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Cincy Defense No Longer Kittens

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Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens
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Reading Time: 13 minutes

One statement win later against a darling team of the league in the early going, plus a surprising loss for the Bills on Monday night, and the Ravens are the class of the AFC. They now open AFC North division play looking to extend their five-game winning streak against the Cincinnati Bengals. How do we take down this familiar foe?

Offensive Keys

Run the ball

If you take anything from this Battle Plan, please take away that this Bengals defense is a different beast. We are looking at an entirely different unit from the past two years. Lou Anarumo is in his third year as Defensive Coordinator, and after two largely non-descript years (the second year, the unit was riddled with injuries) he has started to turn this defense into a force to be reckoned with.

You’d be right to reference their opponents so far, as they have faced a lower level of competition on defense, outside of the Packers, but this is a defense that’s vastly different from a year ago and far more suited to handle the rigors of the modern NFL.

I’m going to talk about three-year plans in the Defensive Keys section and how I’m not sure that Zac Taylor’s offense or his play-calling/play design is really taking the expected steps for a Sean-McVay-influenced-wunderkind, but Anarumo has certainly got this defense playing. It is a far cry from the hollow shell of a Marvin Lewis defense he was left when he took over.

The old guard is gone. Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and other square pegs have been replaced by more versatile and flexible pegs who can be deployed in a multiple front defense. Trey Hendrickson is proving that he wasn’t a flash in the pan in New Orleans and Sam Hubbard continues to impress as the opposite edge defender. And they’re both playing in a base 3-4 defense but with the versatility to morph into 4-3 over and under fronts at times when required.

D.J. Reader came over from the Texans in free agency and was always going to prove a bargain as one of the best run-stuffing Nose Tackles in the league. Even Larry Ogunjobi, misused over his career, looks revived in this defense. They’re not particularly deep up front, but they’re also getting a far higher level of play from their Linebackers, especially in Logan Wilson who has transformed from a specialist into an impactful three-down Linebacker.

I started the season imploring the Ravens to run the ball, to use their running game despite the loss of their entire stable of running backs. But we’ve seen Greg Roman open up the playbook and utilize Lamar Jackson’s gifts as a passer after defenses have sold out to stop the run and forced Lamar to beat them with his arm. The Chargers did what a Staley/Fangio defense normally does and flipped this script, daring the Ravens to run the ball, and they found things easy on the ground.

But the Chargers defense is not yet where Staley would want them to be in terms of stopping the run. This Bengals team is an entirely different challenge. They are fourth in rush defense DVOA according to Football Outsiders and present a formidable challenge, especially running the ball between the tackles.

They’re a good pass defense too, so the Ravens do need to use the run to set up the pass this week as the Bengals likely won’t sell out to stop the run. I think it’s entirely the wrong course of action for a team that’s shown a real propensity to stop the run so far.

The one team that had some success against the Bengals on the ground was the Packers. But their recipe for success is not one that I think the Ravens will be able to replicate. The Packers use a heavy dose of zone runs and were very successful with this against the Bengals. But the Packers and Aaron Jones are one of the best proponents of the zone run in the league, and others have tried a heavy zone attack against the Bengals and been neutralized. And the Ravens only mix in zone runs for variety; they haven’t yet been especially effective running it this year, certainly in contrast to their more staple man scheme.

The one thing this Bengals defense hasn’t seen yet is a running scheme like the Ravens deploy. That’s why the Ravens should place their bets on the running game early and running their usual pullers from all angles. Though if you want to focus on one angle, I’d try to get to the edge outside Alejandro Villanueva on the left side. The right side of the Bengals defense has been susceptible to the opponent’s running game and so they should be using counters, the speed option, and the veer option to get Lamar on that edge.

The pullers combined with the Ravens’ complex use of motion should also be a challenge Logan Wilson hasn’t faced yet in his new role as a three-down Linebacker. I’d want to test his ability to deal with the Ravens running game early and often.

