Digesting the Bengals

Happy Friday, friends.  When we last talked I was depressed, and really down on Kyle Orton.  Today I’m doing fine, and I’m still really down on Kyle Orton.  A few of his cheerleaders on this site tried to get me to argue with them about Orton’s suckitude, but I have a long-standing policy of not arguing; I just say what I think.  Besides, their rationalizations are about as meaningful to me as a billboard is to John Fox.  He trusts his eyes, and I trust mine.  This article is not about Kyle Orton, though, so let’s get down to the business of digestion.  (Hat tip to broncosmontana for suggesting the title in last week’s comments.  We’re going with it every week.)

Game Watched : Week 1 at Cleveland

Bengals Defense

a.  My general observation is that the Bengals seem to have two tactics that they use frequently: They either line up in a Cover-2 look and play Cover-2, or they line up in a blitz/man look and blitz and play man-to-man.  There’s very little effort to disguise what’s coming on defense, or to disguise who is blitzing when they blitz.  They’re keeping it simple and trying to just go out and execute, and that kind of makes them parallel to the Colts' way of playing offense, except that the Colts (with Peyton Manning) are a lot better at executing on offense than the Bengals are at executing on defense.

I look at the Bengals' defensive front, and while they’re not as good as Oakland is up front, they present a similar flavor of challenge.  It’s a big and physical group.  The DEs who play a lot, Robert Geathers (6-3, 280), Michael Johnson (6-7, 267), and Carlos Dunlap (6-6, 289) are all very large for the position.  Geathers may not play, and that’s not great news for the Broncos, because the best player of the three is Dunlap, who is nominally the sub package LE.  I said two years ago that the guy should have been a top-10 pick, and I was emphatically right.  He’s like a poor man’s Julius Peppers, and he’s improving with better technique.  He didn’t record a single official NFL statistic against Cleveland, but he hit the QB three times and pressured him two others.  Johnson knocked down two passes, while Geathers hit the QB once and pressured him three other times.  That’s a formidable group. 

Inside, Domata Peko is pretty ordinary, but the guy who’s emerging as a really good player is Geno Atkins.  He was a steal as a fourth-rounder last year, and he’s a good reminder that it’s pretty hard to go wrong with picking SEC Defensive Linemen in the Draft.  (Atkins went to Georgia.)  Atkins hit the QB once, pressured him twice, and knocked down a pass.  Overall, this is definitely an above-average group, and it’s balanced.  Even backup guys like DE Jonathan Fanene and Frostee Rucker, and DT Pat Sims are contributors.

The playing time for the DL broke out like this:  (stats gathered by Pro Football Focus)

Position Name Snaps
DE Geathers 40
DT Atkins 44
DT Peko 47
DE Johnson 46
DE Dunlap 32
DE Rucker 23
DT Sims 32
DE Fanene 28

b.  At LB, the star against Cleveland was former Raiders WLB Thomas Howard.  He’s ideal for a lot of the Cover-2 stuff that the Bengals like to do, because he started out as a DB at UTEP.  He’s primarily used in coverage, as are all of the Bengals' LBs, and he’s natural at it.  The MLB is Rey Maualuga, who’s pretty average.  He’s good against the run but can definitely be had in coverage.  Both Howard and Maualuga played all 73 snaps that the Bengals had on defense.  The SLB Manny Lawson didn’t play much last Sunday, only seeing 26 snaps and coming out frequently in passing situations in favor of either Nickelback Morgan Trent or backup Safety Gibril Wilson.  Lawson is primarily a go-forward player who’s best rushing the passer in a 3-4 alignment.  He’s kind of tall and thin and not a great candidate to play DE, so it’s hard to see how he fits unless the Bengals want to start rushing five men more often.  Cincy bought him cheap in the offseason, and Lawson basically took a job, I think.  The only backup LB to see the field Sunday was WLB Brandon Johnson, for a total of four snaps.

c.  The secondary group is interesting for the Bengals.  Leon Hall is a good RCB and has been since he’s come into the NFL, and this summer the team made the decision to let Johnathan Joseph walk and sign Hall to an extension.  Hall’s contract averages $9.75 million, which is the same as Joseph got in Houston.  Since I think Hall is the better player, I give the Bengals credit.  The other CB is Nate Clements, who is getting to the downside of a good career but is still mostly solid.  The Browns did some work against him Sunday, and I definitely wouldn’t specifically shy away from him.  Trent, who was mentioned before, is a guy you want to specifically attack.  He’s fast, but he’s not a great coverage player.

