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Film Room: Bengals Defense Has Problems Up Front

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After allowing 11 points per game in the first three contests, the Cincinnati defense has disappeared. They've allowed 936 yards and 73 points in the last two games.

Andy Lyons

The Panthers offense ran 80 plays last Sunday, generating 431 yards, while only punting once on 11 drives, partly because they were two for two on fourth down. They scored three touchdowns and added four field goal attempts within 45 yards. The Bengals gave up another 119 yards in penalties (not all defensively).

Stopping either of the last two field goal drives (one at the end of regulation, and one in overtime) would have resulted in a win for Cincinnati -- and thus the narrative doesn't focus on Nugent, who was perfect on three attempts before his final miss.

Much of the blame for this should rest squarely on the defense. Specifically, the front seven.

I studied all 80 defensive snaps from the Panthers game to get a better understanding of what went wrong. Certainly, we're going through an adjustment period with a new defensive coordinator. But, there are also major personnel issues on the front seven. Additionally, some of our best defenders simply need to step up their game.

Pass Rush

Cam Newton was never sacked, but according to Pro Football Focus, he was hit five times and hurried another 12. That's a 27 percent clip on 48 drop-backs, which ranked 10th-worst in the league last week.

The pass rush was ineffective for most of Sunday's game but why? First and foremost, the Panthers' Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula had a great game plan. Newton threw the ball 21 times within 2.5 seconds... It's a dose of our own medicine really with Dalton throwing the football within 2.5 seconds 29 times (third-most in the NFL last week).

The Panthers also used a lot of seven-men protection schemes keeping a tight end and running back in for pass protection. The Panthers were ready for just about every one of Cincinnati's blitzes. They slid toward the blitzing linebackers and safeties, completely neutralizing the effectiveness of the blitz. Newton completed 12 of 19 passes against the blitz with 109 yards passing.

*Note: pause these videos by clicking on them once. This will help your browser run smoothly as you scroll down.

Shula also used the threat of read-option handoffs to keep Cincinnati's pass rushers honest. Defensive linemen had to keep their eyes on the running back for a possible handoff before they realized it was actually a throw. In these situations, they never got to Newton before the throw.

When they occasionally got to Newton, he did a great job avoiding pressure and keeping his eyes downfield for an open receiver.

On one play, Geno Atkins shed his blocker with an opportunity to record his first sack this season. Newton shrugged him off and was able to get a completion downfield.

Atkins miss

The last and most important reason for the lack of pass rush can be put simply - who is pass rushing?

# Rushes PFF Rush rating QB Hits QB hurries Positive Negative Neutral
Dunlap 41 -0.9 3 5 12 24
Peko 36 -1.9 0 18 18
Atkins 36 +2.1 1 4 5 12 19
Gilberry 34 +0.2 2 3 11 9 14
Geathers 30 -1.0 1 4 14 12
Lamur 12 -1.0 1 0 8 4
Still 11 -0.6 1 6 4
Nelson 9 -0.7 1 2 6
Hunt 8 -0.7 0 3 5
Burfict 6 -0.5 1 1 3 2
Maualuga 4 -0.3 0 2 2

The three columns on the right are my own numbers from a meticulous film review.

The first thing you'll notice is Domata Peko's unexplainably high number of pass rushes. He didn't earn a single pressure in 36 rushes... this shouldn't come as a shock to anyone. Peko, never defined as a pass rusher, has been a terrible rusher throughout his career. He's a run stuffer with a good feel for screens. The return of Brandon Thompson, hopefully within a few weeks, will help alleviate the pass rushing burden from Peko's shoulders.

The next number that sticks out is 11 positive pass rushes from Wallace Gilberry. He had a stellar game, and honestly I think his PFF pass rush ratings should be higher, but that's why two sets of eyes are better than one.

He had one game-breaking play below, where he lined up as the three-technique DT and stunted with Robert Geathers. The pressure forced a high throw from Newton for his only turnover of the day.

Geno Atkins earned his best pass rush rating of the year. In the first four games, he really was just a guy out there. In this game, we saw a few plays where Atkins completely put the guard on skates and drove him seven or eight yards into the backfield. Atkins still doesn't have a sack, but it looks he will finally break the ice next game.

