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TDZ: Bengal Bungle

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?

Figure 1: Jamal Lewis 66-Yard TD

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.

Figure 2: Jamal Lewis 66-Yard TD

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: Seahawks Delay vs. Bengals

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.

Bonus Coverage

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: Bengals Safety vs. Seahawks

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.


30 comments, Last at 02 Oct 2007, 11:56am

1 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

Great analysis. At some point, however, I'd like to see you discuss Bresnahan's revolutionary "Cover None" defensive scheme. Thanks to Bresnahan's coaching schemes and a complete lack of depth at LB (but not for lack of drafting), the Bengals seem doomed to another 8-8 year. At least it's better than we did in the 90's...

2 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

Very nice article. Do you have a program to make the diagrams? I've been using Paint or worse, straight HTML.

A couple thoughts: It would seem to me that one of the main differences between the Bengals game against the Browns versus the Bengals game against the Seahawks is that Shaun Alexander failed to do much once he reached the second level. You never want to be outclassed in the break away department by Jammal Lewis, but as someone who has watched and re-watched Alexander all season, he seems to have lost his ability to break tackles, cut in the open field and run away from defenders.

And secondly, I don't think you assign enough blame to Alexander on the safety. Alexander should not be so easily taken out of position by Leon Hall. Hall took a very wide path towards Hasselbeck, and after 8 seasons in the league, Alexander must be able to recognize his responsibility is sealing off the right side not engaging any specific man. The play only looks flawless because Alexander is so easily duped.

3 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

Love this analysis, not the least because the Bengals play the Patriots this week.

Question on the zone blitz play at the end. I didn't see the game. The blitz works because, even though Engram is open, Hasselbeck doesn't have time to throw to him because he gets hit. But this was after taking the time to pump to Branch on the left. Ideally, couldn't the fact that the CB on the offensive right was cheating up to the line indicate to Hasslebeck that Engram would be open, and hence he could defeat the blitz by looking that way first? Of course, I suppose there was no way to know before the play that a lineman wouldn't drop into the short zone under Engram...

The good news for the Bengals next week is twofold: Their issues, according to this article, seem to stem partially from having their DB's and LB's defeated by WR run blocking, and they have trouble against delay-handoffs. Based on what I've seen over the past year or so, the delay handoff is the type of running play that the Patriots execute LEAST effectively, and while Moss/Welker/Stallworth have been tearing it up through the air, none of them are particularly exceptional at run blocking. For that matter, neither Watson nor Thomas are known as particularly good blocking TE's, either (so I expect to see a bit of Kyle Brady).

So the Bengals ought to be able to stop the Patriots from running all over them. On the other hand, that may not matter. The Patriots have been exceptional at blitz pickup so far this year, and if the Bengals' secondary has been struggling, then Brady and the Patriots WR corps must be licking their chops right now....

4 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

Excellent job Mike. I find these defensive deficiencies especially interesting with the upcoming game against New England Monday night.

5 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

Man I love this stuff. It's exactly what I thought NFL Playbook would provide, and doesn't. Can't you get a TV gig with it?

6 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

This is great analysis of what the players are doing on the field, but it doesn't tell me which players are being fed chicken by their mothers.

7 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

RE: #3

Watching the Cincy so far this season leads me to believe there should be NO optimism going into the Patriots game (but I'm still going to wear my Ocho jersey and cheer like a nutjob). Our linebacker corps is decimated by injury and suspension. Perhaps we'll be able to stop Maroney, but if Hasselbeck can dissect our scheme with efficiency, then Tom Brady should rip us apart. My only hope is that the Bengals can air it out enough to stay competitive. However, while Palmer's stats say he's had a great year so far, watching him play the entire game might lead you to believe otherwise. He's been inconsistent so far and the Pats D will certainly put up a better fight than the Browns and the Seahawks.

8 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

RE: #5

Yeah, we need to see more of this type of analysis DURING games. I don't hate the color guys like most FO posters, but real play analysis doesn't come around very often. I seem to recall Collinsworth doing a bit of it on the NFL Network...

