Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
10 Oct 2013
by Ben Muth
The main story of the Cincinnati-New England game was the Bengals defense and how they shut down the Patriots offense. Of particular note was the fact that they snapped Tom Brady’s consecutive games with a touchdown pass streak. But while the defense deserves the lion’s share of the praise from Sunday, there were some bright spots on the offensive side of the ball for Cincinnati, particularly up front.
As a unit, I thought the Bengals offensive line played well. In particular, I thought both tackles played up to their abilities, aside from the fact that they each gave up a sack. Andrew Whitworth gave up his very early in the game (despite the fact that he held on the play), but was rock solid from then on. I can’t recall another pressure he gave up all game.
Andre Smith gave up a sack as well, but generated consistent movement in the running game and only made that one big mistake. Smith gave up his sack on a full-slide protection that looked really bad from the TV copy. The end zone camera view on the All-22 was more forgiving.
The Bengals were running a full-slide protection with their front five and had their tight end and running back blocking the linebacker and defensive end to the offense’s right. Any time an offensive coordinator dials up a full-slide protection, an offensive lineman’s face should light up. It’s the easiest pass-protecting gig you’ll ever get. You have to block one gap and you know exactly where your help is coming from. If you can’t protect a single gap in pass protection, you’re probably not long for the NFL. Or any other league for that matter. It’s an almost idiot-proof protection.
I did say almost. Here, Kyle Cook gets way too aggressive and fires out into his man, almost like a running play. Unfortunately for Cook, Joe Vellano feels his aggression and performs a quick swim move across the center’s face. This puts Cincinnati in a terrible position,. Not only did Cook’s over-aggression leave him off-balance, it also left a gigantic hole between him the right guard.
Because of this, Kevin Zeitler needs to haul ass to pick up Vellano, who is in the gap Zeitler is responsible for. As Zeitler sees Cook whiff and goes to cover for him, Jerod Mayo is scraping across the formation and tracking Giovani Bernard. This draws Andre Smith’s eyes, because he thinks Mayo might be coming on a stunt. That stops Smith in his tracks -- he’s responsible for anyone from the left side of the defense that loops across his face.
While Smith is looking at Mayo (who, it turns out, isn’t coming) he fails to notice Zeitler leaving to pick up Vellano. By the time Smith looks back inside, all he can do is watch Chris Jones pick up the sack on Andy Dalton. When I was watching the game live, it seemed like Smith just stopped playing for some reason. But watching the play back, it becomes a lot easier to see what Smith was looking at out there. He still needs to continue sliding down even as he’s tracking Mayo with his eyes, but this sack was more on Cook than him.
Cook wasn’t the only Bengals lineman who got in trouble for being overzealous. Zeitler also got caught lunging at defenders at times, and was beat as a result. I’ve been impressed with Zeitler, but this was probably his worst game yet. There were a couple of times when Zeitler was caught off-guard by New England's slanting or stunting at the line, and Zeitler wound up stumbling forward. When Zeitler hit his target, he was his usual powerful self, moving guys off their spots and opening up lanes. He threw a couple of no-hitters on line stunts and it’ll be interesting to see if teams slant their defensive tackles more as the season goes along (just as New England did often on Sunday) in order to take advantage of Zeitler’s over-aggression.
I think a big reason the Patriots slanted so much (and they blitzed their inside linebackers on running downs a lot as well) was that they didn’t like how they matched up physically against the Bengals' offensive line, particularly with Vince Wilfork out. Smith and Zeitler on the right side can move people when they have to, while Cook, Whitworth, and Clint Boling all play with very good leverage. New England’s movement gave Cincy some trouble, but I do think the offensive line handled most of it very well. It may not have shown up on the scoreboard, or even the stat sheets, but I thought the Bengals offensive line opened up some nice running lanes. They just missed breaking a couple of big runs.
Take the second play of the game. The Bengals ran an inside zone slice play and covered everybody up. The only missed block on the play was the slice attempt by Jermaine Gresham -- not a very good blocker by the way -- and his target path was good enough that the defender took himself out of the play avoiding the block.
