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USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Media Group
Laurie Fitzpatrick

Bengals’ bend-but-don’t-break defense will be tested against the Bills

The Cincinnati Bengals are currently on a nine-game win streak. The offense is rolling, and the defense, despite barely coming away with a victory against the Baltimore Ravens in the wild-card round, still got the job done. Throughout the season their defense is allowing 227 points per game (23rd), but they also have an impressive 50% scoring percentage in the red zone; and over their last three games, opponents are only scoring 33.3% of the time.

The Bengals defensive line gets to the quarterback quickly, and their defensive backs disrupt at the catch point. They allow the least number of seconds per play in the league, 27.5, and they lead the league in opponent incompletions per game, with 14.2; per teamrankings.

The defense as a whole is closing out games.

Jessie Bates III’s interception against the Cleveland Browns in Week 14, Vonn Bell’s forced fumble against the New England Patriots in Week 16 and then Sam Hubbard’s fumble recovery and 98-yard touchdown win in the wild-card game. Just three examples of the defense stepping up.

The Bengals are sitting at a +6 turnover differential. That is what keeps them in games and makes them an extension of their offense. With Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase on the offensive side of the ball, the defense tends to get overshadowed, but in the end, we all know that defense wins games, and that defense has won games for the Bengals.

Now, it’s on to Buffalo for the divisional round. Let’s see how this defense might be able to upset Josh Allen and his friends.

Red zone defense.

(Syndication: The Enquirer)

The Bengals play some of their best defense when inside their own 20-yard line.

“It kind of starts with coach Betch [James Bettcher], the linebackers coach,” Bates told reporters on Monday. “He has a very detailed red zone presentation that we have on Thursdays, and Fridays. We always joke around, it’s long as hell. The tape is long, but it’s just super detailed. It’s just something that every time we get down there as a defense, you got a choice to make. Either you’re going to complain about it and give up seven points, or you’re going to force a field goal or even get a turnover.”

One thing that the linebackers do that prevents easy completions is to bracket the wide receivers to the strong side of the play. Last week against the Ravens, it was third-and-four during a two-minute drill before the half, and Bates crashed down to help in coverage leaving only the running back open who was in the flat.

Even if they completed a pass to the back, it wouldn’t have been enough.

This is also what they did against the Kansas City Chiefs to keep the ball from getting to Travis Kelce in the red zone.

The Bengals make sure they pay extra attention to the tight ends, as they are usually running underneath routes in the red zone, forcing a tougher throw by the quarterback to the back of the endzone.

This has been so effective that they haven’t allowed a single red zone touchdown to a tight end or running back in their last four games.  According to Sports Info Solutions, the Bengals ‘defense have the fifth-best completion percentage allowed to tight ends in the red zone at 41.2%.

Zone coverage underneath.

(Sam Greene-USA TODAY Sports)

The Bengals also have the fifth-best defensive DVOA against tight ends -16.8% overall, allowing only 55.0 yards per game, per Football Outsiders. They let Germaine Pratt, Akeem Davis-Gaither and Logan Wilson drop into zone coverage often where they can keep their eyes on the quarterback.

That is how Pratt was able to get this critical pass breakup with under a minute left in the fourth quarter.

Watching the quarterback’s eyes was vital for this game. They let Gaither-Davis drop back into his zone and then he had the opportunity to cut off the dig-route while Wilson trailed the receiver from behind.

Having two men bracketing the underneath receivers has certainly paid off for this Bengals defense this year. This also helps them cut off the running backs in the flat as well.

According to PFF, Pratt is the 11th best graded linebacker in man coverage, 82.5 and has the best overall linebacker grade when in zone coverage 88.1. Gaither is the 10th best zone linebacker with a 75.4 grade.

According to Football Outsiders, the Bengals are 2nd in defensive DVOA with 22.5% against running backs, giving up only 28.4 yards per game to them.

Interior leverage from the big guys.

(Syndication: The Enquirer)

One of the most underrated interior linemen in the NFL and one of the best players of the Bengals defense has been nose tackle D.J. Reader. He’s been able to get pressure and shed blocks in the run game and also in the passing game.

Over the last 10 games, Reader currently has 20 solo tackles, five QB hits, five passes defensed, one forced fumble and a recovery. According to PFF, Reader is the sixth highest positive grade versus the run this year, 83.7, with 20% of 633 snaps.

Another way that the Bengals have won at the line of scrimmage is using stunts with the interior linemen. In last week’s game, the defensive linemen lined up in an uneven front, with four pass rushers to one side.

Gaither-Davis rushed right between the tackle and the center, which then opened up the A-gap for Joseph Ossai to get to the quarterback as he was throwing. It’s important to mention that Ossai currently has the highest pass rush win-rate on the Bengals defense, 34.6%.

A few plays later B.J. Hill gets a sack while preforming a textbook stunt with Trey Hendrickson. Hill leans into the left guard, while keeping his inside arm free, because once the center slides to pick up the rusher coming around, Hill allows himself to gain leverage to win the one-on-one battle.


Divisional round.

Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo (Kareem Elgazzar-USA TODAY Sports)

The Bengals have a tough opponent in the divisional round against the Buffalo Bills.

With the defensive line becoming dominant late in the season, it’s critical that they use their stunts and techniques to get to Josh Allen. When Allen faces pressure, he has a 51.8 completion percentage. So, without a blitz, it’s important that Reader and Hendrickson have a big game. This will help the linebackers and secondary force turnovers with their physical nature at the catch point.

The Bengals’ pass defense is tied for the most dropped interceptions in the league against opponents’ receivers, with nine. They also have the second highest bust percentage against receivers as well, 17.4%.

Bust%: The percentage of drop backs that resulted in an EPA of -1 or less (i.e. a very unsuccessful play for the offense)]

Their biggest worry should be Gabe Davis, as the Bengals are 31st in defensive DVOA against number-two wide receivers, allowing 52 yards per game. It’s really up to their defense as a whole to force turnovers if they want to stay in this game.

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