9 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

Another difference between the first game against the Ravens and these last two is that Ahmad Brooks was injured. He's an excellent blitzer up the middle and provides pressure that the rest of the team can't.

10 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

Great analysis. Thanks.

No way the Pats put up less than 35 this weekend. I read somewhere this was one of the games to watch...yeah, because it's on Monday Night Football. Other than that, it's a laugher.

Pats have looked crisp on offense. Unless someone devises a way to put pressure on Brady, NE will continue to roll, especially against one-dimensional teams like the Bengals.

11 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

I *heart* TDZ. Excellent as always, Mike.

From that analysis, it seems like that Bengals' biggest problem may be their CBs. If they were better in pass-coverage, the safeties would be able to be more active in run support. And if they weren't so easily blocked by WRs, they'd be able to contribute more run support themselves. A healthy LB corp would probably be helpful, but I don't see how it would help either of those issues.

12 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

Mike Tanier's stat nerdiness is clearly ranked too high because this article proves that he actually watches football and doesn't just analyze numbers on a computer spreadsheet in his mother's basement. Wacky acronyms are way better than this. Blew and yello uniformz rulezz!!1

13 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

The Bengals defense has been absolutely abysmal since Marvin Lewis arrived in 2003. Not that it was much better prior to his arrival, but it has declined rapidly over the years. While the players ultimately have to prove their worth on the field, at some point the coach has to take accountability, especially if the coach comes from a defensive background like Lewis. If you ask me, Marvin Lewis, the apparent defensive genius, is a fraud. That great Ravens Super Bowl defense (of which he was the coordinator) would have been great with or without him. Until Lewis is booted out of Cincinnati, the Bengals have zero chance to elevate themselves to the next level - which is a shame, because for the most part the offense is already in place and even a mediocre defense could probably get them to 12-4.

14 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

Great job Mike. As a Bengals fan, I would add that one of our issues in pass defense is the total absence of any pass rush at all from Justin Smith, the franchise player.

As your article suggests, he is a solid run defender, but on 3rd-and-10 a team needs the DE to be in the QB's face regularly. Smith fails in this task.

I've had arguments with fellow fans who claim he "collapses the pocket" and "hurries the throw" etc., and so his pressure simply doesn't show up in conventional stats. However, I've spent the first three games this season specifically watching Smith on every pass down, and he simply hasn't gotten in the same zip code as any QB yet this year.

16 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

I enjoyed the article. One thing though. I had a hard time relating the figures to the text because the text used the player name and the diagram used the number. In the future, could you put the players number (perhaps in parens) in the text too?


18 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

Funny, in my mind's ear I hear TDZ being read by Ron Jaworski.

19 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

18: Me too! And when I play online poker it's always narrated by Mike Sexton.

20 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

#18 - me too. Every time I read "The first thing I noticed" or "Let's examine" it is said by Jaws.

21 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

1) Awesome article, Mike.
2) #2 -- good point, I think you're right. Particularly about the inability to get separation once he's in the open field. Just not fast. Once Jamal Lewis got open, it was a straight line. Alexander was dancing around on yard 21 of his 22 yard run.
3) #3 -- good question, about Engram maybe should have been Hasselbeck's 1st look. But seeing a nickel back creep in should *never* tell you that that route should be open, before the snap. I'll grant that he ought to have looked that way earlier, though. But in general, you run the play called, and you check out the hot route first. I'm sure there must be exceptions. What the Bengals showed here definitely didn't constitute an exception, that I can tell. I'm also sure that Holmgren is probably less willing to concede how many exceptions there are, than others.

I think Hasselbeck's mistake was waiting too long before moving away from Branch's route. You can see that Geathers is an impediment for only a very brief time, and Landon Johnson was already moving away from Branch. He seemed to assess the right side of the field too late, not just the routes, but the protection.