Pass out of heavy formations

The Ravens have faced a lot of similar coverages this season, with many teams favoring a Cover 3 approach against this passing game. Teams though might need to start to adjust given how Lamar has shown the patience required to carve up Cover 3. He has been targeting the flats and getting to his checkdowns early in games before moving on to the main weakness of the scheme up the seams.

I can understand why teams have been trying this: Lamar has struggled with heavy underneath zones in the past and forcing it to his favorite targets in the face of better options against that type of coverage. There was a reminder of that this past Sunday with the first interception he threw. But his struggles against this have been fewer and further between, with a number of teams throwing more complex disguised roll coverages at him, only to see them carved up. Lamar has not just improved his mechanics this season but also his processing and recognition. He’s playing faster, if that was even possible. 

The Bengals run a lot of MOFC (middle of the field closed) coverages based mostly out of Cover 3 and Cover 1 this season. This means lots of what the Ravens have run so far, in this re-designed passing offense under the influence of Keith Williams as the new Ravens passing game coordinator, should work again this week against the Bengals. I’m particularly excited to see Rashod Bateman work the seams against this defense. The precision of his routes and separation quickness last week was enticing.

As mentioned, I don’t believe the Bengals will move off their usual modus operandi on defense to sell out to stop the Ravens running game. Chidobe Awuzie has found some form after coming across from Dallas in the offseason and Jessie Bates has been one of the more consistently better Free Safeties in the league. But the Bengals’ strength is their run defense. Why fortify that strength when you can continue to help out the secondary?

But this Ravens team has shown a propensity to carve up teams in the passing game. They should start to think about how they can combine the work of Greg Roman with Keith Williams and force teams to load the box, deliberately, so they can pit Lamar’s arm against the defense they’re facing. You don’t always want to face Cover 3, you want to be able to take some shots against other coverages. The Bengals are also predisposed to running Cover 1, and using a heavy formation could force the Bengals to deploy this coverage.

Once they do, a passing concept that could be run as a Cover 1 beater out of a heavier formation, would be the Yankee concept. This concept crosses two receivers, one running a deep over, the other running a deep post. The post can often be combined with a dino stem and the play is usually run with some kind of play action.

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The play stresses the defense when in MOFC coverage, and could be especially useful with Marquise Brown’s speed on the deep post route combined with Rashod Bateman’s relative speed and route precision on the deep over.

Protection

The Yankee concept out of a heavier formation has the added advantage of keeping some players in to protect Lamar Jackson. I think this will be necessary this week as Hendrickson and Hubbard have proven disruptive through six weeks of the season. This defense that was so abjectly bad at getting pressure on opposing Quarterbacks last season is surprisingly more effective this year.

The Ravens need to ensure they protect Jackson as he continues to develop as a passer from the pocket. Pressure off the edge isn’t always as much of a problem for Lamar as with other passers. While pressure up the middle was a problem for him in previous seasons for stepping into his throws, his improved base this season has also helped with throwing with pressure in his face.

B.J. Hill is the Bengals’ third DT and he has been disruptive with his snap count (up to three sacks on the season now), so there is a threat from the interior, but Hendrickson is the big danger.

Getting some help for Villanueva in my matchup of the week against Hendrickson is a must. 

Defensive Keys

Pressure Burrow

Zac Taylor grew up as a football player at Butler Community College, when he transferred to a pro-style offense and ran it with authority from the Quarterback position. He ran it well enough to catch the eyes of Division 1 College programs and he eventually chose Nebraska as his next destination. It was there that he learned the fundamentals of the Bill Walsh offense. Under Jay Norvell and Bill Callahan’s tutelage, Taylor ran one of the most sophisticated pro-style offenses in the nation.

Fast-forward, and at age 35 he became the latest young offensive mind from Sean McVay’s coaching staff to be given the reins to an NFL franchise, skipping the NFL Offensive Coordinator rung on the career ladder to go straight from Quarterbacks coach to Head Coach.

Three-year plans are all the rage in sports (leaders with a three-year plan to turn around the franchise they’ve been appointed to lead). Sometimes it’s a five-year plan – but even then it always feels like the third year is the pivotal one. Fans, management and ownership all expect to see some progress by year three of an ambitious rebuild such as the one Taylor took on in Cincinnati.

