by Mike Tanier
(Note: The second excerpt from "Year of the Scab" which was originally going to be run today has been postponed until next Friday so we could get in some game tape analysis. You can get a jump on the excerpt by purchasing the entire text of "Year of the Scab," Mike Tanier's look at the 1987 NFL strike, for only six dollars at the FO store.)
Giving up 51 points is bad enough. Giving up 51 points to a team with a new starting quarterback, a rookie left tackle, and a mix of unproven youngsters and worn-out veterans at the skill positions is horrible. The Bengals suffered through one of the worst defensive games in recent memory when they lost to the Browns two weeks ago. I watched that game tape trying to determine exactly where the Bengals defensive problems lie and how severe they were. Then, I watched the Bengals' next game against the Seahawks to determine what steps Marv Lewis and coordinator Chuck Bresnahan took to correct those mistakes, and to see if the Bengals would be able to field a playoff-caliber defense at all this season.
The first thing I noticed while watching the Cleveland game was that while the Cincinnati pass defense was bad, their run defense actually looked worse. The Bengals made plenty of mistakes on pass defense -- blown zone coverages, easily picked-up blitzes, awful man-to-man toastings -- but the Bengals might have come away with a win if they had controlled Jamal Lewis. One Browns touchdown was set up by a 31-yard Lewis run. The Browns later took a 10-point lead on a 66-yard Lewis touchdown. A 47-yard run set up the Browns' final field goal. Lewis is an experienced, powerful runner, but at this point in his career he's not the kind of burner who should gash a defense for 200 yards. What were the Bengals doing wrong?
The 31- and 66-yard runs were remarkably similar plays: simple delayed handoffs from the I-formation. Figure 1 shows the Browns' alignment and the Bengals' response on the 66-yard touchdown in the third quarter. There's nothing fancy about what the Browns are doing. Fullback Kip Vickers motions to the strong side of the formation pre-snap. At the snap, he hesitates to feign pass protection, then lead blocks left. Center Hank Fraley and left guard Eric Steinbach double-team defensive tackle John Thornton (97). While not shown in the diagram for clarity, the right tackle and right guard drop as if blocking for a three-step drop pass play. Derek Anderson appears to scan the defense as he steps back, then gives the ball to Lewis, who reads his blocks. Again, this is very simple design: Vickers and the right side of the offensive line should briefly freeze the Bengals linebackers, allowing Steinbach to peel off the double team and make a second-level block.
Let's examine the Bengals defense. Their linebackers are playing deep, about five yards off the ball. At the snap, end Justin Smith (90) and Thornton slant hard to their left. They are thinking pass rush, but their run-gap responsibilities seem clear: Smith has the guard-tackle B-gap, Thornton the center-guard A-gap. That leaves linebacker Lemar Marshall with an important responsibility: the outside-tackle C-gap on the offensive left side. Linebacker Landon Johnson (59, spot-shadowed) likely has A-gap responsibilities to the offensive right side, but if the play busts outside to the left, he must make a tackle in pursuit.
Now, let's fast-forward to a split-second after Lewis takes the handoff, and let's focus on the offensive left side (Figure 2). As you can see, Justin Smith has been completely washed out of the play by left tackle Joe Thomas. Thornton, meanwhile, was manhandled by the double team and pushed two yards down the field. The unidentified cornerback covering Joe Jurevicius (Jonathan Joseph, probably) is completely wired to his blocker. Marshall does a credible job of taking on Vickers, but not an exceptional one; he sheds the block but meekly tries to arm-tackle Lewis.
So far, the Bengals have several major problems: Thornton's defeat at the hands of the double team, Smith's washout (not a huge problem, as he does get penetration on the play), the cornerback's inability to escape Jurevicius, and Marshall's uninspired stack-and-tackle. By all rights, this should be a 10-yard gain. But Johnson makes the biggest mistake on this play.
At the snap, he is distracted by Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards on the offensive right side. Perhaps he's an underneath zone defender to that side on a pass play, or he may be wary of Winslow on a crossing route. Johnson is frozen by the motion of Vickers and the pass-blocking right guard and tackle; again, this is part of the design of the play. But he doesn't respond to the handoff to Lewis until Lewis is already sweeping to the offensive left. He then takes an awful angle, approaching the line of scrimmage to engage Lewis at a spot on the field the running back has already passed. He watches Lewis blow past him, then pursues the play from behind. How bad is it? Normally, left guard Steinbach would block Johnson after releasing from his double team, but Johnson is so far behind the play that Steinbach just runs past him and takes on the deep safety.
