by Ben Muth
Sunday’s Wild Card weekend officially ended the seasons of the two teams I covered that made the playoffs. It was a tough day for both Cincinnati and Philadelphia, but we’re going to focus on the Bengals this week and come back to the Eagles next week.
The Bengals offensive line was the best I covered this year. They had six legitimate NFL offensive linemen and all of them looked very good at different times this year. Cincy was particularly strong at tackle where they had two Pro Bowl-caliber players in Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith and a third tackle that will be a highly-sought free agent in Anthony Collins.
I think Bengals best five-man lineup, from left to right, was probably Collins, Whitworth, Kyle Cook, Kevin Zeitler, and Smith. While I would like to see the Bengals re-sign Collins (their only free-agent lineman) from an on-field perspective, I’m expecting Collins to be making $3-5 million a year by next August. It jus doesn’t make sense to invest that much money so you can move Whitworth to guard when Clint Boling is an above-average player there already and he’ll make under $700K next year. The Bengals will probably have to let Collins go.
The biggest surprise for me is that I ended the year liking Kyle Cook more than Kevin Zeitler. Zeitler was dominating at times. In the running game he was exception, but he too often got beat in pass protection -- almost always because he ducked his head -- and was generally just too inconsistent. It wasn’t a bad sophomore year from Zeitler but I’m not sure how much better he got from the end of last year to the end of this year.
Cook on the other hand, started all 16 games and was solid from play to play and game to game. He excelled at blowing shoulders off nose tackles in combination blocks and blocking linebackers at the second level in the Bengals inside zone game. He’s not a great pass protector ... but you can get away with that at center. I became a big Cook fan by the end of the year.
With that out of the way let’s get to the game on Sunday. The big story for Cincinnati’s offense was obviously Andy Dalton’s play. And while I agree that was the biggest factor in the outcome of the game, there were plenty of things that the Chargers defense and the Bengals offensive line did that contributed to the final result.
I really thought the Chargers safeties did a great job in run support, particularly in the first half. The Chargers were playing with two deep safeties a lot early in the game, seemingly in an effort to encourage the Bengals to run the ball. Then, as soon as the Cincy showed any run action at all, the safety on the play side would come flying towards the line of scrimmage in run support. Let’s take a look at a play from the first quarter so I can show you what I'm talking about.
The Bengals are running a singleback power concept. You can see that because Cincinnati is spread out, they’re facing a six-man box and have a hat for every defender in that box. San Diego has two deep safeties and Cincy has a great play called against this look.
The Bengals even catch an additional break on the play because the defensive tackle, over Andre Smith on the right side, slants down and creates a huge hole for the pulling Whitworth, who is leading up through it. You can see the safety has already come downhill enough to be in the screen before BenJarvus Green-Ellis is anywhere near the hole.
Jermaine Gresham also does a nice job on the edge here locked up against the defensive end. Plays like this are what make watching Gresham so maddening at times. There are five-to-seven plays a game where he looks like an absolute stud in the trenches, but other than those handful of plays his blocking ranges from meh to a real problem. And the frustrating thing is that I don’t why. It doesn’t seem like an effort thing, or a specific technique thing -- though he does try to throw cut blocks at the worst possible time -- he just has a hard time stringing together good games of solid run blocking. Again, he has enough blocks like the one above that they can’t all be flukes, but he averages out to a sub-par run blocker.
By the time Green-Ellis does get to the hole, Marcus Gilchrist is there to meet him and combines with a linebacker to make a tackle for just a 2-yard gain. Whitworth missed the block on the linebacker, but that’s the result of the linebacker jumping around the block. If the safety isn’t in the hole, there’s no way the linebacker can get in on the tackle. If it wasn’t for Gilchrist that linebacker would get a butt-chewing from the defensive coordinator for playing soft, instead of an assisted tackle.
Safeties flying into the box to make tackles weren’t a one-time thing either. It was a consistent problem throughout the first half for the Bengals. Here’s another shot from a first-and-20 in the second quarter.