The Safeties Chris Crocker and Reggie Nelson are generally average starters, and both played above-average football in Week 1.  Nelson is very quick, and he has good ball skills.  The knock on him in the NFL has been tackling, but he did pretty well in that area for once on Sunday.  Crocker is a solid veteran who has stayed in the NFL for nine years by being a good team guy and having a lot of versatility.  Wilson is a solid veteran backup that was used to cover Browns TEs man-to-man for the most part.

Bengals Offense

a.  I didn’t care for Andy Dalton that much coming out of college, but I was impressed with his play on Sunday.  The Bengals are running a pretty pure variant of the West Coast Offense, and they’re serious about dropping back three or five steps, playing a half-field read triangle concept, and getting the ball out to the best-positioned of the three guys in the triangle at the top step, with absolutely no delay.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever described this before, so I’m going to take a minute to divert into what I mean about a triangle concept.  All modern passing games aim to do their route construction in such a way that it creates spacing, and it’s hard for a non-intended-receiver’s defender to get to the intended receiver and effectively double-team him while the ball is in the air.  This is mostly achieved through a triangle concept.  Dalton gets to the third or fifth step and gets the ball out no matter what.  If the receiver isn’t open, he just throws it low and away to somebody, who either catches it or not, and the offense lives to fight another day.  This is what the West Coast Offense is all about, minimizing the damage a player like Lawrence Taylor could cause.

This is a triangle to the right.  Notice that there’s a deep guy, an intermediate guy, and a short guy, and they’re all within the view of the QB to the same side of the field.  The QB’s read is simply deep, intermediate, short, throw it at the FB’s feet.  The backside guy never comes into play.

Here’s one to the left, which incorporates crossing players.  It’s the exact same concept, where it’s a high-low read to one side of the field.  In this variant, there’s a built-in checkdown guy, with the FB going to the flat on the away-side of the field.  Maybe rather than throw the ball at the Z receiver’s feet if the play is covered, the QB goes back to the FB.

Dalton is crisp in executing this kind of stuff, and it honestly made me wish that Kyle Orton could do it.  Dalton only threw one downfield pass, which he completed in the middle for 22 yards.  He didn’t challenge the outside of the field at all, throwing no passes outside the numbers at a depth of greater than 10 yards.  That’s in keeping with the knock on him, that he lacks the great arm to drive the deep out.  But he’s a solid-looking young QB who executes the concepts that he’s given to execute and doesn’t hold the football.

b.  I’ve always liked Cedric Benson, and I continue to think that in terms of pure running talent, he’s one of the five best RBs in football.  Players who are as big and powerful as he is just usually aren’t as fast.  He runs well to all directions, and he’s just as comfortable getting to the edge as he is running inside.  He doesn’t give you much as a blocker or receiver, though.  Brian Leonard is the third-down guy, and he’s a good receiver and pass protector, and Bernard Scott is the primary backup run-down RB, and he’s just a guy.  The Bengals used FB Chris Pressley on 30 snaps, 23 of which were running plays, so you could take that to mean that it’s about 77% likely that the run is coming when he’s in the game.

c.  Rookie WR A.J. Green is going to be a big-time player, but he got shut down by Joe Haden in his debut.  He did catch the deep ball on the debacle/quick-snap that won the Bengals the game.  The other starter is Jerome Simpson, and he didn’t look very impressive on Sunday.  He was targeted nine times and caught four passes for 44 yards.  Slot WR Jordan Shipley has some ability, but he was shut down in the game on Sunday, catching two passes for a loss of one yard.  The fourth WR is Andre Caldwell, who was only targeted once and held without a catch.

d.  The player to worry about in the passing game besides Green is TE Jermaine Gresham.  He had six catches on eight targets and was generally a big matchup problem for the Browns.   He only had 58 yards, but he did score a TD, and he was the recipient of the only downfield throw from Dalton.  The blocking TE is Colin Cochart, #81, and of the 19 snaps when he was in the game,  he run-blocked on 18 and pass-blocked on the other.  He did a nice job opening up holes for Benson.

e.  The Offensive Line is big and solid.  When LT Andrew Whitworth came into the NFL, I thought he was a Right Tackle Only, but he’s become a good LT.  He’s not the quickest-footed guy, but he’s smart and plays with leverage and power.  LG Nate Livings and C Kyle Cook are both big and physical and were solid on Sunday.  Both are better in run-blocking than in protection.  Rookie RG Clint Boling was the least effective player in his debut, but even he had a few good moments.  I was pretty impressed with third-year RT Andre Smith, who was once the sixth pick in the 2009 Draft and is finally showing something.  He was solid both in the running game and as a pass protector.  This group averages 326 pounds.

