When I first began my film study of the Cincinnati Bengals' defense, I had a certain picture in my mind of what to expect. This is a team led by head coach Marvin Lewis, who was the defensive coordinator of the Super Bowl-champion Baltimore Ravens in 2000. It's a defensive unit that had been coached by Mike Zimmer, who is now the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. Cincinnati's defense is now led by one of Zimmer's former assistants in Paul Guenther. I expected a pressure scheme with a lot of Double A-gap looks (like Zimmer’s Minnesota Vikings), and a lot of different combinations up front from a personnel standpoint. That was not the case, however, as I soon came to realize that the Bengals are primarily a four-man rush team. In fact, they blitz the quarterback less than any team in the NFL.
On the back end, the Bengals are a primarily zone coverage team, and really only play man coverage on third down. This is a team that plays almost exclusively in "split safety" looks in their zone schemes, meaning they keep two safeties deep downfield, primarily playing Cover 2.
Here's the Bengals' Cover 2 scheme in action. There are two safeties deep with five defenders underneath spanning the width of the field. Curl defender Chris Lewis-Harris passes off an out route and stays in the passing lane against this slant route to pick off a Ryan Tannehill pass for a big play. The Bengals play a lot of quarters as well, or as some refer to as Cover 4, where the two outside corners and two safeties split the deep part of the field into four equal parts. Even though the safeties are a bit tighter together when compared to Cover 2, quarters is still considered a "split safety" or "open" look by offenses in the deep middle of the field. Teams that play a lot of both Cover 2 and Cover 4 tend to also play in a coverage called Quarter Quarter Half, where one half of the field is in Cover 2 while the other half is in quarters.
Shot 2 - Whether it's Cover 2, Quarters, or this Quarter-Quarter-Half coverage, #Bengals are a zone team. Kirkpatrick has developed well pic.twitter.com/K8EcmJ7SmD — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 1, 2016
That's exactly what they're in on this play against the Giants, with the right side of the defense in Cover 2 and the left side in quarters. The interception is made by Dre Kirkpatrick, a former first-round pick of the Bengals who starts on the left side. The former Alabama star has great size (6-2, 185 pounds) for the position, very good fundamental ball skills, and enough speed and quickness to keep up at every level of the field in tight coverage. Many thought Kirkpatrick, who was taken a handful of picks after Fletcher Cox back in 2012, was going to be a bust after his first couple of seasons, but he has developed into the Cincinnati No. 1 cornerback opposite Adam Jones.
At safety, the Bengals re-signed veteran George Iloka, who has rare size for the position at 6-4, but surprising range and the ability to come downhill in the run game. Shawn Williams had been the starter next to Iloka, but injuries forced him out of the lineup last week against Baltimore. Cincinnati's third safety, second-year player Derron Smith, was also injured, which forced slot cornerback Josh Shaw to the safety spot. In his stead, Darqueze Dennard, another former first-round pick who has had a slow start to his career, had to slide into the slot and struggled early on against the Ravens. Williams is available for Sunday, while Smith is out. This is a team that relies on seven-man zone concepts and it has been effective for them so far this season. Don't expect that to change schematically when the Eagles come to town.
At linebacker in their 4-3 scheme, the Bengals have had a lot of moving parts as well. Veterans Karlos Dansby, Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga are listed as the starters, but all have missed some time throughout the year. Vincent Rey is the do-it-all backup, having started in place of both Maualuga and Burfict for various reasons, and he is one of their nickel linebackers as well so he sees a lot of time. Teams have found ways to attack this group in coverage, regardless of whether they're in man or zone, so that could be a theme to watch out for on Sunday afternoon. Still, against the run, this is a physical group that wants to come downhill and wreak havoc.
Shot 3 - At LB, Vontaze Burfict is a pure throwback. Very physical and a ferocious tackler. Extremely effective between the hashes #Bengals pic.twitter.com/oYRuP3MmNL — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 1, 2016
Burfict is the biggest name at the position for this team as one of the leading tacklers and most intimidating players in the league since his arrival a few years ago. His athleticism is not his strong suit, and he has been known to false step here and there. But when he comes down at the point of attack, he is very impressive taking on blocks and if he gets his hands on you as a ball carrier you're likely going to the ground.
Up front, the defensive line is a group with an interesting skill set. This is a unit that must get home against quarterbacks because of the low percentage of blitzes, but with only 21 sacks (24th in the NFL) it hasn't happened enough in 2016. Still, there are a few players who the Eagles must account for in their protections.
Veteran defensive tackle Geno Atkins is one of the best disruptors at defensive tackle in the NFL. Atkins is a pure 3-technique with the lateral quickness, short-area burst and sneaky strength to overwhelm blockers on quick speed-to-power moves. He can ruin a quarterback's day on any play. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see the Eagles slide their protection in Atkins' direction for a good amount of the time on Sunday.
Shot 5 - DE Carlos Dunlap is one of the most physically gifted edge rushers in the NFL. Great length / AA but inconsistent with rush plan pic.twitter.com/C6pgAOxPfI — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 1, 2016
At defensive end, the Bengals certainly have a "type" in what they look for body-wise. Carlos Dunlap (pictured in the two shots above) and Michael Johnson have similar body types with their long, basketball player-like frames and scary athleticism for their size. Neither player is particularly skilled as a pass rusher, but they excel coming off the edge because of their burst, length and flexibility. Those two typically play most of the game, but behind them with Will Clarke and Margus Hunt are two more players with similar builds. Clarke typically plays the most on the outside, but both rotate inside at defensive tackle in the team's nickel and dime subpackages.
Shot 6 - Not a true Double A blitz bc LB Green Dogs off the TE, but #Bengals will present these looks. Still blitz less than any team in NFL pic.twitter.com/19MFLP8Kp8 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 1, 2016
Just because the Bengals blitz less than any team in the NFL, it doesn't mean they don't send extra rushers every once in a while. Most of the time they come from a Double A-gap pressures like this one. Now on this play, it's not a true Double A-gap blitz, because both of those "mugged" linebackers actually drop in man coverage. When Vincent Rey sees that the tight end is staying in to block, he actually "green dogs" and becomes part of the rush, which helps lead to a sack. The Eagles must be prepared for these kinds of looks up front from the Bengals' defense and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.