Steelers Film Room: Cincinnati Bengals Defensive Scouting Report

This year, Jon Ledyard and I will be collaborating our scouting reports. We’ll play to our strengths – he’ll be focusing on the individuals while I’ll be looking at overall scheme. These reports will be broken down into two articles, one for offense and one for defense.

Our reports for the Cincinnati Bengals’ defense.


Some quick stats. The Bengals are tied for 9th in the NFL with 17 sacks. 15 of those have come from their defensive line, including six from their interior. They haven’t been a ball-hawking secondary with only five interceptions (T-17th). Only one of those comes from a safety.

They keep a good rotation along the defensive line with five playing above 50%. Their linebackers have been more limited. Not once this season have they had two linebackers play 75% of the snaps. Vincent Rey (#57) is their every-down guy while everybody else rotates. Based on what I’ve seen Rey Maualauga (#58) is their two-down thumper. A.J. Hawk (#50) only plays as the WILL linebacker in the Bengals’ base 4-3. Emmanuel Lamur (#59) is their third-down, obvious pass situation linebacker. Chris Carter also exists and has played 15% of the defensive snaps. Bizarre.

Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones are the Bengals’ starting corners. Kirkpatrick is on the left and Jones on the right. Didn’t see them play receivers, just sides. I have seen both used but based on their last game in Week Six, Darqueze Dennard appeared to be the nickel corner over Leon Hall (update: Jon did remind me Hall was hurt last week, though). Dennard has played 31% of the defense’s snaps.

Their safeties are unqieuly big. George Illoka is a gangly 6’4 while Reggie Nelson is more compact, but still 220 pounds and can hit. You remember him from taking out Le’Veon Bell’s knee last year.

The Bengals are committed to keeping their four down lineman in the game. Even on the rare occasion where they want to use four cornerbacks, they’ll take off a safety to keep their 4-2 look.

Their defensive line is fairly stagnant. Don’t move their pieces around very much. You can expect Carlos Dunlap to be the LDE and Michael Johnson as the RDE. Both guys are unusually long, over 6’6. Going to disrupt throwing lanes and get their hands on passes. Dunlap has two pass deflections while Johnson has one. They do stunt but it’s pretty infrequent. If they do, it’s an X stunt with the three tech and the five crashing/looping. Won’t do it with the one because of the ground you have to cover.

Because of that defensive line, they don’t blitz very often. It doesn’t mean they don’t do it at all but it is infrequent and I’m sure checks based on formation than anything else. I did see them run one fire zone, shown here.


They mix and match coverages pretty well. Because of their preference to play with a safety in the box, often Nelson, they run a lot of Cover 3. But I also saw a lot of Cover 2 out of their two deep shell.


Like the Pittsburgh Steelers have run, I saw one example of their Two Trap coverage. Two Trap is a pattern read where the CB jumps #2 on any out-breaking route. Here it is in Week Five against the Seattle Seahawks. Unfortunately for them, the safety blew the coverage, failing to take #1 vertical. It resulted in an easy 30 yard touchdown for Jermaine Kearse.

CIND2Trap1 CIND2Trap2

On special teams, their starting gunners are Dennard and wide receiver Brandon Tate Josh Shaw. Cedric Peerman is the upback on the punt unit. He’s one of the best special teamers in the league and plays a high volume of snaps. He and fellow RB Rex Burkhead are seeing 2/3 of the action on the third unit. According to Pro Football Reference, they have combined for 29.1% of special teams tackles. Peerman has also forced a fumble.

Since 2012, Peerman has run three fakes as the upback, including once last year against the Steelers. It was a failed conversion. All three have come from the middle of the second quarter or earlier and no longer than 4th and 3.

They play only one true starter on their kick coverage, Nelson, though Lamur also has gotten a run on there.


The first thing that is impressive about the Cincinnati defense, is that outside of CB Adam Jones and S Reggie Nelson, all of their starters were drafted by the organization. Considering that, along with the fact that every single player on the roster that plays any real role in their offense has been drafted by the franchise, and you have a front office with one heck of an eye for talent.