You probably noticed that Dunlap, one of our best pass rushers, had a negative pass rushing grade for this game. In fact, among 4-3 defensive ends this year, Dunlap is ranked 27th out of 33 qualifying players. This is one example where our best player just needs to step his game up. He has too many snaps where it doesn't look like he's going all out.

One important number not on this chart is nine snaps in coverage for Carlos Dunlap. On one hand, he's probably the only defensive lineman on this team who's long and athletic enough to be a decent cover guy. At the same time, dropping Dunlap into coverage means one of the best pass rushers (on a team devoid of them) isn't rushing the passer.

Then, we get to the backup linemen Devon Still and Margus Hunt, who aren't even on the field enough to make an impact really. And in their few snaps, it's like they weren't even on the field anyways.

Robert Geathers is currently keeping Hunt off the field. Geathers is the type of guy who won't make mental mistakes and does exactly what he's coached. He's not an explosive player though, as he has ranked in the bottom pass rushing productivity rankings for the year. Geathers does set the edge very well in run defense, which might be another reason that he is part of the main rotation, and not Hunt.

Lastly, there's the blitzing linebackers. Emmanuel Lamur has blitzed the most out of the linebackers this year, averaging eight pass rushing snaps per game. In the Panthers game, he blitzed 12 times and didn't make an impact on any of them. He's too slender to knock a 300-plus-pound lineman backwards. If Lamur gets blocked, he doesn't get there, which is another reason that Guenther's schemed blitzes are starting to lose their shine. Jayson DiManche, Lamur's replacement at strongside linebacker, might be an improvement as a pass rusher this week.

Run Defense

In the past two weeks, the Bengals have given up 367 yards on the ground. But, that number is a little misleading. 220 of those yards were by the Patriots, when Vontaze Burfict was out.

In the Panthers game, the Bengals shut down the Panthers running backs (Fozzy Whitaker & Darrin Reaves). These two backup running backs carried the ball 17 times for 40 yards (2.35 yards/carry) and one touchdown. The real problem came in defending Cam Newton, who carried the ball 17 times for 107 yards and a touchdown. Two of Newton's carries were scrambles, and two were successful conversions on a quarterback sneak.

The odd thing about it was that Newton had only 14 carries in five games before Sunday. Even weirder, he had only two carries in the first half. At halftime, the Panthers apparently decided that Newton was healthy enough to unleash him on the ground, and it worked. Several Bengals defenders were victimized by this change of game plan. They were out of position and missed tackles when they had opportunities to bring Newton down.

Here's my chart for run defense in the Panthers game.

Run Snaps PFF Rating Positive Negative Neutral Tackles Assists Missed Stops
Carlos Dunlap 30 -0.6 2 3 25 3 1 2
Domata Peko 30 -0.5 8 6 16 2 2 2
Geno Atkins 26 -1.8 4 4 18 1 1
Wallace Gilberry 27 +1.5 9 4 14 1 2 1
Robert Geathers 12 -0.2 1 1 10 2 1 1
Devon Still 9 +0.2 1 3 5 1
Margus Hunt 7 -0.1 0 2 5 0
Emmanuel Lamur 30 +0.1 8 9 13 6 3 2 4
Reggie Nelson 35 +1.4 6 2 27 11 3
Vontaze Burfict 32 +1.1 12 3 17 8 2 1 2
Rey Maualuga 18 -0.7 4 4 10 3 1 1 2
Vinny Rey 7 -0.4 2 2 3 1 1
Jayson DiManche 3 -1.4 0 2 1 0

I didn't include George Iloka, Leon Hall, Adam Jones, and Terence Newman because the chart was already so big. Their efforts in run defense can be summed up quickly: Hall and Jones combined for 11 solo tackles with no mistakes, while Iloka missed two tackles and Newman had three negative plays.

The most intriguing number in this chart is that Dunlap had 25 "neutral" plays in 30 snaps of run defense. Essentially, the Panthers chose to completely avoid Dunlap when they ran the ball. They ran to the left 21 times, and to the right 9 times. The nine times they ran to the right were either when Dunlap wasn't on that side, or when they were attacking Dunlap with a read option play. Dunlap's three negative plays were all when Newton kept the ball and gained positive yardage.

