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A week ago, the Bengals were lucky they weren’t shut out against the Browns on national television. The only points they scored came way of a field goal after the Browns fumbled in their own territory on a punt return. In this game, no single positional group was free from blame in the loss. The quarterback was historically bad. The offensive line regularly gave up pressures. The receivers stopped on routes and dropped balls. The defensive front seven was pushed around. The defensive backs allowed completions downfield to receivers and tight ends that would be backups on most rosters (which most of them are on the Browns, too).
It’s tough to even know where to start with the colossal team failure from last week, but we’ll look at the linebackers, who failed to do their jobs again.
When Rey Maualuga likely returns next week, it will be the sixth different combination of starting linebackers used by the Bengals this year. Maualuga, Vontaze Burfict, and Emmanuel Lamur have all gone down at different times during the season.
Last week, with a linebacking corps of Emmanuel Lamur, Vinny Rey, and Nico Johnson, the Bengals allowed over 100 yards rushing for the seventh straight week; the Browns three-headed rushing attack finished the game with 170 rushing yards on 52 carries. One problem is that Lamur and Rey simply aren’t run-stopping linebackers. At the end of the day, they just get blocked too easily. Nico Johnson, known as a run-stopper in college, hadn’t played more than 17 snaps in a game until he got 61 snaps last Thursday. These three made a few nice plays and tackles over the course of the defense’s 77 snaps, but there was no consistency at all. In general, they got pushed around in run defense and weren’t targeted very much in the passing game.
We’ll start at the beginning of the second quarter. The Browns are about to finish off an eight-play, 59-yard touchdown drive. From the two yard line, they run their zone-rushing scheme to the right. The defensive line really does their job on this play. Brandon Thompson rushes upfield and may have been held by the center to keep Thompson from making the tackle. Carlos Dunlap also pushes his lineman backwards and Dunlap makes the tackle from his knees, but the running back was able to stretch the ball over the plane for a touchdown. The key on this play is that Nico Johnson (52) gets knocked onto his rear end. If Johnson had held his ground, the running back might not have had enough room to fall forward and score.
On the next drive, the Browns were in a 2nd & 10 situation. Again, they run the ball to the right with their zone scheme. Ignore the defensive line on this play and just watch the linebackers. Vinny Rey (57) is the outside linebacker to the run-side of the play. First, he takes a false step in the wrong direction. Then, he gets blocked seven yards beyond the line of scrimmage by a tight end. Nico Johnson (52) actually runs around Rey and his blocker to help make the tackle.
During the following drive, the roles would be reversed. Johnson made the mistake while Rey read the play clearly. The Browns run right again, but they don’t use the zone-blocking scheme this time, blocking straight forward instead. Domata Peko uses his hands well to sidestep the center and then chases the running back outside the tackles. Nico Johnson apparently doesn’t see this happening at all, and just waits behind the mass of bodies. The running back falls forward for five yards, when he should have been stopped for no gain or a loss. Notice Peko’s anger at the end of the clip.
One drive later, it’s another run to the right, and the run-side linebacker misplays it again. Here, Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins have pressed their blockers well, forcing only one available lane for the running back to take. Vinny Rey, instead of attacking the hole downhill, just waits for the running back to get to him. The Browns RB jukes inside, easily fooling Rey, and then cuts back outside into the normal lane for a five yard gain. Now, we’ll move to the second half, where things weren’t much better. It’s yet another run to the right. Geno Atkins stands his ground against the guard, while Carlos Dunlap gets washed away by a double team. This leaves two big holes on either side of Atkins, who can’t shed the block well enough to make the play. The key to this play is Vinny Rey, who suddenly gets overzealous and fills the wrong gap. Nico Johnson was waiting in that inside gap, unblocked and ready to make the tackle. Instead, Vinny leaves the outside gap completely open and gives up an easy five yards. Rey is able to wrap up the running back by the ankles and Terence Newman finishes the tackle with a violent hit.
Later in the third, the Browns would gain 23 yards on a swing pass to Ben Tate. The breakdown here is simple. The Bengals were in man defense and someone failed to pick up the running back out of the backfield. It looks like it should have been Nico Johnson, the middle linebacker.
Two plays later, the Browns run it up the gut again. Brandon Thompson does his best to fight through a double team from the center and right guard. The center successfully chips Thompson, then walls Nico Johnson off from the run. The key on this play is that Vinny Rey takes on the blocker and doesn’t try to tackle the running back until it’s too late. Because of this misplay, the running back slips easily through Vinny Rey’s gap without being touched. Thompson at least fought through a double team to get a hand on the back, but Terrance West still gains 14 yards.
Finally, in the fourth quarter up by multiple scores, anyone and everyone knew the Browns were going to run the ball. They run left with Terrance West and a fullback. Nico Johnson takes on the fullback, which was his job. Dunlap lazily engages Joe Thomas and can’t shed the block. Domata Peko and Devon Still, the defensive tackles on this play, both get driven back five yards, which isn’t uncommon for them. That leaves Vinny Rey in a tough position where he has to get past the guard and make the tackle. Rey couldn’t get outside quickly enough, and the Browns gain eight yards.
This last clip shows that the defensive tackles were a major problem as well. Peko and Still have been completely invisible against the run all year. Geno Atkins showed some plays last week that suggest he is finally returning to form both as a run stopper and a pass rusher, but he suffered a minor knee injury in the Browns game and played his lowest snap percentage of the season (47%). Brandon Thompson hasn’t been as bad as the others, but he missed five games due to injury.
The poor play from whoever is in at middle and weakside linebackers have combined to make this a square of futility. No matter who has been in at these four spots, no one is standing their ground and no one is making tackles.
It’s not hopeless though. Brandon Thompson has put in some quality snaps in the last two games. Geno Atkins is looking stronger. The run defense has slightly improved in the last two weeks, thanks to these two players.
The return of Rey Maualuga this week against the Saints, and the return of Vontaze Burfict the week after, will do wonders for this team’s ability to stop the run. Maualuga can fill holes with force and he knows his assignments better than Nico Johnson or Vinny Rey. When Burfict returns, the Bengals run defense will vastly improve from it’s current 31st ranking. Burfict shifts players around and will predict plays pre-snap to his teammates. Of course, he is the heart of the defense and he brings a nastiness and physicality that some of the other linebackers simply don’t have. Lastly, Burfict diagnoses plays as they are happening better than most linebackers in the league and gets to the right spot at the right time to make the tackle. There’s hope for a revival in run defense in late November and December, but Mark Ingram and the Saints will likely keep the streak of 100-yards allowed rushing alive until the unit gets back to full health.