Statistically speaking, this defense is a little bit all over the place. They allow 370 yards per game, including 261.5 through the air, marks that rank them 22nd and 21st in the league, respectively. Cincinnati has produced 17 sacks this season, in just six games, for an average of almost three sacks per game. Compare that to the 20 they produced all of last season, the lowest mark in the NFL, and you have easily the biggest reason for the unit’s improvement this season.

10.5 of the Bengals sacks come from two individuals, defensive end (6.5), and defensive tackle Geno Atkins (4.0). This duo combines to create a pass rush, as the rest of the unit is just average at getting to the quarterback.

Dunlap is on pace for over 17 sacks this year, which would annihilate his career high of 9.5 sacks notched during his rookie campaign. He’s long been considered one of the best run-stopping defensive ends in the NFL, but never been heralded as an elite pass rusher. Seeing that Dunlap’s 6.5 sacks are tied for the league lead at this point in the season, I decided to go back to the tape to analyze how he’s creating success as a pass rusher.

While Dunlap is showing some nice traits as a pass rusher, much of his success has come thanks to Atkins dominance at the line of scrimmage. The agile defensive tackle drew a holding call on one play against San Diego, which caused Philip Rivers to step up into Dunlap’s arms for the easy sack. Later in the game, Atkins whipped center Chris Watt off the ball to open up a massive lane for Dunlap to loop through on a stunt, leading to both players splitting the sack.


And again against Kansas City, Atkins blows by the right guard off the snap, creating a massive lane for Dunlap to exploit for a simple sack.


That isn’t to say that Dunlap isn’t good, just that his production is coming large part thanks to Atkins sheer destruction of opposing offensive linemen. Dunlap has some bend, and can rip and win the edge, but he’s not the individual danger that his sack number suggests.

Atkins is finally rounding back into his pre-knee injury form, looking absolutely dominant as a pass rusher this season. He’s so explosive off the ball, but his ability to convert that quickness into power by winning the leverage battle is just remarkable. Orlando Franklin is a massive 6’5, 320-pound man, and Atkins takes him for a ride straight back into Rivers.

Remarkable power at the point of attack, all generated by the explosiveness Atkins 6’1, 297-pound frame carries off the line of scrimmage. He’s a force as a penetrating three-technique who should see plenty of matchups against Ramon Foster on Sunday.

The rest of the defensive line is solid, but unspectacular. Michael Johnson and Wallace Gilberry are the guys you’ll see on third downs with Atkins and Dunlap, with Gilberry often rushing from the interior.

Domata Peko is their 1st/2nd down run stuffer, and after years with the team, he is still all over the place from an evaluation perspective. Double teams typically annihilate him, and at times he’ll get blown out of the hole with ease. This is the third or fourth time on the Bills first drive of the game that he was just rocked five yards off the line of scrimmage.

On occasional snaps he’ll come in like a wrecking ball (Yes, I phrased it that way so you would mentally envision the 320-pound Peko straddling a metal ball at the end of a crane, clothing optional, a la Miley. Worst thing I’ve ever written, I know). But for the most part, Peko is upright all the time and can’t keep blockers off his frame.

For what it is worth to you, Pro Football Focus has graded Peko as one of the worst starting defensive players in the NFL for years now. Great leader in the locker room who helps the young guys though. And occasionally flashes stellar play. But as a whole Peko’s bad, one of those players who just sticks with an organization for years despite being average in his best moments (Chad Greenway, A.J. Hawk,DeAngelo Hall, etc.).

And while Atkins is a handful, he’s much easier to control in the run game than as a pass rusher. He can’t handle doubles, and you can get him off balance with a chip. I expect Pittsburgh to run the ball a lot and take advantage.

The Cincinnati linebackers are just guys in my opinion. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga will thump inside, but he’s not nearly as good flowing laterally as he is moving north/south. He’ll make stops in the box, but almost never behind the line of scrimmage. Not instinctive at all, needs to see it develop. He’ll take on blockers physically, but he’s a fairly easy second level target to hit.

