It’s finally Friday at Arrowhead Pride, so we’re leaving that abysmal performance against the New England Patriots in the rearview mirror and come back home for a big Sunday Night Football matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Bengals offense comes to Kansas City this week owning the sixth-best points-per-game mark in the NFL, and they’ve scored at least 21 points in every game this year. With a number of offensive weapons and a quarterback playing his best season in a couple of years, the Chiefs defense will once again have its hands full.
So what do the Bengals do well, and what can the Chiefs do to stop them? Follow me down to The Laboratory and let’s take a deeper look at some of the Xs and Os behind the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Bengals offense
After a down year last year, quarterback Andy Dalton has come out of the gate swinging in 2018. With 14 touchdowns and 1,600-plus yards, Dalton is having himself a nice little bounce back year. He does already have seven interceptions to his name this year—all but one of them coming in road games.
At running back, the Bengals lean on second-year player Joe Mixon as a workhorse back. He’s got the size to run between the tackles and the speed to break open plays on the edge.
The wide receiver group is led by one of the best in the league in A.J. Green. His catch radius means that he’s almost always open. This year, he’s not a one-man show, getting help from third-year receiver Tyler Boyd — who is targeted often — and John Ross. Ross, when healthy, is a speed demon on the outside.
The Bengals tight ends are a mess of injuries right now with Tyler Eifert on IR, Tyler Kroft not practicing, and CJ Uzomah limited in practice with a shoulder injury. Cincinnati loves to use multiple tight end formations, so if Uzomah can’t go, their playbook will become limited.
The Bengals offensive line is down injured rookie center Billy Price, starting swing interior lineman Trey Hopkins in his place. Left guard Clint Boling has been very good this season, but the rest of the line has had their struggles. Left tackle Cordy Glenn struggled early in pass protection, and right tackle Bobby Hart has allowed the most sacks of any of their offensive linemen. Finally, right guard Alex Redmond has really struggled, especially when pass blocking.
How to defend
Attacking the weak-side gaps
The Bengals are a good running team with Joe Mixon when attacking the strongside, but they're kill a defense by mixing in cutbacks and weakside formation runs, preying off of the WILL flowing with the OL. KC's DL & ILB's aren't particularly great at defending weakside gaps. pic.twitter.com/hBy4bwhEPZ— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 18, 2018
The Bengals are a good rush offense, despite their yards per game ranking. Tied for 11th in yards per carry, the Bengals have the fifth-least rushing attempts in the league. When they do run the ball, they’re effective out of their 11 and 12 personnel, especially with Mixon. A blend of size, speed, and agility, Mixon is great attacking the strong side of the offense, but he’s even better cutting back and running at the weak side of the formation.
Shown above, Mixon’s ability to change direction and cut laterally to the backside B-gap is phenomenal. While the Steelers linebackers and defensive linemen are correctly keying off of the Bengals blocking schemes, Mixon’s agility puts the weak-side linebacker in a lose-lose situation. By attacking either the weak-side or strong-side A or B-gaps, the weak-side linebacker will be behind the play if the run flows to the opposite of the formation, as seen in the first example. If the weak-side linebacker hesitates to make sure the weak side is covered, Mixon is able to cut all the way to the open gap in across the backside of the formation, as seen in the second example.
The Chiefs inside linebackers have been very hesitant this year, one of the major problems with the Chiefs run defense. If this continues this week, Mixon will surely do damage and get himself into space on the weak side of the formation. The Chiefs can help defend this by getting penetration from a 3-tech lined up on the weak side of the formation, even opposite of the running back. This is something Bob Sutton has shown a comfort level within the past, and with Hitchens’ current hesitation, I’d be comfortable with it for this week’s matchup.
AJ Green in the middle of the field
AJ Green has a great catch radius, so it always appears as if he's open. The Bengals make him even more dangerous by forcing MOF defenders to cover him. By operating out of the slot and stressing the safeties with other vertical routes, Green ends up on a coverage LB. pic.twitter.com/O043lamHCn— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 18, 2018
AJ Green is an elite receiver. He’s made many a cornerback look ridiculous with his route-running ability and fantastic hands, and he’s great with the ball in his hands and space to run. So naturally, it just makes sense that the Bengals would try to find ways to get him in the middle of the field against safeties and coverage linebackers.