For Taylor, there are some green shoots of recovery but this test against the Ravens, especially for the offense he coordinates against this defense, will arguably be the toughest they’ve faced so far.

Taylor has built an offense around the jewel in the crown of the rebuild, 2020 first overall pick Joe Burrow. It is one designed to get some of the passing concepts and general offensive philosophy in which Burrow thrived in at LSU, in his one glorious starting season in college, into the playbook to get him comfortable and firing.

The injury to Burrow has derailed some of that progress, as has the Bengals’ failure to address a weakness as glaring as their own Cris Collinsworth’s inability to lift his behind off the desk, to make his way into shot on the Sunday Night Football intro. The Offensive Line remains the main weakness of this team and any preview of the defensive keys for Sunday afternoon needs to start here.

They did not draft an Offensive Linemen with their top ten pick in the 2021 draft, and while Rashawn Slater could have been protecting Burrow this season, not too many would argue with the start Ja’Marr Chase has had in the pros. Their second-round OL pick Jackson Carman is hurt and this Offensive Line is still bereft of talent and ripe for attacking.

While they’ve been efficient in terms of allowing pressures, they’re top ten in allowing sacks and haven’t yet been blitzed at a particularly high rate. That should change Sunday as Wink should get deep into his bag of tricks.

The Bengals offense is designed to get one-on-one matchups for its impressive wide receiver corps, but it also ends up allowing many one-on-one matchups for its deficient Offensive Line. Taylor has been scheming more chips and max protection to help out his line in recent weeks, but the Bengals lead the league in 11 personnel, rarely keeping their back or Tight End in to help, as well as being one of the more frequent users of an empty backfield.

Burrow was elite at creating plays off-script and outside the structure of the pocket at LSU. This was why empty formations worked well for him, because his athletic ability allowed him to evade pressure himself if BOB (big on big – when five OL block five pass-rushers) protection broke down, and throw on the run with spectacular strength and accuracy. Since his injury last year he doesn’t seem quite as mobile or able to do this, and looks to win from the pocket more often.

But the Bengals still scheme to allow BOB, and the Ravens finally have the horses to win those one-on-one matchups with Burrow less able to hurt them if he escapes when they do. The left side of the Bengals Offensive Line includes Jonah Williams and Quinton Spain next to Trey Hopkins at Center – they can be got at in pass protection. While Trey Hill or Fred Johnson will likely start as the third string Right Guard in this game next to Riley Reiff at Right Tackle.

Odafe Oweh and Justin Houston should be licking their chops.

The more creative defenses can also scheme up pressure more easily against this offense. As you won’t always want to bring five rushers to get those one-on-one matchups, another way to create those opportunities, with a four-man rush, is with the sort of pressure packages that the Ravens are so good at.

Either with stunts or showing overload blitz to one side before changing the point of attack by dropping defenders from the line of scrimmage into coverage and bringing other off-ball defenders at the Quarterback, you can mess with the Bengals’ slide protection, which has looked suspect at times this year.

Wink has so far shown that he can have a wider variety of plans for his pass rush than he has in recent years. Perhaps this is due to giving a depleted secondary more help than they have been previously accustomed to, but I also think it’s because he knows the value of this team, and this offense in particular, and therefore knows the value of more tailored plans now that leave something in the tank for later in the year.

Disguise coverage

While an unfortunate by-product of the Bengals scheme leaves its Offensive Linemen on an island, as lonely as Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway, the reason they live with it is because they want to shipwreck Chase and Tee Higgins out on the edge against your Corners. They have assembled a diverse and tough-to-stop receiving corps and put them in passing concepts that play to their strengths.

A staple of the absurdly successful LSU offense that Burrow ran his last year in college was pre-snap motion to help better identify coverage. The Bengals don’t do a huge amount of pre-snap motion, but they will run their own tricks using formations to diagnose what the defense is doing. When Burrow can process what the defense is doing quickly, he will be able to break down coverage with some of the effective passing concepts the Bengals run to beat either man or zone.

