The Breakdown: A Look at the Cincinnati Bengals Schematic Philosophy

From Last Word On Pro Football, by T.J. Randall

Last Word On Pro Football is breaking down the different schematic philosophies for all 32 NFL teams. Concluding the AFC North, we break down the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Breakdown: A Look at the Cincinnati Bengals Schematic Philosophy


Cincinnati’s long-time quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese enters his second season as the team’s offensive coordinator. Quarterback Andy Dalton has been the recipient of mixed opinions for the duration of his career, but there’s no denying his high-level football intelligence that helps make this offense so difficult to defend. Zampese’s multiple looks and formations are especially prevalent in his heavy dosage of run-pass options (RPOs) that found ways to stress every defense they faced.

The Bengals were able to find such success via creativity, often splitting six receivers wide to either out-leverage the defense along the perimeter or establish three-on-two matchups and capitalize on free yards. Sending receivers out wide like such also forces the defense to respond and ultimately create lighter boxes with three defenders left to defend four gaps. This allows Dalton to simply read a defensive end or nearest overhang defender and put him in a bind. No matter how you sliced it, the defense was forced to pick their poison.

Selecting Washington receiver John Ross in the first round of the 2017 draft further aids their offensive success. The Bengals featured RPOs from multiple formations and personnel packages as a way to simplify reads or manipulate one-on-one matchups down the field. With Ross vertical prowess, Cincinnati gains another receiver who can both help dictate these scenarios and win down the field.

Pairing him with A.J Green now provides the Bengals with two vertical winners that both safeties have to account for as a domino effect of sorts. When your safeties have to react cautiously to such deep threats, rotation and pre-snap disguise becomes limited, which in turn caps how well defenses can disguise blitzes and how many defenders you can place in the box.

Because Cincinnati has a loaded stable of playmakers, they were able to regularly go empty with different personnel groupings such as running back Giovani Bernard as a flanker with tight end Tyler Eifert in the slot (and vice versa), Green from the slot or even Tyler Boyd from the inside slot. Whatever it may be, going empty forces the defense to show their hand, while the Bengals can capitalize on matchups and even shuffle Ross around much like his former Huskies staff did.

Rookie running back Joe Mixon should fit right in with a Bengals ground game that calls for a load of gap-scheme runs such as power and counter that were also the staple of Oklahoma’s rushing attack. Mixon is a controlled runner with tremendous patience, balanced footwork and hyper-focused vision that gap-scheme runs call for to allow pulling linemen into their optimal position before backs hit the desired hole with rhythm. This is the catalyst for my Le’Veon Bell comparison of Mixon prior to the NFL Draft. It’s a crowded backfield between him, Bernard and Jeremy Hill, but Mixon’s skills as both a runner and a pass catcher shouldn’t keep him off the field for long.

A Fitting Two-High Shell

As the title states, the Bengals incorporate a bevy of two-high looks such as Cover 2 and Cover 4 (Quarters) with some two-man sprinkled in. Relying on these looks puts pressure on your defensive line to get home and your linebackers to make plays across the field, hence why it suits them well. Cincinnati has a talented defensive line with the quality depth to support their heavy rotation. The additions of Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson will play an integral role in the unit’s success and ability to stay fresh.

Such aspects are necessary when you’re not relying on a bevy of blitzes, rotations and disguises. With safeties George Iloka and Shawn Williams, remaining in base coverage is a luxury some teams don’t have: a talent advantage in the secondary allows you to reduce the amount of time you gamble by blitzing. For defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, blitzing is purely based on deception and efficiency.

A key part of such is disguising A-gap blitzes. Guenther will sugar such gaps and either send a blitz or have them drop into coverage, but regardless of the call, hovering over the gaps prior to the snap creates one-on-one pass rush attempts for his defensive ends as the interior blockers are assuming they have to pick up a blitz off the snap without having any idea of whether or not it’s actually coming. They begin to look for ensuing pressure only to come up empty-handed as his rushers win around the edge.

From there, Guenther may ultimately send them into coverage duties. He doesn’t shy away from loading the box to window-dress an interior blitz as he sends a corner from the slot while the coverage rotates to the blitzing side.

Schematic Philosophy Series

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AFC North

Baltimore Ravens
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