Beating the Bengals' Defense

a.  Very simply, when the Bengals show Base Cover-2, which they do a lot, you want to try to run the football against them.  They really try to play seven in the box, and you have to make them pay for it.  They’d rather let you run it on them some and play their LBs with depth, than they would get beat on play-action because their LBs were up close and playing too aggressively.  The Browns didn’t run particularly well, but they had their best success to their right (defense’s left) side.  The Broncos also should be best-suited to run that way.

b.  When the Broncos are passing against Cover-2, the thing to do is try to hit Brandon Lloyd and Eddie Royal on the deep outside.  That’s the one throw that Kyle Orton is above-average at hitting vis-à-vis the rest of the NFL, and you really want to leverage it, because it’s the weak spot of Cover-2. 

c.  Of course, if you see the safeties shading outside, like on Orton's interception on Monday night, you need to be ready to hit Eric Decker, Julius Thomas, or Daniel Fells in the seam downfield.  Beating Cover-2 with a vertical passing game is a pretty easy thing for a good QB; watch what the Safety does, and throw it where he ain’t.

d.  When you get the Bengals in a blitz/man look, you want to play them to blitz and cover you in man-to-man.  That means keeping in extra protection and running designed plays to beat the blitz, generally where you get some kind of rub action.  I think that Eric Decker will destroy Morgan Trent in man-to-man, and I also love the Royal-Clements matchup.  Lloyd versus Hall is a pretty even one, so you go to it if it’s there, but don’t expect it to be there that often, and don’t lock onto Lloyd.  (Picture that.)

Stopping the Bengals' Offense

a.  This is going to be all about playing eight men in the box and having good gap discipline.  The Bengals want to pound you up front, and their O-Line is a good deal better than that of the Raiders.  The best thing to do is to be efficient on offense, get a lead, and never give the Bengals a chance to run much.  If no lead is established it’s probably not going to be pretty for the Broncos.

b.  Coverage-wise, I’m a fan of a lot of Cover-2 for this game.  It came back into vogue because it does a good job against West Coast passing, and with all of the short stuff that the Bengals want to throw, it’s a great idea. 

c.  Dalton needs to be pressured, and the Broncos will be able to do so with four players, especially if Elvis Dumervil plays.  If he doesn’t, I still feel good about Von Miller and Robert Ayers beating Whitworth and Smith.  Ayers had a lot of success against Smith when they played in college, and he had a quietly productive day rushing the passer against Oakland with five recorded pressures.

d.  I do like some timely blitzes against Cincinnati, because the only matchup that scares me in man-to-man is Gresham against a LB or a Safety.  If the Bengals play 11 personnel in a passing situation, which they often do, I’d put Champ Bailey (assuming he plays) on Gresham and leave Jordan Shipley for a LB or S.  Shipley is solid, but he’s really non-threatening deep, and I think Wesley Woodyard can run with him well enough.

e.  You have to be really aware of Brian Leonard out of the backfield when he’s in the game.  He extends two or three posessions a game for the Bengals by catching passes on third and long.  As much as Benson isn’t a threat in the passing game, Leonard is.

That’s about all I have for this week.  In a programming note, somebody asked me last week why I don’t include Special Teams, and it’s because it’s not something that I can articulate a strategy conversation about.  The kicking game is about blocking better, running faster, executing kicks, and making tackles, and that doesn’t ever change.

I’m personally not too big on the Broncos’ chances in this game after watching Week 1.  I can only see a win if Kyle Orton plays really well and gets the Broncos out to a lead.  (History tells me that that’s not very likely.)  Otherwise, I think the Bengals’ power and physicality end up dominating the game, and we’re likely to be disappointed in the outcome again.  What do you think?

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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