Bill Connelly takes a look at the early-season S&P+ outliers and whether his eyeballs agree or disagree with the stats. Spoiler: Alabama is underrated. Alabama! Underrated!
23 Aug 2013
by Ben Muth
For Part 2 of the Word of Muth 2013 Preview, we’re going to look at the stars (well co-stars, since Margus Hunt is clearly the breakout star) of Hard Knocks, the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals offensive line probably has the best reputation of any line I’ll be covering this year, and the team seems to be the safest bet to make the playoffs. That means there’s a good chance that they will be the most-covered team in this column in 2013. Let’s get into the preview.
To understand why I’ll be writing about the Bengals a lot in the future, we must first go back to the past. That’s right, all the way back to February when I got an email from, El Jefe himself, Aaron Schatz, simply titled "next year."
Looking over something about the Bengals, let's do the Bengals as one of next year's teams. I'm curious how much the reality matches the reputation there.
I was sold. The Bengals offensive line has been a favorite of the intellectual, hipster, online football community for the past several years. (Hint: if you are reading this column you are probably part of that community.) Left tackle Andrew Whitworth in particular is seen as an underappreciated great, on par with the Ryan Cladys and Joe Thomases of the world. If you have read a "Top _______ Underrated Players in the NFL" piece in the last three years, Whitworth was almost certainly on there.
My gut feeling is that they really are pretty darn good. I’ll admit I haven’t watched a ton of Bengals games the past few years, but they always seem to play well when I do watch. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more of them as the season progresses.
The thing that stood out the most to me as I was watching the Bengals is how much greater the whole is than the sum of its parts. Whitworth and right tackle Andre Smith are both good players, but they aren’t guys that leap off the tape at you. I really liked what Kevin Zeitler did as a rookie, but he wasn’t exactly an instant All-Pro. At center and left guard I think Kyle Cook and Clint Boling are just adequate.
But they play great together as a unit. If you read this column last week, you saw me detail some of the problems the Cowboys had trying to work together. Cincinnati was the opposite. It’s amazing how effective a line can look just by not screwing up and making sure there’s someone trying to block every rusher. Here is a really nice example from their Week 14 game against the Cowboys.
The Bengals are in a half-slide protection -- it's probably "2 Jet" given offensive coordinator Jay Gruden’s West Coast roots -- which means the center and the left side of the line are sliding left (in a zone scheme) and the right side of the line is responsible for the two down defensive linemen. Even though Anthony Spencer is a linebacker (and standing up) he still counts as a down lineman. Protection schemes often don’t care for technicalities on a depth chart or what stance a defender may actually be in. They usually just refer to spacing and body size compared to other defenders.
The running back reads from the linebacker on his side to the nickel back. If both those guys rush, Andy Dalton would have to throw hot.
The Cowboys are running a Man-1 stunt, meaning they are in man coverage with a single deep safety playing center field. The stunt is a double TED stunt -- a twist where the defensive tackle penetrates and the defensive end loops behind -- with an added rusher on the outside of each twist. With six rushers and six blockers, the Bengals can’t afford to waste a single man.
Here, you can see two different ways to effectively pass off a twist. Let’s take the right side first (circled). They’re the man side, so their job is tougher. Smith sees the stunt develop first, because his man is the looper. Zeitler’s man is just rushing straight up the field, which isn’t an indication of a stunt at all, so it's up to Smith to drive the action here.
When Smith sees his man begin to loop inside, he brings his arm into a flipper and prepares to bang into the guard and defensive tackle to physically knock Zeitler off his man and inside towards the looper. This is a great way to both blunt the penetration from the rusher and redirect your guard’s momentum where it needs to go.
The left side’s job is much easier because they have an additional man sliding with them to help on twists. Whitworth seemed to sense something was up before the snap and sets with his inside hand out, feeling for a wide rushing defensive tackle that would indicate a twist. That would allow him to club or snatch the tackle outside quicker, and free his guard to look for the looper if the tackle was rushing for contain.
Since the defense has an added blitzer handling contain, Whitworth abandons the defensive tackle and focuses on the widest rusher. But by leaving his inside hand out there as a physical presence, he was able to help the guard without hindering his own assignment. The center simply slides right into the looping defensive end.
Here’s the picture as Dalton releases the ball. That’s such great protection. It's six hats on six rushers without much leakage. This is textbook stuff. Poetry in motion, I love it.
Here it is from the sideline angle. Just look at that pocket. The other thing you’ll notice is how much space the receivers have to work against a blitz like this. If you have an offensive line that can stonewall heavy blitzes with just six blockers, you are going to have the opportunity for huge plays in the air.
So, this unity is what I’m most looking forward to. Everyone on the Bengals offensive line is back from last year (though the center Cook did miss 12 weeks in 2012 with an injury), and an offensive line this cohesive should be fun to watch.
I’m pretty confident that the Bengals offensive line is going to be solid at the very least, and it could potentially be a top-five unit. My one concern is that Andre Smith has a down year for some reason, be it injury or just poor luck, and there becomes a narrative that he got paid and subsequently got lazy. I really don’t want that to happen, because it’s something that I would feel like I had to address, despite the fact that I really just want to write about what I can actually see on the field. Theorizing about reasons why something I’m seeing may be happening is a bit beyond the bounds of the column.
Smith had his best year as a pro last year, and there are plenty of guys that just happen to peak in their fourth year in the league. For many reasons that don’t include work ethic. So, if Smith regresses to his 2011 form, I’m worried most people won’t see it as a player simply not duplicating a career year, but rather an entitled pro athlete intentionally laying down after a new contract.
From what I've seen, Smith seems to be playing well in the preseason, so I’m really hoping that continues. I really don’t want the column or the comments section to turn into Dr. Phil every third week. Really though, I’m confident the Bengals are going to be a fun unit to watch and I’m looking forward to it.
Next week, we'll look at the last team I'll be covering regularly in 2013, the Philadelphia Eagles.
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