On the play below, it was a designed run straight up the middle. Geno Atkins knocks his blocker to the side momentarily and fills the gap, forcing the running back to Dunlap's edge, where he is devoured.

Emmanuel Lamur had a nice bounce back game after perhaps the worst game of his career in New England. Lamur has struggled in run defense for most of his short career, but he finally showed some flash plays.

Lamur did a better job of finding the ball and making the tackle, which is why he was logged with eight positive plays, but he still got blocked too easily on nine negative plays. He has problems shedding linemen and making the tackle. Meanwhile, Burfict and Maualuga can both ram linemen head on, hold their ground, shed the block, and make the tackle.

Burfict, Reggie Nelson, and Wallace Gilberry all had great days in run defense. Burfict rarely was caught out of position, while Nelson made an impressive 11 solo tackles.

Gilberry only made a combined three tackles, but this doesn't cover the full story. I had him down with nine positive plays in run defense, and PFF gave him the highest run defense grade on the team. He stood his ground, sealed the edge well, and often forced the running back away from his original lane and into more defenders.

Domata Peko played better than I expected in run defense. He had his fair share of negative plays, like when he was pushed back five yards behind of scrimmage a few times early in the game. However, as the game went on, he held his ground and protected his gap. It was an up and down day, but it showed me that he's not completely "done" as some have suggested. He's simply playing too many snaps right now because the Bengals are so thin. The return of Brandon Thompson in two or three weeks will help take some of the burden off Peko's shoulders. Thompson might even deserve starting over Peko.

One statistic that bothers me is Robert Geathers' ratio of run defense to pass rush snaps. He had 30 snaps in pass rush compared to only 12 in run defense. He isn't the complete waste as a pass rusher that Peko is, but he still can get to the quarterback. It's just that his pressures come from "hustle" plays and coverage sacks, where the QB holds onto the ball too long. He's much more suited as a run defender. Perhaps this was a specific game plan to use Geathers more because he can be trusted to contain Cam Newton within the pocket. Whatever the case, Margus Hunt needs to get on the field more as a pass rusher. He can barely get into the game flow when he only gets eight pass rushes in a game.

The main issue in run defense last week was defending the read option. In the second half, Newton kept the ball almost every time. According to Adam Jones, Guenther's plan to defend the read option is very simple, and it was a matter of guys not doing their jobs.

"Because guys weren’t doing their jobs. There were a lot of mistakes. One guy’s got the pitch, one guy’s got the dive. It’s a simple defense. If you’ve got the quarterback, get the quarterback." Jones said he thought defensive coordinator Paul Guenther called the right defenses but his players didn’t execute it and he said he’s sure Guenther and head coach Marvin Lewis will address it Monday. And he plans to help. "We need to be accountable and everybody needs to do their job," Jones said. "It’s little simple stuff that we keep messing up on. Really simple."

From watching the film, it's clear that the Bengals choose to have the defensive end crash down on the running back. Wallace Gilberry did this several times, even though Newton pulled it out and ran it outside most of the time. The linebacker on that side is the player responsible for the quarterback. On one play, Burfict took too many false steps inside and missed his diving tackle attempt at Newton.

In overtime, Jayson DiManche came in as the strong side linebacker with Lamur out. The Panthers targeted DiManche two times for big gains that eventually allowed the Panthers to tie the game. Both are shown below.

The failure to defend the read option was just one of many reasons the Bengals did not come away with a win last Sunday.

I barely even covered the secondary because they did their job for the most part. Nelson, Iloka, and Hall earned coverage grades of +2.2, +1.3, and +1.2 respectively. Adam Jones allowed a few catches, but also made a game-saving breakup in the end zone in overtime.

Terence Newman was the only one who had a bad day, as he was called for two penalties and allowed some crucial catches to Kelvin Benjamin.

In any case, it's clear that the secondary is not the problem with the defense. It's in the front seven. They need to rush the passer and defend the run more consistently. Schematically, some blame falls on Guenther alone, because teams are starting to easily pick up the blitzes and find holes in zone coverages. Lastly, as a unit, they need to cut down on the costly penalties. Looking at you, Vontaze.