16 Dec 2009
by Doug Farrar
Their offense is an undisciplined mish-mash of power running and iffy aerial attacks, and Carson Palmer's got people worried. Still, the Cincinnati Bengals stand atop the AFC North at 9-4, despite a loss last Sunday to the Vikings that made them look very much like a team that would get whomped up on (to use the technical term) in the playoffs if they caught a tough opponent on the wrong day. As much as the power blocking and ground game have defined the 2009 Bengals, the defense led by coordinator Mike Zimmer and defined by the cornerback tandem of Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph has been an equal factor. Cincinnati's pass defense is definitely boom-and-bust -- they'll follow a -60.3% DVOA performance against the Steelers with a +61.8% debacle against the Oakland Raiders, but Hall and Joseph are not the problem. Against the Vikings, they stood out from the start.
After a four-yard first down Adrian Peterson run to the Minnesota 34, the Vikings lined up in a three-wide, and Brett Favre misfired on a quick pass to Purple Jesus. On third-and-6, Minnesota went shotgun with four receivers, and the Bengals responded with an interesting Cover-3 look (Fig. 1). Hall lined up inside with Sidney Rice as the "Y" receiver, and linebacker Brandon Johnson went outside left against Chester Taylor as the "X." The Vikings love to do stuff like this -- when they beat the daylights out of the Seahawks, they'd create different mismatches by putting Percy Harvin inside against a middle linebacker, or Visanthe Shiancoe outside in motion, and aging strong safety Deon Grant would struggle to keep up.
|Figure 1: Bengals Cover 3|
The Bengals know how to adjust to this stuff in ways the current Seahawks staff couldn't even comprehend. Zimmer went with man-under away from playside, taking the quick pass out of the picture by putting cornerbacks on the quick routes in a nickel set. By putting Hall inside on Rice and making the outside linebacker take the far read, Zimmer gave Favre a matchup he didn't want -- Rice downfield with outside position, and Hall trailing inside. Hall completely blocked Rice out of the play without a hint of interference when the ball came down at the Cincinnati 40-yard line. You won't find downfield coverage much better than that, and when your cornerbacks cover with man-on-man ability and understand how to eliminate areas of the field with zone concepts (the deep safety adjusting to the ball), that's a dangerous combination. It's a credit to Zimmer that when you watch this team, you realize that it's not just about Joseph and Hall running around in half-baked schemes -- these are talented players put in positions to succeed by good coaches.
On Minnesota's next possession, which started at the home 34 with 8:24 left in the first quarter, Favre went after Joseph on third-and-5 after two running plays. This time, Rice was on the right in the middle of a three-receiver set, and Joseph followed him inside on a crossing route. Joseph covered the ball well, but was busted for illegal contact after grabbing Rice around the midsection just outside of five yards, as the ball was coming in. On the next play, Joseph helped to cause a fumble on a Shiancoe catch from an intermediate cross, but the Cincinnati penalty festival continued. The camera showed Shiancoe head-butting Joseph after the play (the ball went out of bounds), and all Joseph was doing was yapping at Shiancoe. For whatever reason, offsetting unnecessary roughness penalties were called on Shiancoe and Joseph. Tackle Pat Sims bumped Shiancoe after the headbutt, which I guess may have been an offset, but I have no clue why Joseph got a flag there.
Three plays later, and after another penalty on the Bengals (encroachment, Dhani Jones), Hall followed Bernard Berrian from left to right as Berrian's motion turned Minnesota's twins right into a bunch formation. Brandon Johnson got through to pressure Favre, and Ol' Number Four underthrew Berrian to the sideline, right into Hall's hands. The Bengals did a good job of releasing into coverage from a presnap overload look, taking the H-back out of the equation, and the pressure prevented Favre from adjusting.
Not counting the illegal touchdown pass to Rice, who outjumped Hall in the end zone near the end of the first quarter -- Favre was a few yards over the line of scrimmage when he threw, the irrepressible scamp -- I counted five specific targets to Hall, and six to Joseph. The five to Hall netted Favre four completions for 30 yards and an interception, and the six to Joseph saw Favre go one-for-six for seven yards. Both corners are excellent on deep outs, good at adjusting to route reads, and Hall specifically is good at taking his man out of the play on angular routes. Favre would hit his receivers on underneath stuff when Hall and Joseph were playing off, but they are both sure tacklers as well, which compounds the problems for enemy quarterbacks.
Near the end of the first half, Favre started looking for the quick stuff on the off-corner, but Hall and Joseph were quick enough in space to stick to receivers when they got in the area -- all Favre could do on the outside passes was overthrow, check down, or aim at a safety off a scramble. On the play before Favre's second-quarter touchdown pass to Rice, he tried to hit Rice in the corner of the end zone. Joseph, matching stride for stride, jumped up and knocked the ball away as Rice came down with the ball in his hands. Reset, Vikings -- Favre rolled right and hit Rice over the middle, away from the corners, for the score.
