still aligned in a tight end’s position. This should set off alarms for the defense right away. Why is he there and standing straight up? He is there to block down on the defensive end for the outside run. Williams is the only player outside of him. Offensive lineman Joe Staley pulls around to block Williams and there is nothing but turf between running back Raheem Mostert and the endzone.
He never gets to the edge because Geno Atkins is a beast. He penetrated the backfield and forced the cutback. However the linebackers were blocked and Williams missed a tackle so the play still leads to a touchdown (which a holding penalty negates).
On this play, Williams lines up in the box. The Bengals have Carlos Dunlap on the right edge with Jackson outside of him.
The running back steps to the left and Preston Brown and Nick Vigil both react. Dunlap comes up field off the ball. He is not bending hard on this play and instead looks to be responsible for backside contain. The h-back is coming across from the other side of the formation. Between this and the back’s initial footwork, it appears to be an inside zone play (see the following clip), but the h-back does not kick out on Dunlap like he would on inside zone. Instead he runs right over the top of him.
After his initial steps, the running back bent and took the handoff on the right. The h-back has essentially blocked Dunlap by putting himself between Dunlap and the rusher but remains free to pick up another block down field. Williams stays idle on the snap and falls victim to a crack block. Jackson is running in coverage with the player who cracked Williams and now there is no one on the edge.
This was a huge gain for the 49ers that happened for a few different reasons. First, Dunlap should have taken on the h-back and physically to set an edge, rather than running underneath him. Second, the linebackers need to see past the running back’s first step and react.
Vigil never seems to see the running back take off in the other direction. Brown sees it, but is slow to react. Williams, is lined up at linebacker and makes no effort to fill before he is blocked. Finally, when the receiver cracks, Jackson needs to replace and become the force player.
This was a really good call by Shanahan pic.twitter.com/RMtSch1hVQ— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) September 17, 2019
The linebacker play was bad overall. The athletic ability of Brown and Vigil certainly played a role, but they also seem to be lost in this new defense.
People often talk about a linebacker’s “instincts.” I don’t like that term because it implies that good linebackers have a natural nose for the ball. That is not really the case. It’s not about their nose for the ball, it’s about their eyes.
Linebackers have reads. It may be the running back, h-back, fullback or even the offensive guard. They will have an initial read that they should have a reaction to as well as a secondary read that will either tell them to continue their first action or change direction and do something else.
For instance if his initial read is the running back and the running back steps towards him, he will think that the ball is being run his way, but if his secondary read is the offensive guard and the guard pulls away from him, the linebacker will know that it is a counter and pursue the run away from him.
Both Brown and Vigil were slow to react to their secondary reads throughout the game. Brown at least made chase when he finally recognized what is going on, but Vigil just seemed to freeze and wait to get blocked.
Brown also struggled with pre-snap movement by the offense. As the formation changed he would move but it often appeared that he was no longer sure what his role was. He would be slower to react when the ball was snapped.
There was also a palpable tentativeness to play the run. In this clip Vigil is so slow to react that he is blocked by the backside guard. Brown just sits back and lets the play develop rather than attacking it down hill. These two are not particularly fast. They need to make their reads, trust their reads, and go full speed or they won’t have a chance.
Speaking of not shooting gaps, check out these pictures of Vigil. The play is going wide to the right side. In this situation, the linebackers should scrap, but when they see a gap, they should run through it.
Vigil needs to shoot this gap— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) September 17, 2019
He doesn't, and gets washed out setting up the cutback pic.twitter.com/5M3GppHl9O
The first picture shows where Vigil should have run through the gap. The second shows that the rest of the defense set the edge and the running back found that very gap to cut back in. By this time, Vigil was too wide to make the play.
Vigil could have made a tackle for a loss, but instead he gives up a good gain on the ground.
This is a bear front with nose tackle lined up head up on the center and a defensive tackle outside shoulder of each guard. The intent of this defense is to prevent the offensive line from getting to the linebacker and allow them to flow freely.
The full back is the lead blocker as the run goes to the right. Both Vigil and Brown actually react pretty fast to this, but there is one problem. The play goes to Vigil’s side. He needs to get to the outside of the full back’s block and force the running back to cut back inside. Brown needs to be just inside of the full back’s block awaiting the cutback.
Brown gets where he needs to be, but Vigil does not. The running back continues outside of the full back’s block for a big gain.
One LB was where he needed to be, the other was not pic.twitter.com/sDn16mISf9— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) September 17, 2019
Shanahan and the 49ers did a great job of preparing for the Bengals. They realized that the Bengals’ linebackers were slow to react to secondary reads and lacked the speed to get to the edge. As a result they ran plays like this that are meant to cut back to the edge on the side opposite of the initial action.
The defensive end on the left side stunts into the B Gap and Williams comes off of the edge. Instead of taking on the block from the h-back, he tries to go around it. This is a mistake. The running back simply cuts into the huge hole that Williams has created.
Both Vigil and Brown work to the right with the running back’s initial steps. When he finally realizes that the ball is cutting back to the left, Vigil stops his feet and before he can really adjust, the backside guard is blocking him. Brown reacts a bit faster, but now he has to go over the block on Vigil in pursuit of the ball. He gets to the ball carrier after he has picked up 12 yards.
This play demonstrates the main problems that this article has focused on. The edge player is not holding the edge and the linebackers are slow to react to their secondary reads.
Vigil runs with the jet motion here. This is not the only time this happens, so it appears to not be a mistake on his part, but how they are being taught to react to jet motion. Anyway, it cause some issues.
First, the 49ers pull their guard around and he leads up the hole. If Vigil was still there, he would fit up outside of the puller which would allow Brown to fit to the inside (similar to how they should have fit on the fullback lead blocking in an earlier clip). With Vigil in the wind, that leaves only Brown.
The other problem is that with Vigil out of the box, it changes Brown’s responsibilities against the run, and as was discussed above, Brown is slow to understand how the defense changes with motion. So now Brown is the only one left to fit in the gap but he is slow to react and fill.
Again, this was great game planning by Shanahan and co. He understood that the jet motion would get Vigil out of the box and that Brown would be slow to adjust.
The jet motion got them here pic.twitter.com/fi4Ftl3ed6— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) September 18, 2019
The Bengals have a lot of problems on defense. Yes, they need to upgrade their personnel, particularly at linebacker and safety, but these are the same players they had last year and they look exponentially worse.
The defensive scheme is creating problems particularly on the edge. It is also putting players in positions that do not mesh with their skillset. For example, Jackson and Kirkpatrick are not good enough tacklers to hold the defense’s edge in the run game. They are Cover 3/Cover 1 cornerbacks who should generally not be involved in the run-fits. Some tweaks should be made to make the scheme more sound and appropriate to the skill set of the players.
They also may need to simplify things to make the linebackers more comfortable. As things change on the field, the linebackers are not reacting fast enough. This could be misdirection or even just a pre-snap shift or motion. It is because they are not processing what is going on in front of them. They need simple “if then” reads that will allow them to move confidently.
Only minor changes can be made to their personnel issues in season. Germaine Pratt should be given an opportunity to replace Vigil and Brandon Wilson and Clayton Fejedelem should get a chance at Williams’ spot. Both positions should be reevaluated before free agency.
The defense has a lot of issues that are not going to be fixed overnight. Hopefully this game is a wakeup fall that prompts some change in scheme and gets this unit to focus on getting better.