This time it’s Eric Weddle meeting Giovani Bernard right at the line of scrimmage. Weddle is playing the run action aggressively despite lining up on the same side of the field as A.J. Green and the first-down marker being 20 yards away. That’s showing absolutely no fear of the deep passing game.
It baffled me why the Bengals didn’t try more play-action in the first half of this game, particularly up the seams. It probably didn’t help the play-action game that Dennis Roland played 12 snaps at tight end to Tyler Eifert’s three, but hey, I’m not the head coach of the Washington Redskins. I really believe there were some big plays left out there by the coaching staff.
The other big issue for Cincinnati was their pass protection. There were different individual breakdowns throughout the game. Andre Smith would step too far inside on a 4I and get beat around the edge. Whitworth would set too deep and end up in Dalton’s lap by the time he was trying to throw. Bernard would miss a defensive back blitz or get beat by a linebacker he did see. It seemed like it would be a different guy each time, but the killer came in the third quarter when the right side of Cincinnati’s line completely forgot how to pick up blitzes and stunts for about five minutes of game time. We’ll take a look at back-to-back pressures from that frame which, for all intents and purposes, ended the game.
The Chargers are bringing a five-man pressure with a tackle/end stunt on the offense’s right side. It’s a simple stunt but it’s effective against certain protections. The Bengals ran a man-protection scheme where the offensive line was responsible for the four down linemen and the Mike linebacker.
You’ll notice that because both defensive tackles are wide three-techniques before the snap, the center Kyle Cook make a "hole" or "void" call. That means he just drifts in the middle (staring at the Mike) and helps whichever guard ends up needing it.
The problems for the Bengals develop almost immediately. The issue is that because the Chargers have added the additional rusher off the edge, the tackle in the tackle/end stunt doesn’t have to worry about contain. He can just fly up the field in the B-gap. That makes this stunt a SOB to pass off in man-protection schemes.
The key to passing it off is that the guard has to stop the penetrator’s momentum with a firm punch. Zeitler just kind of leans on the defensive tackle and lets him get too far up field. Now Zeitler and Smith are on different levels and have no chance of passing the game off between them.
Dalton sees the pressure from the defensive tackle and tries to roll out to his right to avoid it because he’s right-handed, and because that’s what Andy Dalton always does to escape pressure. He actually probably could’ve stepped up, since Cook ends up helping on the stunting defensive end, but he doesn’t and ends up throwing it away instead.
That first play was the Chargers running a solid stunt against the right protection scheme. It happens. This next play is a case of the Chargers running a solid stunt against a protection scheme I can’t identify because someone really messed it up.
I’ll start with what the protection isn’t: It’s definitely not a full-slide protection. After that, it really could be anything. The look that San Diego came out in seemed to cause confusion from the start, as Dalton pointed left and yelled outside while the center Cook was pointing all over the place. My guess is that Cincinnati was in man-protection again, and that Dalton was pointing to Eric Weddle as a hot read. But I could be completely wrong.
All we know is what actually happened. Both Zeitler and Cook stepped initially to the nose. The left side of the line both kicked to their outside gaps. Andre Smith starts to set on the five-technique, and Bernard is working off the right edge of the line. That’s what happened at the snap. Then things got bad.
At the snap, Zeitler stepped inside, but got his eyes immediately outside when he felt the defensive tackle loop away, Cook stayed with the defensive tackle across his face as the play progressed. Smith followed the five-technique inside initially, but eventually came back outside.
Also, it doesn’t factor into the play at all, but you’ll notice that Whitworth is the deepest Bengals lineman on this play. That’s never where you want to be as a guard, even if you are kicking out wide.
And there’s the moment of truth. For some reason, Zeitler decided to look back inside while Smith redirected outside. I’m not sure if Smith was supposed to have the five-technique the whole time or if Zeitler should’ve picked him up when he came inside, but someone pretty clearly messed up. The result was the interception that ended the game and the Bengals season.
That does it for this week, but you can look forward to another downer of column next week as we look at Philadelphia’s season-ending loss from last Sunday.