I didn't diagram the earlier 31-yard run, but the Bengals had similar problems on that play. Fraley and Steinbach didn't need a double team on that run: Fraley climbed right out onto the second level and erased linebacker Caleb Miller. The Bengals defensive tackles were no factor. Jurevicius once again dominated his cornerback. Winslow pancaked Marshall, barely broke stride, then harassed Dexter Jackson. And Johnson got hopelessly caught in the midfield trash, bumping into Marshall as he tried in vain to chase Lewis to the edge.
The Browns tape made it clear that Lewis and Bresnahan had several problems to correct before facing the Seahawks. Overall, the Bengals' defensive line play wasn't terrible, but they had to establish a rotation to keep Thornton and Domata Peko fresh. They needed their cornerbacks to shed blocks and increase their effort in run support. But most of all, they had to get smarter, more physical play out of his linebackers. That wouldn't be easy. Starting middle linebacker Ahmad Brooks was hurt early in the Browns game, which forced Miller into the lineup (Miller was listed as the middle linebacker, but Johnson was clearly playing the middle in the play shown). Marshall suffered a groin injury and would be hobbled against Seattle. Desperate for warm bodies, the Bengals signed Dhani Jones in the middle of the week. If you want a linebacker who blows up blocks and shuts down rushing lanes, Jones is not your guy.
The Seahawks Game
The first thing I noticed when watching the Bengals-Seahawks tape is that the Bengals used a lot more five-man fronts than they did against the Browns. By sliding a linebacker down to the line of scrimmage, a defense changes the offensive line's blocking assignments and limits the amount of double-teaming the offense can do. It's a simple adjustment that Lewis and his staff couldn't make against the Browns, because the pass defense was playing just as poorly as the run defense, and that extra linebacker was needed for midfield coverage.
Backup tackles Michael Myers and Bryan Robinson also saw a lot more action against the Seahawks. Lewis and Bresnahan often subbed them in for whole series, which didn't appear to be the case against Cleveland. Thornton seemed fresher early in the game and made several tackles at the line of scrimmage. Bresnahan also subbed in Anthony Schlegel as a run-down linebacker a few times early in the game; Schlegel eventually became a permanent replacement when Caleb Miller got hurt on a second-quarter tackle.
For their part, the Seahawks ran the ball frequently from the I-formation and executed several delays, usually from an ace backfield. The Seahawks didn't experience much early-game rushing success, but then the Browns didn't either. And the Bengals paid for their dedication to stopping the run; Deion Branch's 46-yard touchdown before the two-minute warning came on a play-action pass against a five-man defensive front. Even before that touchdown, the Seahawks took advantage of the open space afforded by a five-man defensive front. Matt Hasselbeck loves to throw quick slants, and he had success early in the game tossing short passes into linebacker-free spots on the field.
By the third quarter, Miller was injured and Lemar Marshall's groin injury limited his availability. Landon Johnson, Anthony Schlegel and Dhani Jones were the Bengals linebackers. Not surprisingly, Shaun Alexander started to have more success running the ball, but the backup linebackers were only partially to blame.
Figure 3 shows a simple delay executed by the Seahawks in the third quarter. The play netted just six yards, but it was typical of the type of play the Seahawks used to grind out productive yardage late in the second quarter and into the second half. There isn't much trickery here. Center Chris Spencer and guard Rob Sims double-team Thornton. Walter Jones releases as a pass protector, then rides Justin Smith on an inside move. The right-side offensive linemen set as if blocking for a three-step drop. The tight end (Will Heller, probably) releases as a pass receiver but blocks Johnson, who is aligned in zone coverage between the tight end and slot receiver. Nate Burleson stems a pass route, then engages Johnathan Joseph. Alexander takes the handoff during Matt Hasselbeck's drop, reads his blocks and goes. (A receiver and several defenders aren't shown for clarity's sake).
