Regardless of any defense's scheme or situation, it's always ideal not having to blitz, or sending more than four defenders to rush the quarterback. However, top talent that can get to the QB without numbers (blitzers) isn't easily available, especially for a 4-3 defense and a front office that makes personnel decisions based on less than thirty seconds of dialogue between agitated coach and confused owner.
The Bengals find themselves in a situation calling for a blitz on many plays, as I unfortunately wrote this week. Luckily, coordinator Mike Zimmer willingly adjusts to his defense's weaknesses, unlike Bob "We have to make a nickname for him*" Bratkowski, and will do just this.
*Really, offer some suggestions, he doesn't deserve to get called Brat
In a year where they finished second to last in adjusted sack rate, Zimmer wasn't afraid to dial the pressure up (or at least make a minor inconvenience for the opposing offensive line). Courtesy of Football Outsider's game charting stats, the defense was: eleventh in rushing five defenders, eighth in rushing six-plus, and second in zone blitzes. But why, with all of this blitzing, could the Bengals not earn even a bad sack total? Here are some possibilities:
- The front four was so bad at rushing the passer (which they were) that nothing could compensate for their shortcomings
wasn't able to blitz as much as he wanted because of Jonathan Joseph
being out half the season. David Jones in man coverage isn't a pretty
sight, if you didn't already know (They blitzed more than average, but
not an overwhelming amount)
- There was so much turnover in the secondary, specifically with safety injuries, that Zimmer didn't feel comfortable constantly running complex schemes
- What did work -- defensive back pressure and zone blitzes -- can only be done so often, especially in a 4-3 defense with a defensive end (Robert Geathers) going into coverage
- Offensive coordinators responded to the blitzes with short passes to running backs and tights ends; the D struggled against slot receivers and backs
Other than a better rush from the line (which will happen, but not to a great extent) and more defensive back sacks (not likely), the sacks needed to make the Bengals defense a top-twelve or ten one will have to come from the linebackers.
The second-levelers got only 11.8% of the team's QB take-downs last year (22nd in league), a trend that will need to change this season. Dhani Jones as the middle linebacker obviously won't be doing much in this regard; ditto Keith Rivers, who's excellent in stopping both the run and pass.
Rey Maualuga is the linebacker who can make a difference. The energized rookie excels at getting a quick jump and then relentlessly pursuing the quarterback; doing all of this isn't something that he'll really have to learn. Putting him in might downgrade the Bengal's run defense, and playing him in a zone scheme right away could pose a problem, but as Mike Zimmer said, "This sonofabitch is gonna start, one way or another."
How much of a difference he can make rushing the passer is obviously one of the biggest questions heading into 2009. Even if he does OK, it's doubtful that the pass rushing reaches an average ranking. Last season, the highest sack total for a rookie linebacker: Alex Hall of the Browns, with three sacks. Obviously Maualuga can be an outlier to that trend, but just like expecting Atwan Odom and Roger Geathers to make the pass rush respectable, thinking Rey can doesn't make sense.
Still, there's room for improvement over the defense's sixteenth ranking in DVOA last year (at 3.8%). A better offense alone should make their job easier; the negative affect from the Harvard grad and insulting offensive line was shown in the D's first and second half DVOA: -3.1% compared to 10.4% (lower is better for defense).
So how else can it improve, other than less fatigue and a marginally better pass rush (assuming the run defense remains above-average, which we'll get to in the final post)? Obviously, it's in stopping the pass, where they ranked twenty-first in the league in '08. More pressure makes the secondary's job easier, and not having to blitz takes pressure off of it, but this isn't realistic.
Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph will be in tight man-to-man coverage the majority of the time. Hall got abused last year, but much of this has to do with two things: 1- The lack of pass rush, and 2- Zimmer giving David Jones extra safety help. Leon hasn't improved as much as I'd like, but if there's a solid corner on the other side of the field and something resembling pressure, he'll look much better. Joseph is going to need his health; he played soft coverage when not injured last year and got targeted because of it (2nd in Target%), but this won't work unless in a zone.
The health of both Hall and Joseph is critical. Mikey Boy refused to add a serviceable third corner in the offseason, inexcusable considering that David Jones slides into a starting role if one of those two can't play. A season-ending injury to Hall or Joseph, and the Bengals will be in some trouble.
In regards to man-defense, there are concerns about the secondary offensive players-- slot receivers, tight ends and running backs. The nickel corner (Jones or one of the strong safeties) looks to be a weakness, and Roy Williams and Chinedum Nduke aren't great in coverage, which makes putting them in man-to-man an especially risky but necessary call.
Overall, just having Joseph healthy should make the defense an above-average unit. Without consistent pressure or excellent secondary play, I don't see it becoming the elite unit some think it will be. There's nothing wrong with a, say, top twelve defense though.
There you have it. In the third and final post, I'll preview the run defense and wrap this series up.