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Film Room: Bengals defense shows promise despite recent struggles

Don’t write this defense off yet.

Cincinnati Bengals v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

After being a pleasant surprise early in the season, the Cincinnati Bengals defense has shown some warts in recent weeks.

First, there was the loss to the New York Jets, in which they could not make a tackle in the open field to save their lives. Next came the loss to the Cleveland Browns, wherein no one was accusing them of overusing the bend-but-don’t-break approach, unlike the week prior. They broke. The Browns broke a 60-yard pass and a 70-yard run for touchdowns, and running Nick Chubb broke ankles and tackles alike on his way to a 137-yard day rushing.

Surprisingly, though, the run defense wasn’t all bad. This defense made a number of mistakes that hurt them, but they also forced the Browns to make a major scheme shift. There were issues in pass defense as well (particularly as a relates to covering backs), but let’s focus on run defense.

What went wrong, and what actually went right.

The Browns are known for shredding defenses with their wide zone scheme, but that was not how they beat the Bengals last week.

This clip shows how well the Bengals matched up against this scheme.

Germaine Pratt set the edge, forcing the running back to cut back. Trey Hendrickson stunted into the B-gap and got penetration, while D.J. Reader plugged the A-gap.

Larry Ogunjobi ran flat down the line of scrimmage, closing the cutback lane, but the running back never got to him. Mike Hilton and Sam Hubbard ran the play down from the backside, with Hubbard making the tackle in the backfield.

This was an excellent play by the defensive front.

Although the Browns still ran their zone scheme, they mixed it up with a lot more down scheme (sometimes called gap scheme) than they normally run. These plays feature down blocks and pullers and include plays like Power and Counter. On this play, the defense’s alignment made life very tough on the offense.

The Browns were in a two-tight end formation and the Bengals balanced it up nicely. They put both defensive tackles in 2-techniques. This means that both Reader and Josh Tupou lined up head-up on the guard. Meanwhile, Logan Wilson lined up at linebacker depth over the center. These alignments protected Wilson, making it very difficult for anyone to block him, and in fact, the Browns couldn’t do it.

Reader does an excellent job of feeling the guard try to down block him and fighting to cross face into the B-gap. Tupou’s guard pulls, so he holds his gap, while pressing down on the center to restrict the front-side A-gap. Wilson reads the cutback and makes a great play.

This was an excellent scheme and great execution by Reader, Tupou, and Wilson.

Ogunjobi excels when lined up over the tight end in the Bengals’ heavy defensive fronts. The tight end is simply no match for him physically.

Vonn Bell gets the tackle in this clip, but the play is really made by Ogunjobi. He drives the tight end deep into the backfield, forcing both the pulling guard and the running back to alter their paths.

Don’t be surprised if teams start countering this look by using an extra offensive lineman instead of a tight end.

The defensive line and particularly the interior defensive line are a strength for this Bengals team. Here is another play that demonstrates that.

B.J. Hill lines up in a 3-technique outside the play-side guard, and Ogunjobi lines up in a 5-technique outside the play-side tackle. The guard and tackle try to double-team Hill, but he splits their block. The tackle should have blocked Pratt, but Hill whipping his hip around to split the double team threw him off. Ogunjobi tossed the tight end aside and the triumvirate brought Nick Chubb down.

This was a great play.

Of course, bringing Chubb down is a problem for any defense and with the Bengals losing 16-41, they obviously had more than one issue in this game. When the defense has struggled, it has been in large part due to tackling issues. While fingers have been pointed at this player and that player, no one has been immune.

Often we think of missed tackles in terms of power. A big, bruising running back bulldozing over the defender. While that certainly happens, it’s frequently about athleticism. The running back makes a sudden juke and the defender doesn’t see it or cannot react in time. Sometimes it comes down to miscalculating the ball-carrier’s speed. Both of these can lead to arm-tackles, which are frequently broken.

The play above is an example of a sudden juke. The tackle really should have been made by Bell shooting the gap and Wilson playing outside the puller, forcing the cutback. Instead, Wilson gets logged, and the ball-carrier goes outside. It then comes down to an open field tackle on Chubb, no easy task. Pursuing him from the inside, Jessie Bates needs to aim for Chubb’s inside him to prevent the cutback, but Bates’s angle is too wide. He doesn’t have a chance.

Thankfully, Hubbard shows great effort pursuing from the back side and a potential catastrophe is averted.

Bates has taken a lot of heat over missed tackles, but in this clip, Bates shows exactly how to pursue the runner from inside-out.

He stays on Chubb’s inside hip, taking away the cutback and making the tackle.

Excellent play.

This play is an example of miscalculating speed. Hubbard gets off the block and reaches to attempt the tackle. Hubbard needs to take another step towards Chubb before trying to make the tackle, so he can put his chest on him. This may mean taking a slightly different angle and even giving up a few yards, but that is better than letting it turn into a big play.

Fortunately, on this play, Bell and a host of pursuing Bengals defenders are able to bring him down before he got into the open field. Having eleven players running to the ball prevents missed tackles from turning into touchdowns.

On the last play, the defense did a good job of swarming to the ball and limiting the yards Chubb could pick up after the missed tackle. This is important because as we saw in previous clips, mistakes will be made, even by your best players.

A winning defense cannot have lapses in effort. This is something that happened frequently against the Jets, and was seen again on this play against the Browns.

While this was not the game the Bengals’ defense was hoping to put together, it does provide hope for the second time around.

The Bengals did a good job defending the zone scheme, which forced the Browns away from their offensive identity. The interior defensive line caused a lot of problems for the Browns running game, winning one on one matchups and even double teams and penetrating deep into the backfield.

They need to prevent explosive plays and be better tacklers. Of course, tackling Chubb is not easy, so a big part of that will be getting more players to the ball. The Browns found success on the edge by down blocking edge defenders with off-the-ball tight ends. The Bengals will need an answer for this in Round 2.

The result of this game was dramatically lopsided, but this defense was much closer to having a good day than it appeared. The mistakes they made are correctable and there is no reason to think that things won’t be different when the Bengals travel to Cleveland on January 9th.