The Bengals draw up several plays a game designed to stress the opposition’s safeties and get Green in an advantageous matchup. In the first example, Cincinnati is in a 3x1 formation out of 11 personnel. Green lines up as the strong 2 and runs a post while the strong 3 crosses behind to force a switch with the Steelers blitzing.
The tight end on the opposite side of the formation runs an out route, occupying the safety to that side of the field. The strong safety has to respect the strong 1 vertical, and Green is left covered by a linebacker on a post route with no safety around. A better throw results in a touchdown.
The second example has Green line up as the strong 3 with the Bengals in an empty set. The Steelers are in Cover 2, and the strong 1 and 2’s vertical routes force the safety to sit outside while Green runs a post attacking the seam between the two safety zones and over the top of the coverage linebacker.
The Chiefs run split safety looks just over 15 percent of the time, and they’ve shown them more on first downs than any other down. By limiting their usage in this week’s game and avoiding blitzes from the secondary while Green in the slot, the Chiefs can try to play top-down with Jordan Lucas and tighten the windows that Green and Dalton can work with over the middle.
CJ Uzomah on the out route
C.J. Uzomah may not be a household name, but he can do some damage, particularly on out routes against press coverage. A quick, physical player, he'll create space with his body as he's coming out of routes, find the marker, and give Andy Dalton a throwing lane. pic.twitter.com/K8WuSjUvNh— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 18, 2018
Uzomah started this season as the third tight end behind Eifert and Kroft but has now been thrust into a starting role should he be healthy enough to be cleared this weekend. If he is, the Chiefs will see a very physical tight end with good hands and awareness.
Uzomah doesn’t have a large route tree, but his most effective usage last week was on out routes, particularly against press coverage. Shown above, the Steelers tried to use a cornerback — Cameron Sutton — to press Uzomah and try to throw off his route. Uzomah, in both examples, is able to fight through the press and gain separation using his size coming out of his break on the out route. Dalton leaned on this last week, particularly on second or third and medium yardage.
Although he’s not the same level of tight end that the Chiefs saw this past week, Uzomah is not to be taken lightly, especially with their propensity to give up catches to tight ends from the safety position. The Chiefs have surely identified this tendency, so look for the safeties to try to allow for a free release on the line and undercut the route off the break.
The bottom line
While the Chiefs defense doesn’t face the same test that it did last weekend, this Bengals offense is not to be taken lightly.
Cincinnati has shown the ability to put big points on the board, heavily targeting Green, Boyd and Mixon. Dalton has taken a fair number of sacks and thrown his share of interceptions so far but looking at their points per game just illustrates their ability to throw themselves back into a positive result if things turn south on early downs and quarters.
With the speed and ability of the Bengals outside receivers, the Chiefs may lean heavier on their Cover 3 zone, which keeps the middle of the field closed and doesn’t rely on Steven Nelson or Orlando Scandrick to have to track Green and Boyd all over the field all night. The Chiefs struggled in the first two weeks of the season with their zone defense — success rates of 44 percent and 28 percent — but have improved over the past three weeks, posting success rates of 90 percent, 53 percent and 66 percent.
In the run game, having the extra safety in the box will be paramount this week to help with run fits against Mixon and Bernard while the game is close. The Chiefs interior defensive line should see some success against the right side of the Bengals line, and winning up front on first down — where the Chiefs are giving up 7.07 yards per play, the most of any down — can help keep the Bengals running backs a non-factor on the ground.
Finally, Dee Ford is in line for a big day against a poor pass protector in Hart this week. Dalton has taken a lot of sacks this year due to some longer developing routes and an iffy offensive line. He’s also thrown multiple interceptions when climbing the pocket due to pressure — specifically from the right side of the line. Ford is on a heater right now, and this matchup is tailor-made for a big day from the Chiefs best pass rusher this season.
If the Chiefs defense can start like they have for the majority of the season — getting a couple stops early — the Bengals may be forced to abandon the run game and start throwing to catch up. With a backup tight end and a shaky offensive line against Ford, Chris Jones, and Allen Bailey, this game might feature a little more of the Chiefs defense we came to know and love.