Just as in the Browns game, Thornton gets creamed by the double team. Smith again does a fine job of penetrating and plugging a gap, but Alexander has room to the outside. Joseph again struggles to disengage from his block. Spencer is able to peel off Thornton (now about three yards back from the line of scrimmage) and block Schlegel. The unblocked defender on this play is Dhani Jones.
I've picked on Jones in the past, and I don't want to dump on him here. His initial move is correct: He attacks the B-gap between the left guard and tackle. Alexander looks inside to attack this gap, then cuts outside because Justin Smith has created a logjam. Jones must then race Alexander to the edge, and that's a mismatch because Jones no longer has the speed to cover that much ground. He eventually makes the tackle, assisted by Joseph, who finally rolls off the block and flushes Alexander back inside.
Alexander had a handful of productive runs before this play, and he had a 22-yard run on the next possession. Overall, his numbers weren't spectacular -- 21 carries, 100 yards -- and the Bengals defense didn't look terrible. Still, several trends carried over from the Browns game to the Seahawks game:
- Linebacker depth, speed and decision-making are all issues.
- John Thornton can only sustain a few double teams before he becomes a blocking sled. The Bengals need more depth on their inside rotation.
- Receivers and tight ends are blocking Bengals defensive backs far too easily.
- Deep safeties aren't stepping up to make tackles near the line of scrimmage.
That last point demonstrates the interrelated problems of run and pass defense. Madieu Williams and Dexter Jackson are playing deep because the Bengals have serious problems in pass coverage, particularly man coverage. If the pass defense doesn't improve, then Williams and Jackson will be forced to play deep on most downs. But if the run defense doesn't improve, opponents will pick away at the Bengals front seven mercilessly.
The Bengals will have a hard time solving their problems on run defense this year. Getting their injured linebackers back will help, but the defensive line will remain weak up the middle until the Bengals can improve their depth at tackle. The best strategy for improving their run defense may be to render it irrelevant: the Bengals offense is good enough to turn every game into a pass-heavy shootout. Still, as the Browns game demonstrated, run defense can be crucial even in a 51-48 game. Lewis and Bresnahan may have to settle for eliminating the 200-yard games while hoping the 100-yard games don't hurt the team too much.
Okay, let's say something nice about the Bengals defense. They recorded a safety against the Seahawks, and they did it using a well-executed zone blitz. I love diagramming zone blitzes, so I thought I would draw this one up.
Figure 4 shows the Bengals in a nickel defense against a three-wideout Seahawks formation on second-and-6 from the four-yard line in the third quarter. Nickel corner Leon Hall (29) cheats toward the line of scrimmage before the snap. Hasselbeck is probably aware that he will blitz. The rest of this package, while not particularly creative, is executed so perfectly that even a veteran like Hasselbeck is forced to make a bad decision.
The key to this blitz is the hard slants made by Bryan Robinson and the two interior linemen (they appear to be Myers and Thornton; Peko's fuzzy hair cannot be seen on the replay). Each lineman slants to his right, crossing his blocker's face and forcing the Seahawks offensive line to shift to the left. Right tackle Shawn Locklear is free to engage Robinson and ignore Hall because Alexander has blitz pickup responsibilities on the offensive right side.
Hasselbeck takes a three step drop and looks left to Deion Branch, who runs a short slant in front of a cornerback who is playing deep. Hasselbeck pumps, but he does not throw because Robert Geathers is defending the hook zone to Branch's side. Geathers is in no position to pick off a pass, but his presence would force Hasselbeck to lob the ball, and you can bet that the cornerback would break on a softly-thrown ball and turn it into a pick-six. Hasselbeck resets, then looks to his right, where two receivers have run hitch routes.
The diagram slightly exaggerates the path that Lemar Marshall took to Hasselbeck. Because the Bengals line slanted so hard to its right, there is practically a straight line path from Marshall to Hasselbeck. The execution to Marshall's side is excellent: Robinson draws Locklear away, Hall draws Alexander's attention then pulled him away with a wide pass-rush arc, and Landon Johnson slides deftly into his hook zone, taking away the tight end as a receiving option. The slot receiver to the offensive right (Bobby Engram, probably) is open, but Hasselbeck eats ball before he can make the throw.
Overall, it was a sweet play. At the least the Bengals defense has something to contribute to this season's highlight reel.