Here’s the end zone shot. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis has a two-way go here, and should be making his read off of Boling’s block on Vellano (72). Since the defensive tackle is flowing that way, and Boling is a little behind on his hat placement, Green-Ellis should cut this back. If he does cut it back, Smith has the backside linebacker blocked perfectly, so Green-Ellis would be one-on-one with the safety. Here’s a look from the sideline.
That’s a big hole. Green-Ellis probably gets tackled by the safety, because he’s pretty washed up at this point, but that’s an easy ten-yard gain if he takes it backside. And it could be even more. Instead, he follows the red arrow and runs for a gain of two.
Green-Ellis wasn’t the only back that left some yards on the field. It’s pretty clear that Giovani Bernard is the best ball carrier the Bengals have. There’s a different speed when he’s out there. But he still misread a cut that could’ve been a touchdown early in the second quarter: An outside zone play to the offense’s left.
I’ll admit that this read is sort of a gray area when you look at it from the running back’s eyes. The block he’s reading, once again, is Boling’s. The defender is almost exactly head-up, or maybe a hair inside. But when you consider that the defensive tackle is fighting hard to get outside of Boling’s block and back into his B-gap, I think it’s clear that Bernard should cut up field here.
I just can’t see any way that the 300-pounder going to the outside is able to stop his momentum and make a tackle if Bernard does stick his foot in the ground and run right off Boling’s ass. Boling is thinking the same thing. He’s actually taken his playside hand off the defender to try to throw him outside with his inside hand. Unfortunately, Bernard takes it outside and gets tackled for a short gain.
That play, more than the Green-Ellis play, was a heartbreaker. I really do think Bernard scores if he makes the cut. Cook gets his cut block on Mayo, so the only guy Bernard had left to beat was the safety, who had turned his hips and ran back into coverage right at the snap because the Patriots were disguising their coverage look. I can’t imagine him getting back to square and making an open-field tackle on Bernard with a full head of steam.
The other thing I thought kept the Bengals from getting their run game going were the tight ends. One of the supposed advantages of all the 12 personnel the Bengals run is that it should help their running game. The problem is that neither of their tight ends are particularly good run blockers.
Gresham is their go-to blocking tight end -- they run behind him way more than Tyler Eifert -- and I just don’t think he’s very good at it. He’s willing to stick his nose in there, but he plays with poor balance and gets thrown around a little bit as a result. Too often, his blocks end with him stumbling as the defender sheds him aside.
Eifert is too tentative as a blocker and tends to just duck his head and brace for contact at the second level. He’s still a rookie, and I think a lot of his struggles are a combination of not having been asked to block at the point of attack much in the past, and being a little unsure of his assignments at times. I suspect he’ll get better, as he has shown some flashes on plays where he just comes off the ball and hits someone lined up over top of him.
One of the biggest plays of the game came down to Cincinnati's tight ends. It was the third-and-2 in the fourth quarter, when the Bengals were trying to run the clock out. Everyone in the stadium knew the Bengals were going to run it, and with Green-Ellis in the game, they knew the Bengals were going to run it inside. The Bengals brought in Orson Charles as a fullback and ran a straight lead play. No need to diagram it really, as everyone just blocks the guy in front of them and the fullback leads on the playside linebacker.
This is just after the snap -- you can see Green-Ellis doesn’t even have the ball yet -- Zeitler does a really nice job of burying the nose tackle inside and Smith does a nice job of completely covering up the man over him. Charles has a two-way go to lead up on to Brandon Spikes (red arrow). Gresham (yellow arrow) is bent completely at the waist as his man is in the middle of a swim move. Gresham is screwed.
The hole between Smith and Zeitler has gotten bigger just as Charles chose to go outside. I’m generally a believer in taking the first available hole ("Phrasing!") on third-and-short, but I can’t blame Charles for going outside here. The Patriots were pinching inside and he couldn’t have known that Smith was just going to completely stonewall his man as Zeitler buried his. The big problem is that Gresham completely whiffed on the defensive end. Now Green-Ellis can’t follow his lead blocker outside of Smith’s block, and has to stop his feet to try to sneak inside.
And there’s the money shot. You never want to be facing the backfield in short-yardage situations as your guy makes the tackle. That’ll bring out both the punt team and the X of Great Shame every time.
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