This year, Matthew Sottile and I will break down the opposing team’s defense in our weekly scouting report. Like last year, I will be looking at the opposing team in a more broad, scheme-approach. Matthew will have a closer eye on the individual players.
The Bengals’ defensive line is as varied as ever. They employ a heavy rotation, especially at defensive end, to keep their guys fresh throughout. Their starters still usually line up in the same spots: Carlos Dunlap at LDE, Michael Johnson at RDE, but I have seen Johnson move around a bit. They each played around 80% last week.
Will Clarke, a relative newcomer but another home-grown draft pick, saw 12 snaps in the opener against the New York Jets. He appeared to line up exclusively at RDE.
Margus Hunt functions as the new Wallace Gilberry, minus all the bad blood. He’ll line up at either end spot and also play the one tech for them. In just 30 snaps, he batted two passes, played sound run defense, and on special teams, blocked a field goal.
As I wrote about, and Mike Tomlin spoke to, all these guys are massive. 6’6, 270+ with at least 34 inch arms. They present problems with their athleticism, size, and length. At 277 pounds coming out of Florida, Dunlap ran a 4.71. Johnson jumped 38.5 inches at 266. Hunt won a World Junior Olympics gold medal in the shot put.
Their length gives them a distinct advantage in the run game, the ability to create space, and as pass rushers, they get in the way of throwing lanes. One batted pass can lead to a turnover and both of Hunt’s deflections came really close to interceptions. It’s a big concern.
The interior group is roughly the same trio. Domata Peko is the starting one tech and Geno Atkins is the three. Atkins is easy to find, 90% of the time he’s on the outside shoulder of one of the guards. That doesn’t make him any easier to block though.
Pat Sims rotates in as a hefty run stuffer. He saw 27 snaps a week ago.
Last season, as a unit they allowed 14 runs of 15+ yards. That was tied for 6th best in the NFL. However, they allowed 4.3 yards per carry, 22nd worst in the league. Death by 1000 papercuts.
They’ll mix up their run defense but definitely will one-gap and look to penetrate, as seen here with the entire line slanting down a gap.
They were almost always in their 4-2-5 nickel look against the Jets. They left Vincent Rey (#57) and Karlos Dansby (#56) in for almost every snap. Dansby in fact played all of them while Rey was off the field for only four.
The few times they were in base, Rey Maualuga was ushered in as the MIKE linebacker. But he saw only eight total snaps. That’s gotta be a gut punch for someone who logged over 600 of them in 2015.
Dansby is the strongside linebacker, Rey the weakside. Rey seems super intent on reading his run keys, not gaining ground until he’s positive it’s a pass. Could be exploitable on playaction. Target Jesse James down the seam versus him.
Let’s start with who is lining up where. Adam Jones is the left corner, Dre Kirkpatrick the right, and Josh Shaw starting in the slot. I am not 100% sure how things will look with the presumed return of Darqueze Dennard.
Chris Lewis-Harris saw action in the second half of the Jets game, getting work inside and out. Officially, he played 20 snaps.
Shawn Williams replaces Reggie Nelson at safety while the gumby-bodied George Iloka remains at free safety. Both are big hitters.
Much like they always have, the identify themselves to be a two high shell team. They want their two safeties deep, able to make plays on the football (they were 3rd in INTs last year), and take away big plays (they allowed the fewest 20 yard gains through the air and next-to-best in 40+ pickups).
That’s what has given the Steelers’ offense so many fits in the past. They want to get vertical, they want to take chances, but the talent of scheme of the Bengals have taken that away and capitalized when the Steelers force things.
The upside here is the ability to establish a really strong run game. Get them in their sub-package, their 4-2-5, and run the ball down their throat. Jets’ running backs averaged 5.3 yards per carry last week.
On one drive, from the end of the third quarter to early 4th, the Jets had rushing gains of: 13, 8, 16, 7, 16, 3, 9.
That isn’t me cherry-picking either. That’s all of their runs, at least, until they got to the Bengals’ goal line. The entire yardage gained the whole drive, which started on the Jets own 25, came from the run.
Several plays in, the Bengals still hadn’t budged. They wanted to stay in their two high look.
Finally, after that second 16 yard run, they rolled a safety down.
That’s how you have to beat them. Draw them out of that two high shell, force them to play a way they clearly don’t want to, and then attack them deep. But you’re going to have to run the football REALLY well to do it.
Coverage wise, they vary. I’d venture they play more zone than man, especially before the 20. Lot of Cover 3 and some Cover 2. Both shown below.
