by Ben Muth
Welcome to a special Friday edition of Word of Muth. This week we’re going to look at the Bengals and their dominant victory over the Colts from Sunday. The Bengals offensive line played well and beat the hell out of the Colts up front. It was a dominant performance by a unit that has been strong all year and may be getting better with a lineup shuffle.
The Cincinnati offensive line was so good on Sunday, it didn’t really matter what offensive coordinator Jay Gruden called. It seemed like everything Gruden dialed up went for big yards against an Indy defense that has been in complete disarray recently. Keep in mind that this Colts defense is currently 25th in run defense DVOA. Still, this was their worst game of the season, notching a 31.7% single-game rating. Let’s take a look at some of the many different successful schemes and plays from Sunday’s game.
Here, the Bengals are running a basic inside zone lock scheme. That means that the front side of the play (left tackle through right guard) is playing a traditional inside zone blocking scheme, while the back side of the play (right tackle, tight end, fullback) is in a man blocking scheme, like a basic lead play. The running back is reading the three-technique to the nose guard.
There’s a couple of nice things right off the snap. Left guard Andrew Whitworth does a nice job of covering the defensive tackle completely, giving the running back a two-way go to push the line of scrimmage initially. Right tackle Andre Smith has completely sealed off the backside end. When someone as big as Smith gets that position, he can just post up and hold his ground. Finally, at center, Kyle Cook does a nice job of moving playside through the nose tackle and blowing his shoulder off in the process. Everyone’s in great shape here. Well, except the Colts, of course.
One thing I do think warrants mention is that Whitworth plays guard like a tackle, which only makes sense as Whitworth has been a tackle most of his career. There are certainly some positives to this, but it makes me nervous. In pass protection, I think he sets too deep initially for a guard and gives up ground he doesn’t need to. He’s a really good pass blocker -- he’s a Pro Bowl left tackle after all -- so he’s gotten away with it so far. But it’s something to keep an eye on. Andy Dalton is not someone you want throwing off his back foot with pressure in his face.
On this play, playing like a tackle means shotputting the defensive tackle outside as soon as possible. When you’re an offensive tackle that is zone blocking, your goal is to get your helmet outside, threaten a reach block, and then use the defensive end's own momentum to throw him outside and widen the hole when he starts to fight outside. That works at offensive tackle because you line up wide to begin with, and tackles are generally bigger and stronger than defensive ends.
At guard, there isn’t as much natural width. If you go to throw a guy outside and don’t get much movement, all you’ve done is open a lane into the backfield right at the running back's aiming point. Guards typically try to stay a little more square on defenders when they zone block, so they can try to get some vertical movement as well as widening the defensive tackle.
In the pic above, you can see that Whitworth and left tackle Anthony Collins have the exact same lower body positioning. That’s because they’re both blocking like tackles. Here, it doesn’t matter, because Whitworth is simply a better player than the guy he’s blocking. But it’s something that could come back to haunt him against better three-techniques later in the season. Or in the playoffs.
But today Whitworth looks like the Hulk because he just threw the defensive tackle to the ground. Notice how it really is a full-blown shotput by Whitworth with that back hand.
With the three-technique clearly playing outside, Bernard has to turn to the nose tackle. Here, he wants to press the double team as much as possible and force the linebacker behind it to declare what gap he’s going to fill. Again, the Bengals are in great shape here.
Bernard does a fine job of pressing the double team and Jerrell Freeman (50) ends up peeking inside. As soon as he does, Bernard puts his foot in the ground and runs right off Cook’s ass to the outside. It ended up being a 19-yard gain. Perfect execution by Cincinnati.
The Bengals had a lot of success in between the tackles all day, but where they really killed the Colts was outside the tackle box. It seems the Bengals ran about eight halfback pitches or tosses for roughly 10 yards a pop. Indianapolis simply had no answer. I don’t know why they were so successful with a basic scheme that most teams use as change-up. After all, the Bengals haven’t been particularly great at these schemes this year. But for whatever reason they looked like Lombardi’s Packers on the power sweep on Sunday.
The first thing you’ll notice is that Tyler Eifert is not pictured, so I had to add a circle for both him and a corner. The end zone camera is the greatest invention of our modern times, but even Superman has kryptonite.
The scheme itself is just a crack block, down block, then kick and lead. The wide guy (Eifert) cracks on the outside linebacker, the tight end seals off the defensive end, the left tackle kicks the force player, and the left guard leads through the alley. Literally every team in the NFL has this exact play in their playbook (although the wide guy might be a wideout instead of a tight end for most teams).
Anthony Collins (circled) does a great job of adjusting his route and helping out Eifert. At the snap, the outside linebacker felt the Eifert crackback and played it well. Rather than trying to maneuver around it, Collins just blocked the most dangerous threat. It was a heady block. Collins has certainly earned the right to start this year with his play, and this was no exception.
The other great block is by Jermaine Gresham (arrowed). I’ve been critical of Gresham’s blocking this year, but he was very good on Sunday and excellent on this play. He comes down and absolutely stonewalls the defensive end. There's no leakage to the outside.
Eifert needing help on his block actually ended up helping the Bengals in a weird way. Because Cincy had success getting outside of those crack blocks throughout the game, the rest of the defense overpursued when they saw the toss action. So with Collins kicking out Eifert’s man, and Gresham sealing off the defensive end, there ended up being a huge hole inside of the crackback block for Bernard to run through.
The toss crack was Cincinnati’s most successful play, but my personal favorite was a play they ran only once in the first quarter. I don’t want to call it a trick play, but it was ... let’s call it a deception-based play. It was the kind of play that is great in theory, but takes some guts to call. You are essentially gambling that the other team is going to react to something in a very specific way.
The basic idea of the play is for everyone on the team to block a single-back power G play. Everyone blocks down, and the backside guard pulls and kicks out the playside defensive end. The wrinkle is that the running back just runs to where the pulling guard came from. Because NFL defenses are so conditioned on how to stop power, gap, and man schemes, you should be able to count on them to react a certain way when they see that action.
What the defense wants to do is essentially engage whatever blocker is coming at them, stand them up, and beat the offensive player across their face. They don’t want to overrun the play, but they have to beat the blocker across his face to make a tackle. The Colts are in great shape to do that here. Their linebackers both recognize the blocking immediately and are flying towards their blockers to meet them in the hole and a make a play.
Unfortunately for Indy, this is a play of deception. (That sounds like a line from the worst Indiana Jones fanfiction ever.) As soon as they go to cross face, the blockers wheel on them, and seal them off. Ryan Cook, in particular, does a great job on the nose tackle by making it feel like a standard down block before pivoting his hips around and actually reach-blocking the nose.
The Indianapolis defense essentially blocks themselves. The only Cincy offensive lineman who has a tough job is Collins, and that's just because he has to maintain his pre-snap inside leverage. The play looks great here, because the Colts defense read their keys and played according to them. But all it takes is a single inside linebacker or defensive tackle to peek into the backfield and see that Bernard isn’t running the Power G to find themselves with a tackle for loss.
It’s rare that you see teams in the NFL off-pull (pull a guy one way and run right behind where he left from), but when it works it really is one of the niftiest things in football.