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Analysis: How the Cincinnati Bengals passed against the Buffalo Bills

The Bengals were able to do what they wanted through the air. Should we be worried?

The Buffalo Bills passing defense had a rough go on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals. Bengals quarterbacks combined for a 24/39, 367-yard outing with two touchdowns and an interception.

One particular area that stood out during the game was Cincinnati’s success with passing plays on crossing routes for 10-20 yard gains. The Bengals had a half-dozen of these plays, which routinely set them up with favorable down-and-distance (or erased the outcomes of negative plays). How did Cincinnati’s players get open against the Bills defense? Let’s turn to the tape.

The first noteworthy play from the Bengals is a great example of the Run-Pass Option play category that’s been growing in popularity. To the left side of the offense, the receivers and offensive line are playing like it’s a run play. The right guard and right tackle will pass block, and Tyler Eifert is split out wide to run a slant route.

If Dalton reads a favorable number of defenders in the “box”, he’ll hand the ball off. Since the Bills have eight players close to the running side of the play, he’ll do a quick play-action pass. Eifert has room in the middle of the field and finds easy chunk yardage.

What you see on this play is a theme that the Bengals came back to again and again versus the Bills: The Play-Action Flood concept.

A flood concept sends the boundary receiver on a go route to clear the defender. Two or three receivers will then run from the field side toward the boundary side (in this case, right to left), “flooding” the field with crossing routes at multiple depths. The QB reads high-low or low-high and finds an open crosser.

On this play, the Bills are showing a Cover-3 look, with a single high safety and the two outside cornerbacks sinking to the deep part of the field. Jordan Poyer is in the box, essentially lined up as a linebacker, and the Bills also have a slot cornerback playing zone.

As far as I can tell, the linebackers (Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano) read this play too aggressively and sink way too deep toward the quarterback. This opens up a huge space for the receiver to run his route. Poyer also steps toward the line of scrimmage, but recognizes the hole and runs back to cover the receiver. He’s too late to break up the pass - and a great throw doesn’t help his chances.

It’s another play-action flood on this play, and Poyer is the victim once more. He’s responsible for the tight end Kroft, and as he rotates into the box at the snap, he sees that Kroft is releasing into a route and adjusts to pass coverage. Kroft rips past him (with this camera angle, we can’t say if there was a push-off a.k.a. offensive pass interference or a clean break), and has room for the catch.

Matt Barkley has an immaculate pocket to work from, and his pass is perfectly thrown. He even had another option open if he wanted to throw deeper.

Seeing a pattern here? In this one, the Bills start with a coverage scheme that looks like quarters coverage (four players deep), but at the snap Poyer appears to rotate into the box with the team converting to a cover 3 look.

Edmunds drops back into coverage, but doesn’t quite reach enough depth to disrupt the receiver’s route. Poyer takes a not-great angle attempting to undercut the route and can’t close the gap before the pass arrives. Despite the slot corner blitz, the quarterback is kept clean to throw the ball.

The Bengals schemed up a two-man play action pass, with the fullback, running back, and tight end staying close in max protection. The Bills have a single high safety, a cornerback in off coverage, and a corner in press coverage. By this point, we’re seeing the Bills put in some backup players, but Edmunds and other starters are still in the game.

Despite the Bills blitzing eight players, no one makes it home before Barkley can set up for a pass. The press corner loses inside positioning, and with a free release this is pitch and catch for the QB-WR pair. A huge hit from the cornerback decleats the target, but he holds on for the first down.

At this point we’re featuring all backups. Cincinnati has their third string quarterback on the field, Jeff Driskel. I tried to illustrate what I think the defense is doing. The outside cornerbacks are pretty clearly in man coverage on their receivers, both running clear-out routes. I can’t for the life of me figure out what’s going on with the middle of the field. It looks like a blown coverage by the safety you see running into the screen. With him jumping downhill (I assume to stop the perceived running play), there’s a gaping hole for the slot receiver to work to.

The four defenders underneath in the middle of the field look like they’re running some sort of zone coverage, but there’s miscommunication here as well. One player turns around and starts running toward the open receiver - did he blow the coverage, or is he compensating for the safety who came downhill? It’s hard to say, but someone was messed up here.

So, what are the themes we can take away from this game? I think the things that stood out to me were:

  • Lack of pass rush. The Bengals quarterbacks were rarely under duress, even when Cordy Glenn left the game with a shoulder injury, and even when the Bills brought extra blitzers. The Bills desperately need Trent Murphy to return from his injury if they want to disrupt the quarterback; Shaq Lawson and Jerry Hughes just can’t do this on their own.
  • Play designs putting linebackers and safeties in trouble. Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds are young, aggressive players, and they were caught several times Sunday moving into bad positions that opened up plays for the offense. Jordan Poyer was asked to do a lot when the Bills ran a lot of Cover-3 defense, and he struggled without that support from his linebackers and against the plays Cincinnati called.
  • The Bengals quarterbacks had a day to remember. Both Andy Dalton and Matt Barkley did an exceptional job at ball placement. They benefited from their pass protection, but their timing and accuracy made the offense click.