In the red zone, they tend to man up. They do not appear to use any “banjo” calls on the goal line, not switching off cornerbacks against twin sets. They just set their CBs at different depths and hope to avoid any rubs. It comes with mixed success. They allowed their first TD on a slant/flat combo, shown below.
Blitz and scheme wise, I tip my hat to defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. Lot of coaching experience on that defensive side of the football. Guenther has been with the Bengals since 2005 while linebackers coach Jim Haslett has been coaching for decades. Both of those guys have head coaching experience, Haslett with much more, but Guenther spent three years as a head coach in college. In theory, that means they know how to lead and how to get the most out of their players.
Schematically, they’re a very difficult defense to get a beat on. They throw a lot at your pre-snap, even if they aren’t an ultra-aggressive team at the end of the day. I’d strongly suggest not using any empty set against them. They make you pay for it by sugaring the A gaps with their linebackers, stressing the protection.
Just a couple examples from Sunday.
Often, they drop out, but not always, and you have to respect and anticipate that A gap pressure.
Guenther will draw up a lot of other crazy looks. Like this one, with the potential for pressure anywhere, but turns out to be just a three man rush with straight Cover 2 behind.
Or this one, my favorite of his from Sunday. Heavy pressure look but only two rushers come. They still get to Ryan Fitzpatrick, the left tackle pinches (wants to work inside/out), leaving the right end free, and Fitzpatrick hurriedly throws this football into a sea of Bengals. Nearly picked off. Makes my head spin.
One tip off they do give is on their nickel blitz. Often on third and medium (4-7), they’ll bring the boundary nickel corner and linebacker and drop the away side end.
The key is to watch the stance of the away side end. If he’s standing up, or isn’t completely on the ground, it’s an indication he’s dropping. Pretty easy thing to pick up on though the crazy thing is they have the athleticism to match it.
Watch defensive end Michael Johnson, listed at 272 pounds, drop and carry the #2 receiver down the seam.
Rare breeds and the Bengals love to collect them.
That’s why they’re a headache to deal with. They’re talented, unique, and offer up a lot of creativity from a well-traveled coaching staff.
Biggest concern of mine? The Bengals FG block unit. Sitting in the middle: Dunlap, Hunt, and Johnson. Lot of length – Hunt blocked a kick last week. And that was a short one. A long kick that needs a lower trajectory? I’m sweating bullets. Danny Smith has work cut out for him.
Hunt isn’t some big lug either. He was second on the team with 20 special teams snaps. He’s on the punt return team and if he gets free, look out. Has the wingspan to cause havoc.
The Bengals weren’t aggressive on blocking punts last week but seem to send one more from their left (punting team’s right) than they do the right.
Punter Kevin Huber aims for slightly outside the numbers, towards the sideline. The direction, left or right, may depend on the hash. Didn’t get a good feel.
On kickoffs, Mike Nugent sets the ball to center-right. He also aims for a corner, most often the return team’s right. Three of his kickoffs were returned, one for 60+ yards thanks to some terrible tackling.
Matthew’s Individual Report
Nine months after one of the most nerve-wracking, nail biting wild card games in recent memory, the Steelers are travelling to the home of the Cincinnati Bengals. They hope to keep the momentum from last week rolling, and although the main catalyst [Vontaze Burfict] behind January’s mayhem isn’t playing due to a suspension, this game is sure to bring with it some raw emotions that could lead to another display of fireworks.
Leading the defensive charge for the Bengals’ are a pair of incredibly gifted and physically straining interior lineman in Geno Atkins and Domata Peko. Looking strictly at their last matchup, Atkins had a monstrous game, amounting a total of 4 tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage, 3 quarterback hurries and a sack. In other words, if he wasn’t tracking down the running back for a stop, he was giving Ben Roethlisberger a headache as he was in his face all night long.
What I also want to bring to your attention is his instinctual knack of play diagnosis. Ben lines up shotgun, 3 wide in a single tight end set. Atkins lines up over David DeCastro, and begins downhill.
Once the ball is snapped, he immediately engages but does not spend much time battling; he senses the tight end screen, as both DeCastro and Cody Wallace turn upfield.
The Steelers will have to be weary when running screens, both inside and out, as their defensive line is athletic enough to catch them in pursuit, or prevent the play from taking off at all.
Domata Peko is wildly inconsistent on an otherwise stout defense; the only consistency in his game is how poor his pass rushing abilities are, as the impact he makes on the field solely rely in the run game. Having center Maurkice Pouncey back this year, after being absent in their last meeting, will have major ramifications on Peko’s influence [or lack thereof] throughout the day.