Not that the play lasted long. I mean, it was quick. But after checking the Branch route, he had time to have looked right, and in doing so determine he had time to throw it away (although he was still in the pocket). I didn't catch that a receiver was open, over there, when I saw it. But perhaps there was enough time to make that throw, as well.

22 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

"For that matter, neither Watson nor Thomas are known as particularly good blocking TE’s, either (so I expect to see a bit of Kyle Brady)."

Mjk, I just wanted to object to this...

Watson isn't know for his blocking, but hes an absolutely phenomenal blocker, hes just more valuable in space. Watch the NE/Car preseason game if you want a good example. Theres 5 or 6 plays where Watson goes 1-on-1 with Julius Peppers, and completely takes Peppers out of the play.

Watson is a BAD matchup for the bengals. You put Jhones, or Johnson on him, and hes going to burn them. You shift a corner or a safety onto him, and they'll just run behind him all day.

23 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

What is with this crap? How come you don't have heart warming stories about players that overcame adversity to succeed. I want to know about McNabb's Mommy making him dinner or Michael Vick succeeding as two sport athlete or Rae Carruth hiring underprivileged youth to do odd jobs.

And c'mon why don't you just spout obscure numbers from NFL.com and make ridiculous predicions a-la Gil Brandt. "The Saints had one of the most potent offenses last year, so this will be a shootout, especially Duce McCallister who is poised for a breakout."

Every other broadcaster is doing it, what makes you think you are so special.

24 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

Not a big deal, but Cleveland's fullback is Lawrence Vickers, not Kip Vickers.

25 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

The Bengals defense has been absolutely abysmal since Marvin Lewis arrived in 2003.

If you think the Bengals defense has been abysmal since 2003, then I don't know how to describe the defense before that. In the 7 years before Marvin Lewis arrived in Cincinnati, the Bengals had a defensive DVOA lower than 10% only twice. They were one of the five worst defenses in the NFL in the other 5 years.

The DVOA ranks from 1996-2002:

11, 30*, 30*, 28, 27, 17, 30.

*Worst in the NFL.

The DVOA in those years:

-8.3%, 15.1%, 21.4%, 11.5%, 12.8%, -3.6%, 17.4%.

Average DVOA: 9.5%

Since Marvin Lewis took over, the Bengals have only had a defensive DVOA of 10% or higher once, in his first year as head coach. In the last three years, their defensive DVOA has never been above 10%.

The DVOA ranks from 2003-2006:

31, 14, 20, 25.

The DVOA in those years:

12.7%, -2.9%, 1.0%, 7.3%.

Average DVOA: 4.5%

Not that it was much better prior to his arrival, but it has declined rapidly over the years.

You are correct that it wasn't much better prior to his arrival...but only because it was much worse before he took over. Over the last three years, it's been regressing to the mean, and it hasn't even regressed that far yet. Their average defensive DVOA over the last 11 years has been 7.7%. They haven't been that bad since Marvin's first year. Honestly, the fact that the Bengals D hasn't been a bottom 5 unit since 2003 is a miracle of Kitnaesque proportions.

26 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

Palmer is going to have to throw about eight touchdowns to keep up with Patriots.

27 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

Too much analsis for me. i am new to football but learning everyday. I was referred here by guy at Yahoop message board.

28 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

Re: Alex. You're right. Lewis has turned an abysmal defense into a medicore defense.

This seems to happen all the time. A coach will come in with a reputation as an offensive/defensive guru, the team will put most of the resources on the other side of the ball, and the coach's strength will fail to improve the team on its own.

Personally, I take that to mean that the majority of coaches are overrated.

29 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle

always rich in analysis, great work

do you think it would be permissible to embed youtube video of the plays you dissect?

it would make a lot more sense for us illiterate

30 Re: TDZ: Bengal Bungle


I assume you didn't see the esteemed Mr Tanier's face on the Leaf trailer? I don't think YouTube could handle that sort of abuse again! :-P