One of the big questions about the Bengals this offseason was “How will they incorporate these young linebackers?”
After drafting three this year, 2019 rookie Germaine Pratt is suddenly a veteran. In his rookie campaign he was given a drive here and there early in the season before taking on the starting role.
Logan Wilson is known for his ability in coverage. This is an area where the Bengals have struggled so many people thought that he would initially have a role in passing situations.
Akeem Davis-Gaither can do a lot of different things from coverage to blitzing and many hoped that the Bengals would find a way to incorporate him.
In Week 1, the Bengals gave us both.
Wilson and Davis-Gaither replaced Pratt and Josh Bynes on most third downs. This gave the pair a vital role that works to their strengths.
Let’s take a look at a few of those plays.
7:10 in the first quarter - third-and-four
Akeem Davis-Gaither on the blitz pic.twitter.com/fdaf3zCzM5— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) September 14, 2020
The Bengals lined up three defensive linemen between the tackles, They also had Wilson standing up on the offense’s left, and Carlos Dunlap standing up on the offense’s right. Carl Lawson was in the B-Gap to Wilson’s side and Davis Gaither was off the ball over the A-gap to Dunlap’s side.
On the snap, Wilson rushes off the edge, and Lawson takes a wide path towards the outside. The left guard sets wide to pick up Lawson and the nose tackle occupies the center.
This leaves a huge opening for Davis-Gaither who heads straight for the quarterback, forcing a quick and inaccurate throw.
His alignment in the opposite A-gap was a huge part of the success of this play. Because he was on the other side of the center, the left guard didn’t even think about him.
9:03 in the fourth quarter - third-and-three
Double edge blitz pic.twitter.com/AiKHiTa2J4— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) September 14, 2020
Just before the ball is snapped the right tackle points at Wilson on the edge. He is trying to ask for help.
He doesn’t get it so when he sets wide to block Wilson, Dunlap comes free inside of him.
It wouldn’t have mattered if he did get help. The Bengals were rushing 6 players and with the running back in the route, the Chargers only had 5 men to block them.
Davis-Gaither comes off the other edge. If his blitz was timed a little better he may have been in the quarterback’s face, making it difficult for him to get the ball off. This was difficult to do however because of the condensed alignment of the receivers to that side.
3:11 in the second quarter - third-and-seven
More young LBs pic.twitter.com/uu1P8Cni88— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) September 14, 2020
This play makes for a perfect play segue from our conversation about blitzing to our conversation about coverage.
Wilson blitzes off the edge on the top of the screen, forcing the quarterback, Tyrod Taylor, to step up in the pocket.
Davis-Gaither is lined up on the line of scrimmage directly in front of the running back. He may look like he is blitzing, but he is actually covering the running back man-to-man. When the running back comes across the formation to block, Davis-Gaither mirrors his movements.
4:13 in the first quarter - third-and-10
Young LBs in coverage pic.twitter.com/4vMEn7L93W— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) September 14, 2020
The Chargers have a talented pass-catching running back in Austin Ekeler and a dynamic tight end in Hunter Henry.
As a result, the biggest concern for the Bengals defense heading into this game was how they would matchup in the passing game against running backs and tight ends.
This has been a problem for the Bengals over the last few seasons. It was a problem that they hope will be solved by their young linebackers.
Ekeler was not a factor in the passing game. On this play Davis-Gaither matches up with him as he releases on the swing route.
Henry was a factor, leading the Chargers with five receptions for 73 yards, but not on this play. Wilson matched up with him on the line of scrimmage and was on him like glue throughout his route.
14:29 in the fourth quarter - third-and-four
3rd and 4 pic.twitter.com/03uiVxNt1h— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) September 14, 2020
There are three different types of Cover 2 underneath zone defenders: curl/flat players, hook/curl players, and hole players.
The curl/flat player (generally the cornerbacks in Cover 2) is progressing on No. 1. If No. 1 releases inside, the curl/flat player will not chase him, but will continue to drop off with his eyes inside, looking for another receiver coming out.
In this clip the curl/flat player at the top of the screen is William Jackson III. After the motion there is only 1 receiver on his side. This receiver releases inside. Jackson should not chase, but should be expecting another route to come his way.
The ball is long gone by this time, but you will notice that the tight end approaches the curl area at the end of the clip.
Next is the hole player, who progresses on No. 3 (the third receiver from the outside). The hole player is in the middle of the zone and will open up to the side of the No. 3 receiver. So if it is a trips formation. he opens up to the side with three receivers. If the No. 3 runs across the formation, he will not chase, but will look for another player coming in.
Davis-Gaither is the hole player in this clip. He is progressing on No. 3 so he opens up to the three-receiver side (In this case two receivers and a tight end). When he sees the tight end is trying to get across the formation, lets him go and gets his eyes to No. 2 who is also coming in.
Davis-Gaither is exactly where he should be on this play.
Between the curl/flat player and the hole player is the hook/curl player. He is responsible for No. 2 (the second receiver from the outside). If No. 2 releases inside, he does not chase, he continues to drop looking for another receiver to come from across the formation or the No. 1 receiver releasing inside.
Wilson is the hook/curl player at the top of the screen. Since there is only one receiver on his side, he looks to the inside first.
He drops underneath the tight end when he crosses Davis-Gaither’s face. Then Wilson reads the quarterback and breaks on the underneath receiver’s route. Although he makes the tackle, the Chargers picks up enough for a first down.
In zone coverage you can’t cover everything because the offense designs pass concepts to put zone defenders in conflict.
So what do you do?
You cover deeper routes and rally to shorter routes for a tackle. You should never sit on a five-yard route because there is almost always something coming behind it.
In this case Wilson was the defender put in conflict. He had to drop and account for the deeper route.
In zone coverage, you have to be able to live with giving up routes under 5 yards. This is obviously not ideal on third-and-four.
Although this play had an unfortunate result, everyone executed well within the structure of the defense.
Wilson and Davis-Gaither are talented young players and it is exciting that the Bengals decided to thrust them into an important role right away.
With Pratt and Josh Bynes playing well on first and second down, there is a lot to be positive about with this new Bengals linebacker corps.