On either side of the two are DEs Michael Johnson, and one of their biggest defensive weapons Carlos Dunlap. The former had an incredibly difficult game in that wildcard clash, getting taken for a ride when the Steelers decided to deploy their will against the Bengals in the run game. He was swallowed up more times than not, and made very little impact in the pass rush, as well. He registered the worst overall grade of the game, which was mainly caused by his pitiful run defense.
Whereas Johnson fails to live up to expectation from time to time, Dunlap has become an absolute workhorse in both facets of the game. Taking a look at his wildcard performance, he registered a whopping 5 quarterback pressures, a batted pass, and a stop. Although he has garnered a reputation as one of the more feared pass rushers in the game, it was his run stopping ability that caught the eyes of many.
Taking a look below, we see one of those examples where his motor just won’t quit. As the play begins to develop, Ben tosses the ball to RB Jordan Todman; T Marcus Gilbert pulls, creating a passage for him to follow.
TE Heath Miller attempts to block Dunlap, but is simply blown by as if he wasn’t even there.
Dunlap stays with the ball carrier, all the while spinning around Miller and keeping square in preparation for the tackle. It may seem textbook, but it’s incredibly tough to defend against a play such as Dunlap.
Whether in the run or the pass, RT Marcus Gilbert is going to have his hands full all day long. Taking a look at last week against the New York Jets, Dunlap amounts a ridiculous 2 quarterback hurries, 2 batted passes, 5 tackles and 3 stops. That’s the recipe for an offensive lineman’s nightmare.
The linebackers are lead by Rey Maualuga in the middle, who is another instinctual player that charges downfield when he’s able to sniff out the play. It’s interesting to note that one of the knocks he had coming out of college was his lack of instinct- my, how things have changed. That being said, having such a great line infront of him does take away some of his ability to make an immediate, influential impact. He’s notched only 43 solo tackles in 2015, and is off to a rocky start as he’s been battling a calf injury, which only allowed him to take part in eight snaps against the Jets.
Flanking on either side of him are Karlos Dansby and Vincent Rey, as Burfict is still serving the suspension he accrued last [street fight] time the two teams met. Although Dansby accumulated 8 tackles, he was good for a few misses, and played poorly against the run. Rey, on the other hand, may be the only bright spot behind Atkins and co., as he was able to rack up 8 tackles as well; 4 of those came at or behind the line of scrimmage. Safe to say he’s going to be their rock coming out of the flat on Sunday.
The secondary is where it gets a bit rocky for the Bengals, which is good news for the Steelers. Let’s start with CB Dre Kirkpatrick, who has been viewed as a conundrum since entering the league in 2012 out of Alabama. Kirkpatrick was the second highest targeted cornerback in 2015, only behind then rookie Marcus Peter of the Kansas City Chiefs (who, might I add, made the most of his opportunities). He struggled mightily, allowing 3 receptions on 6 looks for 36 yards and a touchdown against the Jets.
Compiling this issue is rookie CB William Jackson III’s season-ending injury, and CB Darqueze Dennard’s nagging injuries that have prevented him from making any sort of impact in that secondary. Josh Shaw essentially replaced Dennard’s slot role, and actually played quite well against Eric Decker; he stopped all 3 targets to the receiver, and overall, allowed only 1 reception on 4 targets while also grabbing an interception to cap off a productive day.
Opposite Kirkpatrick is none other than Adam Jones, who’s infamous crying face from last year’s wildcard game could rival replacing the crying Jordan, is an enforcer and emotional leader. Although allowing all 3 targets as receptions last week, they only went for 31 yards and included no touchdown against. He plays with a chip on his shoulder, and you never quite know what you’re going to get when he steps onto the field. Last year saw him accrue 12 batted balls, 3 interceptions, and 62 total tackles.
Safety Shawn Williams graded well last week, totaling 9 tackles, 4 of which were for no gain. He can be seen sneaking into the box, adding pressure against the run; it’s his pass defense that’s his strong suit. That being said, he was targeted for a short touchdown last week against Quincy Enunwa.
George Iloka rounds off the Bengals defense, and boy oh boy does he know how to lower the boom. Steelers fans have become used to Mike Mitchell’s flying-out-of-a-cannon style of play; well, Iloka is Mitchell in Bengal stripes. He’ll punish the ball carrier, so this will be a challenge for any receiver heading over the middle of the field, or any unsuspecting back.
The special teams unit on 4th downs allowed an average of 5.5 yards/return on 2 total returns last week, but allowed 110 total yards on 3 kickoffs with a long of 65 yards. Could the Steelers potentially find success in their return game?
Last year’s totals were quite good in both categories, allowing no touchdowns and a 6.3 yards/return on 4th downs with a 22.6 yards/kickoff average. P Kevin Huber had 3 opportunities last week, averaging 48 yards per attempt with a long of 58.