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Film room: The Bengals run defense is an opportunity for the Patriots to right the ship

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A get-right opportunity for the ground game?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

After two-straight losses, the New England Patriots are searching for a “get right” game. A get right game for their quarterback, a get right game for their offense, and perhaps even a get right game for their coaching staff.

Enter the Cincinnati Bengals.

The denizens from the AFC North limp into Week 15 with a 1-12 record and are in the driver’s seat for the first overall selection in the 2020 NFL Draft. While visions of Joe Burrow and Chase Young are dancing in their fans’ heads, they do have a game to play this Sunday when the Patriots come to town.

This game certainly provides a get right opportunity for Tom Brady. The Bengals are one of the league’s worst passing defenses. Opposing passers have posted an Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (ANY/A) of 7.7 against them this season, a mark which would place such a quarterback in the Top 10 of all qualified passers this year. As a team, their defensive DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value over Average) is 14.1%, which places the Bengals as the 30th ranked defense in the NFL.

But there is also an opportunity for the Patriots’ offense to right the ship in a different manner. The Bengals are among the league’s worst run defenses, by almost any metric. They allow 156.7 yards per game to opponents on the ground, worst in the league by over 15 yards per game. Of course, there is a game script component to this: With the Bengals losing 12 games, their opponents are often working the clock in late game situations, adding to those rushing numbers. But on a per carry basis, the Bengals also fare poorly. Cincinnati allows 4.9 yards per rushing attempt, and only four teams (Jacksonville, Carolina and Kansas City) have allowed more per attempt.

Of course this begs a question about last week’s game but I digress…

This is also one of those moments in covering football where the film and the numbers match up well. Watching this defense on film you see plays where teams have success against them on the ground using both zone and gap/power schemes.

Thus pointing to a chance for the Patriots’ ground attack to get right this week.

Let’s start with some zone blocking designs. Last week against the Cleveland Browns the Bengals allowed 146 yards rushing and two touchdowns on the ground, and this play is a perfect example of some of Cincinnati’s struggles stopping the run this season. Facing a 1st and 10 late in the third quarter, the Browns run wide zone to the left side of their offense out of a pistol alignment:

Now, I am not the world’s foremost expert on run fits from a defensive perspective, but I know enough to understand that one of the linebackers here misses their assignment. Either rookie linebacker Germaine Pratt (#57) tries to cheat and backdoor this play, or veteran Nick Vigil (#59) overruns this play, but either way the backside A-Gap is completely open for the running back to exploit on a “bend” or cutback read. Nick Chubb (#24) does exactly that, bursting through the crease for a gain of 11 yards.

Bend reads or cutback lanes are going to be something to watch for on Sunday, as the Bengals’ defense provides opposition running games many opportunities on the backside. Take this play from Cincinnati’s Week 13 victory over the New York Jets. On this play, the offense runs an inside zone play using a split zone design. Le’Veon Bell (#26) aims his run to the right side of the formation and the offensive line flows in that direction as well. However, once more we see overpursuit from the second level, as Pratt flows to his left. This enables the Jets’ offensive line to seal off a backside crease, which the running back exploits:

Cutback opportunities are available on gap/power designs against this defense. On this play against the Jets (literally the very next snap) the New York offense runs a “GT Counter” design to the right, pulling left guard Alex Lewis (#71) and tight end Trevon Wesco (#85):

Wesco pulls on this play given the alignment of the defensive front, which requires the in-line TE as well as the tackle to handle some blocks right at the line of scrimmage.

Bilal Powell (#29) uses counter footwork and then aims for the right tackle spot behind Lewis, But once more, he sees a crease to the backside of this and exploits it, attacking up the middle for a decent gain:

The Jets used this design earlier in the game, and you can see on this 2nd down run how the GT Counter design works to get linebackers out-angled on the second level:

Here, Pratt’s footwork in response to the counter action gives Lewis a great angle on his pull, and the guard is able to get into the linebacker at the point of the attack. Bell is able to follow his lead blocker for a very solid gain.

On this play from Week 12, the Pittsburgh Steelers use a similar design, pulling the right guard to the left edge. Running back Kerrith Whyte Jr. (#40) uses delayed footwork before settling behind David DeCastro (#66) who is pulling in front of him, and the young RB rips off a huge run of 16 yards:

Critical to the success of this play is the crack block from wide receiver James Washington (#13) on the edge. The second-year WR gets just enough of Carl Lawson (#58) to prevent him from stopping this run before it gets going. From there Whyte simply follows DeCastro to the edge and down into the secondary.

Let’s look at one more play, an example of the Bengals’ defense struggling against a Duo design. This running scheme pairs two different double-team blocks, with the doubles working up towards the second-level defenders. As we know, the Patriots are a team that runs some Duo, and also uses it as a basis for some of their play-action designs.

On this play from Week 13, the Jets run Duo right at the heart of the Bengals’ defense with Ty Montgomery (#88) and the running back rips off an easy gain right at their interior:

This week is expected to be that proverbial get right game for the Patriots and their offense. While many are concerned about the state of the passing game, and hope to see Brady and company move the ball through the air, this is also a chance to get the ground game ready for a pivotal Week 16 clash against the Buffalo Bills. Look for Josh McDaniels to get Sony Michel and company involved early against this shaky Cincinnati run D.