NFL rankings often fall short in NFL meeting rooms due to their broad nature. Terms like “good against the run” or “bad against the pass” lack the depth needed for a matchup-based game.
For instance, a defense might be ranked 7th against the run, which sounds impressive. Still, it can be strategically vulnerable to an opponent’s specific strengths, the very ones that the rankings may not capture or exploit.
This is where the art of game planning comes into play: identifying your team’s strengths and connecting them to potential weaknesses in your opponent’s game tape.
In the NFL, success hinges on mastering the nuances. It’s like saying, “I’m going to Mexico.” That statement can mean vastly different things; is it Tijuana or Cozumel?
The Cincinnati Bengals offer a compelling case study. They boast an unblemished 3-0 record and have allowed the fewest points in the league, which is undeniably positive.
When scrutinizing their defensive game footage, their remarkable team speed stands out as a significant asset.
This speed translates into effective ball pursuit, resulting in numerous gang-tackling scenarios that minimize run-after-the-catch opportunities.
The absence of run-after-catch situations creates a challenging environment for opponents.
It certainly appears to be a strong defense, one that might dissuade teams from attempting to run the ball against them.
However, appearances can be misleading. It’s not that you wouldn’t run against the Bengals; it’s a matter of how you do it. Undiscovered weaknesses are waiting to be exploited. The critical question is, “Can you identify them?”
Cincinnati boasts a pair of exceptionally skilled linebackers, Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict, on their defensive unit.
These two athletes exhibit exceptional “flow” capabilities, meaning they can swiftly decipher run schemes and navigate through traffic caused by blocking to intervene in runs not necessarily directed their way effectively.
The defensive line of Cincinnati comprises a collection of agile, aggressive players. This group includes defensive end Carlos Dunlap, defensive tackle Geno Atkins, and defensive end Wallace Gilberry.
The fusion of an explosive and aggressive front line, paired with linebackers who swiftly read plays and dash toward the ball carrier, often results in rendering play side runs, i.e., runs originating in the direction of the offensive play’s commencement, an exceedingly arduous proposition.
Observing the slide above, it becomes evident that the off-the-ball linebackers swiftly converge on the initial play side while the defensive line effectively erects a formidable barrier.
The prospects for substantial running gains on the play side appear bleak in such a configuration. This pattern repeats consistently in Cincinnati’s initial three games of the season.
While the New England Patriots strive to discover a semblance of offensive identity, the defensive approach of the Cincinnati Bengals might just aid them in recapturing some of the schematic successes they’ve enjoyed in the past, particularly in the context of their cutback running game.
In the latter part of the previous season, the Patriots embarked on a series of December games in which they consistently exploited opposing defenses with their running game, featuring the likes of LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley.
Despite Blount’s reputation as a “big back” and Ridley’s recognition as a one-cut zone runner, this successful period was characterized by numerous cutback runs that broke toward the opposite of where the play originally began.
This approach deviated from the norm for both players but proved highly productive.
In the Patriots/Ravens game from the previous year, we can witness an example of this strategy, showcasing how New England took advantage of Baltimore’s fast-flowing defense on numerous occasions.
The slide above clearly illustrates the absence of viable options on the play side, mirroring the situation depicted in the previous Cincinnati example.
Nevertheless, the running back’s agility and skill in redirecting the run toward the backside enabled the Patriots to capitalize on the over-zealous pursuit of the defense, resulting in significant gains and big plays.
In previous articles, I’ve emphasized that the Patriots won’t miraculously rejuvenate their entire offense with a single play.
However, they need to identify foundational elements and themes within their games that exploit the vulnerabilities of their opponents. This involves avoiding the fruitless endeavor of matching strength against or weakness against strength.
In recent weeks, I’ve highlighted a couple of tight-end (YY) running options for this team, and now the cutback running game emerges as an additional avenue for progress.
While it remains uncertain whether the Patriots will ultimately choose this path to regain their footing, I firmly believe that no persistent issues plaguing this offense can be resolved without first establishing a consistent (albeit not necessarily glamorous) running game.
This appears to be the one aspect where they possess the personnel to exploit and build upon.
Cincinnati’s defense stands out for its speed and aggression, and it has demonstrated solid performance against the run thus far.
However, there are instances where a team’s apparent strength can be turned against them or might not be a strength at all but rather an untapped weakness.
Tonight’s game, which I know you’ll be watching closely, presents an opportunity for the Patriots to take a step forward as an offensive unit.
While there is no solitary answer, there exists a harmonious equilibrium (akin to Cozumel, not Tijuana) for this team if they can string together the right winning components to craft the optimal offensive strategy.