Vincent Rey leads the team in tackles with 57, 18 more than Maualuga, the next closest defender. The fifth-year linebacker is playing 92.2 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, substantially higher than Maualuga’s 66.4 percent, again the next closest linebacker. He’s a tremendous athlete with coverage ability and fantastic movement skills, but his read-and-diagnose needs work still. Rey is ridiculously out of position on some plays, often without any idea where the ball is going.

Here’s Rey and Maualuga flowing left several steps while the Bills run split zone to the defenders’ right.


There is no deception on this play at all, but not only are both linebackers completely frozen by Charles Clay’s movement across the formation, but they actually take several steps in the wrong direction, then fail to really pursue the football at all.

My biggest takeaway with this group is a lack of discipline and a lack of instincts. They take tons of false steps, are suckers for play-action fakes, and will react to the first thing you show them in any misdirection. Neither Rey or Maualuga, or 3rd down linebacker Emmanuel Lamur have much of a natural feel for the game, and their read-and-diagnose ability is remarkably slow at times. Rey and Lamur can make stops because of how fast and athletic they are, but a clever offense can manipulate them badly in the run and the pass game. There are battles here to be won for Pittsburgh.

AJ Hawk is playing a little more lately, but he’s even worse than he was in Green Bay. Total liability in coverage, stiff as a board moving laterally, and struggles to get off blocks. Bengals defense is better when he is not on the field.

Of course, the team’s best linebacker is Vontaze Burfict, who was just cleared to return to practice for the first time this season. He isn’t expected to suit up against Pittsburgh however, so the unit should remain as it has been through the first seven weeks.

The Bengals secondary is a solid unit, and they very well should be, considering that five former first round picks reside there, including four drafted by Cincinnati. A little bit funny that of their top six defensive backs, only safety George Iloka was not a first round pick (5th) and he might be their best defender in the secondary. Iloka is one of the biggest safeties in the NFL at 6’4, 225 pounds, and he loves to work in zone coverage where he can work top-down on the ball. He’ll step into a man role on occasion and does fine, but his range is best utilized in single-high or Cover 2 roles. I’m a big fan of Iloka, as he doesn’t miss many tackles and he wins from the neck up. Underrated player in the NFL.

Reggie Nelson is a better athlete than Iloka who also has impressive range on the back end. He loves to hit and is aggressive on underneath routes, but rarely lets vertical patterns behind him either. Not often you see that combination within the same player. He plays some single-high as well, occasionally stepping into the box, but not often.

Adam Jones still has that breath-taking click-and-close on the football, as Joe Flacco learned the hard way in Week 3.

The man just knows how to bait quarterbacks and has the ball skills to make them pay.

Darqueze Dennard, last year’s first round pick, stepped into the nickel cornerback spot in place of the banged up Leon Hall against Buffalo. I liked his physicality and toughness better on the boundary when I scouted him, but its a bit crowded there between Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick.

Kirkpatrick is the enigma of the group, as he can be remarkably undisciplined and volatile at times. He has the length and athleticism to grow into a truly excellent cornerback, and I’ve actually been very impressed with what I’ve seen from him this season. He is physical down the field, but he can also give up position to receivers too easily. This issue can be alleviated if Kirkpatrick found the football more often in coverage, rather than playing the receiver so ardently.

Kevin Huber is unquestionably one of the finest punters in the game, as his 47.9 average ranks 7th in the NFL. He isn’t called upon often, with just 23 punts on the season, but he’s managed to land 12 of those inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. The eight-year veteran has only had one punt blocked in his entire career, with the one mishap coming all the way back in 2010.

Rookie Josh Shaw and Dennard are the team’s gunners. Dennard needs to get nastier with his hands, as he has been beat up by jammers this season. For a corner who thrived collegiately in press coverage, having a tough time with the shoe on the other foot.

Shaw is a pretty linear dude who doesn’t move well laterally. He can lose the angle really quickly is he’s overaggressive at all. Allowed a 14-yard return, and a 21-yard return against Baltimore when he overran the returner twice and couldn’t change directions. He’s a good tackler, but not ideal in space, so definitely a curious move to have him at gunner. Brandon Tate got a rep in Shaw’s place on one of the two Bengals punts against Buffalo in their last game, so we’ll see who Cincinnati rolls out to contain Antonio Brown on Sunday.


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