The focus the Ravens need to place on guarding against Chase is in the next section, but the Bengals equally scheme up packages to work Higgins and Tyler Boyd in combination. The Race concept, which gets Higgins on a dig route and Boyd on a whip route, can be dangerous. With this play, and others, Taylor is able to create plenty of opportunities for Boyd to use his change of direction skills to win in congested areas of the field. Plenty of juke routes or heavily utilization of the Y-cross concept allows him to work underneath, and in the middle of the field.

One other staple passing concept is the Double Go which the Bengals run regularly with Chase and Higgins working the outside and Boyd working underneath. Using Higgins and Chase in combination on deep routes is something the Bengals are very prone to do. The Ravens could utilize a heavy dose of roll coverage this week to disguise their true coverage intentions both pre, and immediately post-snap.

This can be worked in conjunction with the pressure packages already mentioned and should mix up single high and split-safety looks, pre snap, to roll into and out of both MOFO (middle of the field open) and MOFC (middle of the field closed) coverage. This should keep Burrow and his receivers guessing long enough, and therefore hesitant enough, for the pressure to get home.

A particular coverage package I’d like to see from the Ravens this week, to counter the double deep route passing concepts, would be the inverted Cover 2. This coverage sends the Cornerbacks into deep half of the field zones while dropping line of scrimmage defenders and Linebackers into the underneath zones. This coverage can be used particularly effectively with pressure packages that bring a Corner off the edge while dropping Defensive Tackles to cover Boyd’s workspace.

Cover Chase

It seems almost unfair. The Ravens, so long tortured by A.J. Green, now have to contend with Ja’Marr Chase who it seems will be another dominant Wide Receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals. Make no mistake about it, Chase is in the midst of a special rookie season and he’s coming for the Ravens secondary in what will surely be the first of many battles between he and Marlon Humphrey.

However, the Ravens rarely trail Wide Receivers, especially when facing multiple receiving threats in the way the Bengals have. There will therefore be plenty of opportunities for Chase to go up against other members of this secondary. As such, the Ravens need to abide by some early rules for covering Chase based on what he’s put on tape so far in the NFL.

The first thing to notice and counter is that Chase likes it physical at the line of scrimmage. He loves when defensive backs put the jam on him from press coverage because it allows him to win in the very early portion of the route. He isn’t the quickest, or actually the biggest, but he makes maximum use of what separation he can get and you really don’t want him to win straight off the line. The jam at the line should be used sparingly against Chase and only really as a change of pace.

He has a variety of releases and can beat inside and outside leverage from the Cornerback. This means that this needs to be varied – you can’t simply sit with outside leverage all day, knowing you have inside help. Chase has already proven that he can take an inside release and with his change of direction and smarts, beat you outside and deep.

This might lead you to throw off coverage at him in a bid to negate his ability to win off the line of scrimmage and to beat you deep. But Chase has also already proven that his skills as a receiver extend to winning against off coverage where he can work into the defender’s blind spot and win at the top of the route against this type of coverage too.

Chase is a skilled receiver and alignment, technique and leverage need to be mixed up to keep him guessing and keep him needing to use every tool in his bag. If I’m to rely on one technique more often than not though, I’d like to see heavier usage of catch-man. This is when the DB stands a few yards off the line of scrimmage and allows the receiver to close the cushion between them, before then making contact with him. This disrupts the receiver’s timing but also adds another element of deception to the coverage in general as this technique looks more like a soft or zone coverage.  

Matchup to Watch

Alejandro Villanueva vs Trey Hendrickson

I toyed with some Wide Receiver Defensive Back matchups in this one but Alejandro Villanueva against Trey Hendrickson, in both phases, is likely to be crucial in deciding this matchup. Hendrickson is top ten in both sacks and pressures coming into this game, with 5.5 and 20 respectively. Villanueva will have his hands full in pass protection but will also need to dominate Hendrickson as a run blocker with the right edge of the defense being the Bengals’ main weakness in the run game.

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