In the 2013 movie Pacific Rim (a fantastic flick), humanity combats ginormous monsters called Kaijus with equally-ginormous robots called Jaegers. Each Jaegar is controlled by two co-pilots who share a neurological link to operate the Jaegar. The Jaegar is only as functional as the two co-pilots are connected mentally in the process.
Consider the Cincinnati Bengals a Jaegar, with the defense and offense being co-pilots, and the ever-evolving NFL the Kaiju they’re battling.
One of the pilots has a grasp on the system they’re operating. He’s been doing it for a few years now, and his experience has him always mentally prepared to handle his responsibilities. The mental process he has in place works.
One of the pilots is in his own head constantly. He’s still getting a grasp on what works and what doesn’t, thinking about past successes and failures simultaneously, and is consistently trying to adapt and evolve his own process. He’s trying his hardest to get out of his own way, and subsequently, he’s getting in the way of his co-pilot.
The Bengals’ Jaegar can’t be counted on consistently with the offensive co-pilot failing to link with his defensive partner.
Through the first five weeks of the year, Cincinnati’s defense has remained stout and reliable. That remained the case against the Baltimore Ravens, a Kaiju capable of vertical strikes and diversified ground attacks. Lamar Jackson used to do whatever he wanted to against them. Now, the Bengals have crafted techniques and schemes to contain him as much as humanly possible.
In the movie, Jaegars are decommissioned because Kaijus are destroying them as fast as they’re being built. Certain NFL offenses have also become unique to the point where defenses have to adapt or perish, and offenses will then have to find new counters to the evolutions they caused.
The Bengals’ defense can still operate a Jaeger versus the Ravens’ Kaiju. Their offense can’t even get the Jaeger to power on. When partnered up, it becomes a jumbled mess. But the potential is undoubtedly there, and it’s more evident than viewing it live indicates.
While the defense has figured out how to evolve their system to face any offense, including the unique style of football Baltimore plays, the offense is just now finding the path towards doing the same. They’re in two very different points of their respective journeys; two co-pilots with varying levels of experience and wherewithal.
And it’s not so easy for the offense to fast-track this process. They’re dependent on forcing defenses to respect the run game in order to create spacing for their passing attack. It’s an unfortunate problem to have considering success passing the ball isn’t necessarily correlative to success running the ball, but the aerial attack the Bengals desire to run requires defenses to respect both phases.
i bring up the running game doing well last night bc of this. 13 teams have an early down drop back success rate of 50%. the correlation to early down rush success just isn’t there. it’s all over the place. pic.twitter.com/RzLXZzVyhk— John Sheeran (@John__Sheeran) October 10, 2022
For as limited as the passing game has been, the running game through the first four weeks was downright abysmal. Against the Ravens, the Bengals finally made a resounding shift to a gap-blocking scheme as opposed to zone-blocking. Pro Football Focus charted the Bengals’ starting offensive linemen with 15 reps of gap-style run blocks and just three of zone.
The drastic shift resulted in their best rushing output by far. Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine ran for a combined 95 yards on 17 carries against a Baltimore defense that rarely played a safety in the box.
This is why there’s hope for their system. The discombobulation they’ve suffered through has led to a 2-3 record with a top-10 defense. If there’s a clear direction with where the run game is going, there’s hope that the other half can feed off their progress. Both co-pilots can then establish a mental connection to operate the Jaeger.
So let’s look at how the defensive line showed their disciplined mastery against Jackson, and a couple signs of improvement from the run game.