If the Bengals want to make any hay in the playoffs, they'll have to fix one fatal flaw in their defense. Having two great cover corners is a rare luxury, but consider that while Cincinnati ranks fifth in Defensive DVOA against No. 1 and No. 2 receivers, they're dead last against receivers marked "Other."
I asked FO compadre and Bengals expert Rob Weintraub who's to blame. "Generally speaking, everybody -- the safeties, Chris Crocker and Chinedum Ndukwe, are excellent against the run but aren't great cover guys, and of the linebackers, only Keith Rivers is decent at dropping into coverage. Dhani Jones is smart and positionally aware, but slow -- he can be isolated by backs and slot guys. Rey Maualuga relies on smacking dudes once they've caught balls -- he's not much instinctually when the ball is in the air. The Bengals have gotten by because the run defense has been so good teams are in third and long often, and the pass rush has been steady. Zimmer likes to bring extra guys (Morgan Trent, the nickel back, is a particularly good blitzer, decent in coverage. Most teams don't have reliable No. 3 pass catchers. They want to throw to their top guys, the offense is designed to go to them, and JoJo and Leon are there, waiting ..."
This confirmed what I saw in this game. Favre realized pretty quickly that he'd have a better shot with middle coverage than with his primary receivers on the edges. I can only imagine how it would have been had Percy Harvin been available to bedevil the Bengals with crossing patterns and misdirection. Still, I came away from this game believing that Hall and Joseph are every bit as good as advertised. I'm also convinced that Zimmer deserves serious looks from teams shopping for defensive-minded head coaches next year.
One would think that losing a starting end and starting cornerback would diminish the abilities of a defense, but when the Green Bay Packers lost Aaron Kampman and Al Harris for the season in their Week 12 win over the Lions, at least one person saw a potential gateway to further improvement for a defense that has surprised all by hanging around the top of our defensive rankings after by switching to a new coordinator and scheme in the offseason. On a recent podcast for FantasyGuru.com, Greg Cosell of NFL Films and State Farm NFL Matchup said that hitting the field without two stars might be the best thing that could happen to Dom Capers' charges.
"I mentioned a few weeks ago that this defense would be better without Al Harris and Aaron Kampman," Cosell said. "They clearly are. I think they're better without Al Harris because of the coverage concepts they play. And they're starting Brad Jones in place of Kampman. A 3-4 defense, just by its nature because you've got four linebackers, is built more on speed than on bulk. That's just common sense. You're playing lighter, faster players when speed is at a premium. Kampman is not a speed player -- he's a down defensive end, In fact, I think he could be playing D-end in their 3-4; he could be like Aaron Smith of the Steelers. The point is -- they're faster, and they're better. They don't play man coverage all the time as they did in previous years, and that's all Al Harris can play. So, believe it or not, they're better without them."
A seventh-round rookie from Colorado, Jones has rotated in with Brady Poppinga at left outside linebacker opposite fellow plebe Clay Matthews. Matthews was listed third in NFLDraftScout.com's rankings for 2009 draft-eligible outside linebackers, and Jones ranked 26th. While Jones replaced Kampman, Tramon Williams took Harris' spot. You may remember Williams from his penalty fiesta against the Baltimore Ravens two Mondays ago (Official FO Nickname: "Admiral Armbar"), but it's also important to note that Jones beat Michael Oher for a sack in that same game. "There's something about starting on the bottom rung and having to fight every step of the way," Capers recently said of Jones. "We saw some things at training camp that we liked; you never know when a guy is a late-round draft pick, you hope that you see some redeeming qualities, is what you hope. And then you take and build on that. He's one of those guys that's taken advantage of his opportunity. Fortunately for us, he's been able to go in and play well."
Typical of a Capers defense, the Packers' 3-4 will flash some very interesting presnap looks. On the final play of Chicago's first drive (a three-and-out), Green Bay showed a two-man front at first, with man after man added to the line until more of a 4-2-5 look was evident. End Cullen Jenkins dropped Matt Forte for three yards -- drive over. Jones was in on first and second down, while Chillar came in to sub on third. Jones has a good speed push to the tackle, but he isn't going to overwhelm anyone with a bull rush. On the first play of Chicago's second drive, Forte took the ball around right end out of an I-formation, and tight end Greg Olsen blocked Jones down to the ground and out of the play. What Jones seems to be much better at is quick line stunts -- slipping inside a block and using his speed and agility to get around a tackle as opposed to taking him on head-to-head. At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, those inside power challenges are not battles he's going to win. He slipped inside on the play after the Olsen block, and although the play didn't go his way, he got good penetration.
