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Film Room: What to know about the Bengals defense in 2020

Everything you need to know about the Bengals’ defensive schemes, formations and strategy for the 2020 season.

NFL: AUG 30 Bengals Training Camp Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There has been a lot of talk about the Bengals’ defensive scheme.

They had some struggles last season, but they ran some interesting concepts and added talented rookies and free agents this offseason.

Let’s take a look at the Bengals’ main defensive packages.


The clip above shows the Bengals in their nickel defense.

The defense features 4 defensive linemen and 2 linebackers, but “nickel” gets its name from the presence of a 5th defensive back called the slot corner or the nickelback.

You know How You Remind Me and everyone else around you that nickel is base in the modern NFL?

Well, it is true.

When it comes to personnel groupings, this one is the Rockstar of the NFL with all others Far Away by comparison.

This was the primary defensive personnel group that they ran in 2019, when they spent over half of the time in nickel.

The Bengals brought in Mackensie Alexander to be their slot corner. With Trae Waynes on IR, one interesting thing to watch for in the first game is if Alexander stays on the field and plays outside cornerback when the team is in a 4 defensive back defense.

3-Defensive Tackle Defenses

I heard Lou Anarumo use this term recently, and I love it.

There has been a lot of talk about the Bengals 3-4 defense, but there has also been some confusion as well.

“3-4” by definition means 3 defensive linemen and 4 linebackers, but at the beginning of last season the Bengals only had 4 linebackers on the entire roster.

I was a little confused myself.

I first learned defense through the Monte Kiffin system, which biased me to see things from the 4-3 perspective. In Kiffin’s defense there is an “Under” front where one of the linebackers walks up onto the line of scrimmage to play the edge.

When I was the Bengals using Sam Hubbard in this way, my first thought was that Hubbard was being used as a 4-3 Under outside linebacker.

At the end of the day, I was right that they were running under and using him as a linebacker, but their other defensive ends were being used in this way too.

Strictly speaking, the Bengals are running a 5-2, in that there are 5 defensive linemen and 2 linebackers on the field, but the defensive ends are being used like 3-4 outside linebackers.

Which brings me back to the title of this section. “3-defensive tackle defenses” is a much more straightforward term to describe it.

When the Bengals want to switch from the nickel to the 3 defensive tackle defense, the slot corner (or possibly another corner) runs off the field and an extra defensive tackle comes on the field.

This is why the Mike Daniels signing was huge. He is not just there to give Geno Atkins a breather. He, Atkins, and D.J. Reader will be on the field together at times.

3 defensive tackles was the Bengals second most common defensive personnel group last season.

They primarily run 3 fronts out of it: under, bear, and eagle. Let’s take a quick look at each.


Under was the defense that I referenced earlier. You can run it out of a 4-3 defense of a 3 defensive tackle defense and the alignments don’t change.

In this example, Hubbard is standing up on the right edge. Inside of him there is 5 technique defensive tackle (outside of the offensive tackle), a 2i defensive tackle (inside of the strong side guard), and a 3 technique defensive tackle (outside of the weak side offensive guard). Also on the weak side is Carl Lawson, who is standing up on the edge just like Hubbard.

This defense leaves 1 A-gap and 1 B-gap open for the linebackers to fill (a quality it shares with most 4-3 and nickel defensive alignments). This differentiates under from bear and eagle.


A defining characteristic of the bear defense is a 0 technique (head up on the center) and 2 B-gap defensive tackles.

Combined with Lawson and Carlos Dunlap standing up on the edge, this makes it very hard for an offensive lineman to get to the second level to block a linebacker. As a result, this defense is very linebacker friendly.

Both B-gaps are filled and theoretically both A-gaps are closed by the nose tackle. This should force the ball out wide and allow the linebackers to scrape and make the tackle.


The eagle front is very similar to the bear front, but instead of playing head up on the center, the nose tackle is in the strong side A-gap.

This allows the strong side middle linebacker to scrape quickly on strong side runs just like in a bear front, but the weak side middle linebacker must look for the A-gap cutback.


The third-most common defensive personnel group for the Bengals in 2019 was dime. Remember that nickle added a fifth defensive back. The next coin after a nickle is a dime, so when there are 6 defensive backs, we call it dime.

The extra defensive back can be a cornerback, but often last year it was a safety. This will likely be the case again in 2020, particularly once Shawn Williams is healthy.

As you may have guessed, teams get into dime in obvious passing situations.

One difference between college football and NFL football is this: In college football you see a lot of different defenses on 1st and 2nd Down, but on 3rd down, it is pretty standard. In the NFL, 1st and 2nd Down is fairly predictable, but on 3rd down, all bets are off.

Teams will play heavy in coverage at times but can also send exotic blitzes.

You can do a lot of different things out of dime, but here are a couple that I found interesting.

In this clip they are in a trey front. That means that both defensive tackles are in the B gap. In this case the defensive tackles are Hubbard and Atkins.

This is common in obvious passing situations because it gives both players a “2-way go” allowing them to rush the gap on either side of the offensive guard.

The Bengals put even more pre-snap pressure on the offense by walking a linebacker and a safety up into each A-gap.

Last year, they put Williams on the line of scrimmage a fair amount, but Vonn Bell also has the requisite skillset.

We have talked a lot about how good the rookie linebackers are in coverage, but each has shown skill as a blitzer as well.

In short, the Bengals have a lot of versatile defenders who could do some fun things in this type of defense.

The offense is being threatened with 6 potential pass rushers, but not all of these players end up rushing the quarterback. Both Lawson and Nick Vigil drop into coverage. There is however a 5th pass rusher as cornerback Darius Phillips comes off the edge.

This is another dime look, but by the definition I gave earlier, this is actually a bear defense.

Atkins is lined up head up on the center, while Dunlap and Lawson are in the B gaps. The fourth defensive linemen is Hubbard, but he is lined up at middle linebacker directly behind Atkins.

Vigil and Williams complete the defensive front as stand-up edge players.

Hubbard blitzes, but Vigil and Williams drop into coverage, so it is really only a 4-man rush.

The Bengals did some really cool things with Hubbard last year, and I expect that to continue in 2020.

The addition of Bell, Logan Wilson, Akeem Davis-Gaither, and Markus Bailey this season will make it even more fun to see what Anarumo comes up with.

The Bengals made some major personnel changes this offseason looking to get the defense back on track.

As a result, the pressure is on defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo and his staff to make this a productive unit.

The scheme will be similar to what we saw last year, but hopefully the execution is much improved.

If you want to dive deep into the Bengals’ defensive scheme, take a gander at the video below.