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Bengals Weekly Lineman: Feeble third-down pass rush falls flat vs. Colts

A preconceived mismatch between the Bengals and Colts turned into the biggest difference in Cincinnati’s Week 6 defeat.

Cincinnati Bengals v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Cincinnati Bengals can argue that with a few individual events turning out differently, they would possess a winning record through six weeks. It’s an optimistic take, but it’s not backed up by any sensible reasoning.

Bad football teams can expose themselves in many ways; there isn’t one singular method in doing so.

The Bengals’ way? Galactic inconsistency.

During last two weeks, we’ve seen two completely different defenses sporting the orange and black. Last week against the Baltimore Ravens, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s unit held the Ravens scoreless on six-straight drives and limited one of the best quarterbacks in the game to under 200 total yards and -0.11 expected points added per play.

That performance provided a glimpse of hope entering their matchup with the Indianapolis Colts. From Weeks 4-5, Colts quarterback Philip Rivers was Pro Football Focus’ lowest-graded QB, and other metrics didn’t help Rivers’ case. He was struggling, and the Colts’ season was teetering on the brink of falling apart.

All he needed was the right defense to return to his vintage form.

The hot topic of Rivers’ monster bounce back performance against the Bengals was his absurd second quarter showing. Rivers completed 14 of his 21 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns. That first touchdown drive was so efficient, Rivers converted every second down into a first down. The Bengals couldn’t even force a single third down after the Colts got the ball at their own 25-yard line. Funnily enough, this game showed that it probably wouldn’t have mattered.

28 teams played this past week, and while the Bengals weren’t the worst third-down defense from a first-down conversion perspective, their EPA/play allowed of 0.74 on third down was the highest from around the league, or simply, the 28th worst. They weren’t just allowing first downs, they were allowing explosive first downs.

The reality with watching football on TV is that the secondary isn’t as noticeable as the defensive line. So when Rivers was wheeling and dealing at will, the Bengals’ pass rush—or their lack of—was center stage for all us gasbags to witness. Rivers was sacked just once during this game, and it came from the guy they had just signed last week.

Was it all on the defensive line not winning their blocks, was the secondary more culpable, or was Anarumo’s squad just ill-equipped to do anything against a well put together offensive line? These were the questions in my mind as I put on the tape of all nine of Rivers’ third-down pass attempts.

The Bengals’ best pass rushers were reserved solely for third-down usage, and such a decision has garnered an immense amount of attention this week. While Geno Atkins has expressed his displeasure for being regulated as a sub-package player internally, Carlos Dunlap has expressed his displeasure internally and externally.

Still, both of them had plenty of opportunities to pressure Rivers, and neither one of them had any part in the few instances when the defense got Rivers off the field.

This was a mismatch on paper. The Colts’ offensive line is one of the very best at pass protection in the NFL and they were facing the Bengals’ most depleted position group. A trio of Amani Bledsoe, Christian Covington, and Xavier Williams isn’t supposed to combine for 65 pass-rushing snaps in a Week 6 game.

Then there’s the Rivers aspect. His average time of release of 2.38 seconds was critical in negating any pass-rush the Bengals had. Only seven other quarterbacks from Week 6 had a quick average time of release. This alone doesn’t let the defensive line off the hook, though. When Rivers held onto the ball for more than 2.5 seconds, he completed 11 of his 15 passes and had a passer rating of 109; the third-highest this week for quarterbacks with at least 10 throws after holding the ball that long.

As we discussed in the video, the secondary was at fault as well. Rivers simply identified holes in the zone coverages the Bengals were deploying behind their three or sometimes four-man rushes. And when they tried man coverage, Rivers was still throwing receivers open.

Why didn’t the Bengals blitz more? How could they when they can’t trust their secondary for more than two seconds?

This lose-lose reality is difficult to comprehend when you remember how dominant the defense was in the first period and from the entire previous game. It seemed like once the Colts realized they didn’t need to run the ball, all of their problems were solved. How’d the Bengals adjust? Not very well.

When this defense is limited to this personnel and this coaching staff, they simply can’t be trusted on any given week.