Jones seems hesitant in pass pressure at times, and this may have to do with assignment awareness. On one first-quarter play, he hit the left edge quickly and would have sacked Cutler, but he hesitated for a split second as Forte headed outside for the quick read. Forte caught the swing pass and was tackled by cornerback Jarrett Bush after a two-yard gain, but Jones' attempt to split himself in two made me wonder where he was actually supposed to be on that one. He showed some facility in a short dropback on the Cutler interception to Charles Woodson with 3:24 left in the first quarter, but there was some hesitation again. He doesn't yet seem fluid, for all his speed. That isn't to say that he's stiff -- his athleticism is clear -- but I want to revisit his performance down the stretch when he isn't getting pulled for Chillar all the time.
Williams' day was a bit busier, as you would expect of the cornerback playing opposite Charles Woodson. On Woodson's first-quarter pick, Williams started with a close-cover look on Johnny Knox, only to back off a few steps to account for Knox's downfield speed. With that slight headstart, Williams covered Knox well enough to take that read away from Jay Cutler. On the second-quarter touchdown pass to Knox, Williams had him downfield, but Cutler made a great throw on a pattern he's liking more and more -- a simple go or fade in the end zone, using Knox's speed as the equalizer. Knox got a step on Williams out of man coverage, and he did a nice job of adjusting to the throw on what looked to be a called fade route. This is a play the struggling Bears offense can build on. On third-and-18 from their own 35 with 4:41 left in the first half, Cutler rambled around to his left to escape a collapsed pocket, and he easily hit Knox at the Green Bay 40 because Williams was practically playing in the Soldier Field parking lot. The Bears are also working with Knox on routes that have the cover corner thinking straight speed downfield, and adjusting poorly to quick comebacks or outs at the last second.
Williams is a hit-and-miss defender in man coverage -- he doesn't have the short-area recovery speed common to all great cornerbacks. However, he did show good inside speed on the fourth-quarter corner blitz that rattled Cutler and caused an errant throw to safety Nick Collins. He got Cutler for a sack on a similar design later in the quarter -- Chillar headed outside right, taking the blocking back out of the picture, and Williams twisted inside out of man press, unobstructed by any blockers. It's a risky play, because if Williams doesn't get there, the receiver he would have covered could easily take a deep safety for major yardage (especially if Knox was the receiver). But Williams is versatile enough to play Lito Sheppard to Woodson's Darrelle Revis, or Chris Johnson to his Nnamdi. With all their moving parts seemingly in lock-step, that's all the Packers require.
Unless they face the Vikings again ...
Plagued by injuries, kicked off his Virginia team by head coach Al Groh in 2006 and a star player in the long-running series, "COPS: Cincinnati," linebacker Ahmad Brooks was a reclamation project of the highest order when Mike Singletary took a shot on him in December of 2008. Brooks didn't see any regular action that first season, but Singletary believed in his potential and set Brooks on the path from bust-tacular inside linebacker to outside pass-rush specialist. Brooks started to see time on special teams in 2009, and recently nabbed a "starting" role in nickel defenses, replacing Manny Lawson on third downs. He logged five tackles and sack against the Seahawks in Week 13, but that was just a warm-up for his three-sack, two-forced fumble performance against the Cardinals on Monday night.
Down 17-0 with nine seconds left in the first half, the Cards went four-wide, shotgun, and Brooks simply blew outside, past left tackle Mike Gandy for the strip-sack recovered by Justin Smith. On the play before that, Brooks gave right tackle Levi Brown an outside shake and motored past him inside to hurry Kurt Warner in to a quick throw to Larry Fitzgerald. One of the major problems with Arizona's offense in this game was that their tackles looked really slow; simply unable to keep up consistently with any sort of edge rush. The next Brooks sack came with 6:11 left in the third quarter -- this time, Brooks bulled Gandy into the pocket and then separated to get to Warner, doing so despite Gandy's last-second hold. The third sack was an embarrassment for Arizona's left tackle position. Brooks got past backup Jeremy Bridges before Bridges could back into his stance and get his hands up.
While there's definitely legitimacy to the notion that Mike Singletary and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky have assembled a playoff-worthy defense, I might hold off on any coronations based on this game. That San Francisco defense looked hyperactive to the point of unblockable at first sight, but further review really exposed the extremely poor play of Arizona's offensive line. The 6-7 49ers have a season sweep over the 8-5 Cards, and a better division record. As crazy as it sounds, they're not completely out of the division lead just yet -- especially if Arizona doesn't find a way to deal with some glaring pass protection problems. Gandy was recovering from a pelvic injury which he aggravated in this game, and Bridges looked completely overwhelmed. If Brooks continues to reward Singletary's faith and patience, he might be the star of a frantic divisional takeover.
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