Passing the football has been a problem for the 1-12 Cincinnati Bengals so far this season: led by quarterback Andy Dalton and rookie Ryan Finley in a three-week intermezzo, the team’s aerial attack has produced just 2,948 yards so far this season (18th in the NFL), 12 touchdowns (31st) and 11 interceptions (18th) while producing significantly worse results than other teams when judged by Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic (-13.7%; 29th).
The performances of Dalton and Finley certainly play their part in this, but the Bengals’ lack of weapons — or at least their inability to produce consistent results — have also hurt the unit. There is one exception, however, and the New England Patriots’ defense needs to make him a priority when it goes up against Cincinnati’s offense this week: fourth-year wide receiver Tyler Boyd, who leads the team in every important receiving statistic.
At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, Boyd is a physically imposing pass catcher that has consistently made life hard for opposing defenses: he has caught 73 passes on 115 targets so far this season for a combined 833 yards and three touchdowns. Safe to say that if the Patriots can slow the 25-year-old down on Sunday, their chances of stopping an inconsistent offensive attack will increase substantially.
How can they do that? Let’s take a look at the film to find out.
1-10-CIN 19 (3:41) (Shotgun) A.Dalton pass short middle to T.Boyd to CIN 48 for 29 yards (D.Thompson; J.Thompson).
Boyd had his best game against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 5. While Arizona’s defense is not exactly among the NFL’s elite — quite the opposite: it ranks 28th in the league with 26.1 points surrendered per game — the wide receiver’s skillset was on full display during his 10-catch, 123-yard performance that also saw him reach the end zone once regardless of opponent: Boyd was terrific, and the Cardinals did not have an answer for him.
The following play illustrates both Boyd’s skillset in the open field and how the Cardinals unsuccessfully tried to contain him:
On this first-and-10 situation, the Cardinals spread their pass catchers out in a 2x3 set with Andy Dalton (#14) in shotgun. Boyd (#83), meanwhile, aligned tight on the right side of the formation. With Arizona showing a Cover 2 man-to-man look, his opponent on the play was linebacker Jordan Hicks (#58) — a clear mismatch in the offense’s favor, and one that Dalton recognized quickly when he hit the wide receiver on a short pass that turned into a 29-yard gain.
While he allowed Boyd to get open easily on a short stutter-step in-cut, Hicks is hardly to blame for surrendering the catch. After all, the Cardinals put him in a bad spot going one-on-one against one of the best young wide receivers in the NFL. The result, considering these circumstances, is hardly a surprise — and a lesson the Patriots should learn: matching Boyd up with a linebacker in man coverage is a recipe for failure with no help over the top or him getting a free release at the line of scrimmage. Speaking of which...
1-10-PIT 15 (2:00) (Shotgun) R.Finley pass short right to T.Boyd for 15 yards, TOUCHDOWN [C.Heyward].
Boyd’s third 100-yard game of the season came in Week 13 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. While Cincinnati ultimately ended up losing the game, the wide receiver again had a big impact and actually put his team up front 7-3 in the second period when he caught a 15-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ryan Finley. Once again, Boyd’s impressive skills were on display as he made a contested catch in the end zone for the score.
Cincinnati approaches the play — which came right after Boyd registered a 47-yard catch against Pittsburgh’s zone defense — with him split out wide in a slot formation to the offensive right. While the former second round draft pick spends most of his time aligning in the slot (498 plays, per Pro Football Focus) as opposed to the perimeter (276 snaps), he is certainly capable to stress outside cornerbacks due to his size and strength at the point of attack:
On this touchdown, Pittsburgh cornerback Joe Haden (#23) lines up in off-man coverage which allows Boyd to build up speed and get in good position against the defender. While Haden plays the down relatively well and does not overcommit on the double-move, he does get outmuscled at the top of the route which allows the wide receiver to get underneath him and make a leaping 15-yard catch over him for six points.
Boyd’s catch is of course impressive, but Haden and the Steelers defense may have been in a better spot had he not played the wideout off. With a free release at the line of scrimmage, Boyd was able to build up speed and turn his head around to adjust for Finley’s throw. What does this tell us? Getting physical with Boyd at the top of the route is a must, but it could be equally helpful to disrupt his timing right after the snap.
1-10-OAK 18 (4:37) (Shotgun) R.Finley pass incomplete short middle to C.Uzomah (N.Morrow).
No team was better at slowing Boyd down this season than the Oakland Raiders, who held him to one catch on three targets for a grand total of zero yards. The Raiders did what other teams failed to do: they tried to get physical with the Bengals’ number one downfield threat, while treating him as a priority in the passing game. The following first down is a good example of that approach, as Boyd was double-covered by the defense:
Cincinnati approaches the play in a tight formation, with Boyd aligned on its left edge. The Raiders, meanwhile, show a single-high safety look but invest considerable resources when it came to limiting the wide receiver’s impact: he was jammed by cornerback Nevin Lawson (#26) after releasing onto his crossing pattern, and was subsequently bracket-covered by linebacker Tahir Whitehead (#59) underneath and cornerback Daryl Worley (#20) over the top.
Furthermore, deep safety Erik Harris (#25) also mirrored Boyd’s route after the snap to prevent potential yards after the catch in case the football was thrown his way. It ultimately was not, as Finley (#5) instead saw tight end C.J. Uzomah (#87) as the better option — even though Boyd was getting a step on his defenders. But even though he found success on this play, Oakland’s general defensive approach paid off dividends during the team’s 17-10 win.
So with all that in mind, what should the Patriots do against the Bengals’ most dangerous pass catcher?
As talented as Boyd is, the team should still focus on slowing the ground game down first: just like the Los Angeles Rams, head coach Zac Taylor’s old team, Cincinnati’s offense runs through its backs — in this case primarily Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard, who versatile options out of the backfield capable of moving the chains. Limiting their impact and forcing Andy Dalton to win with his right arm is the way to go on defense.
When it comes to Boyd, the Patriots could therefore use their best defender in single coverage: Stephon Gilmore has shut down ultra-talented wide receivers such Amari Cooper and Odell Beckham Jr. so far this season, and the team could trust him to face off against Boyd on an island even when he moves into the slot. Gilmore’s elite athleticism in combination with near-flawless technique and the right amount of savvy and experience certainly could limit Boyd’s impact.
But even if they use other defenders on Boyd — slot cornerback Jonathan Jones is a realistic option, possibly with a deep safety over the top — the general plan against him should involve being physical at the line of scrimmage to disrupt his timing, and not putting players such as linebackers in difficult situations. If the Patriots do those things and play fundamentally sound football, they should be in a good position no matter who lines up on the other side of Boyd.