3TFO: Bengals @ Lions, Week 7
In a clash of North division leaders, the 4-2 Detroit Lions will host the 4-2 Cincinnati Bengals at Ford Field on Sunday. Fighting to stay atop their respective divisions, the teams are about as even as their records indicate. However, even though they both use 4-3 defenses and don’t blitz much, and both spend most of their time in 12- or 11-personnel, their strengths and weaknesses are almost opposite, making for an exciting matchup.
The Bengals’ greatest strength is pass blocking, boasting a top-shelf offensive line Pass Blocking Efficiency for the fifth consecutive year. They’re one of six teams in the league with positive run and pass blocking grades, but their passing and rushing grades are in average territory. Meanwhile, they trot out Top 8 coverage and run defense units, but must be wondering where last year’s fifth-ranked pass rush is, as they’re a bottom half pass rushing team in 2013.
On the other sideline, the Lions have shown very well in the passing game on both sides of the ball. Their passing, pass blocking, pass rush, and coverage grades all rank in the Top 10 of our overall team grades. Led by Matthew Stafford’s +12.6 passing grade on offense and Ndamukong Suh’s +14.6 pass rushing grade, the Lions have clear leaders that have driven their early success. If Calvin Johnson is 100% on Sunday, that will only bolster the passing offense. On the negative side, the Lions rank in the bottom half of the league at run blocking, and the bottom quarter in run defense.
Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley vs. Bengals Interior OL
The best defensive tackle tandem in the league last year (discounting Geno Atkins’ monstrous year that nearly saw him grade out better than the next three tackles combined) will face off against the best offensive line it has seen so far this year. Nick Fairley usually plays at right defensive tackle, though he’ll range from over the center to outside the left guard, and will have the tougher matchup against Clint Boling. Not quite living up to last year’s form, Fairley has just three run stops for a 4.3% Run Stop Percentage, and he’s fallen off from 2012’s second place 9.4 Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP) to just 6.4 in 2013. He’s tied for 25th for defensive tackle PRP, but could have a tough time with former SEC opponent Boling, who has really come on strong this year for the Bengals. Allowing just eight hurries through six games, Boling is our No. 3 guard and is yet to post a negative game.
Fairley’s relative down year could mean the Bengals are free to focus extra attention on Ndamukong Suh, best known by Bengals fans for tearing off Andy Dalton’s helmet in Dalton’s first preseason game as a Bengal in 2011. If Fairley is off to a slow start, Suh has been a bat out of hell this year. He leads the way in PRP for defensive tackles, notching 32 pressures in 226 snaps thus far. Suh is bullying opposing linemen, with nine bull-rush pressures to go with seven wins on inside moves. Lining up opposite Fairley at left defensive tackle, Suh will face a combination of center Kyle Cook and right guard Kevin Zeitler. Zeitler has the second-highest run blocking grade for guards, but may find it tough to move Suh off the ball consistently, as Suh owns a 10.2% Run Stop Percentage. In the passing game, though, Suh may find some success, as Cook has allowed pressure on five bull-rushes, and Zeitler on three bull-rushes and four times to the inside.
Along with individual numbers, the tackle tandem for Detroit has been a major reason they’re only allowing 2.13 yards per inside carry. The Bengals like to run up the gut — especially middle right — but they might have a hard time getting that part of the running game going this week. This battle looks to be strength on strength and could be fun to watch unfold.
Matthew Stafford vs. Bengals Blitz Schemes
The Bengals haven’t blitzed much this year. Like the Lions, the Bengals bring four rushers a majority of the time, blitzing on 25.9% of their defensive snaps. Against pass-heavy teams like the Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, and New England Patriots, though, the Bengals ramped up the blitzes. In those games, the Bengals blitzed 34.1% of the time. Defensive Coordinator Mike Zimmer likes to run his nickel linebackers into the A-gap and bring a safety down to the line of scrimmage on obvious passing downs, and mixes in man and zone blitzes to keep opposing quarterbacks off balance. Only twice have opposing quarterbacks graded positively against the Bengals’ blitz this year — Jay Cutler in his incredible Week 1 performance, and Thaddeus Lewis against just five blitzes last week.
Stafford and the Lions have a good formula to mitigate the Bengals’ defensive line pressure. Their offensive line ranks fourth in Pass Blocking Efficiency at 83.1, not far behind the Bengals, and Stafford gets rid of the ball faster than any other QB in the league. With an Average Time to Attempt of 2.21 seconds, Stafford has thrown a league-most 67.9% of his passes in 2.5 seconds or less, posting a 101.7 NFL QB Rating on those passes. He’s also solid, if unspectacular, when Passing Under Pressure. He takes a sack on only 13% of pressured snaps, and has rarely had to throw it away while maintaining a respectable 64.3% Accuracy Percentage on pressured throws. Against the blitz, though, Stafford has had some issues. He’s been blitzed 84 times against 168 non-blitzed snaps, and while he still grades positively at +1.7 against the blitz, he blows that out of the water with a +12.9 on non-blitzed snaps. His completion percentage drops to 55% when blitzed.
Given Zimmer’s penchant for bringing different types of pressure out of the same look, and Stafford’s relative “weakness” when blitzed, the Bengals could try to confuse Stafford’s pre-snap reads and disrupt his quick passing rhythm by mixing up pressure. If they don’t, and they can’t create quick pressure with the front four, Stafford might pick them apart.
Giovani Bernard vs. DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch
Rookie halfback Giovani Bernard is making a strong case for Offensive Rookie of the Year. He’s our third-ranked running back this year on the strength of a +5.7 grade in the passing game while chipping in with solid blocking performance and just above average rushing grade. Relying on his speed and agility in the open field, he’s forced six missed tackles as a rusher and receiver, and is averaging over 10 yards after the catch on 20 receptions. He’s become an increasing part of the Bengals’ offensive gameplan, especially as a receiver out of the backfield. While his 1.97 Yards Per Route Run ranks behind Detroit’s running back duo of Joique Bell and Reggie Bush, he’s proving to be a playmaker in space.
What makes this matchup interesting is that he’ll face two top-tier coverage linebackers in DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch. After beating rookie standout Kiko Alonso to the corner on several swing passes last week for big gains, Bernard showed that he can beat reputably strong cover backers. Levy has the highest coverage grade for any linebacker this year, allowing just .77 Yards Per Coverage Snap (YPPR) to go along with four interceptions. Tulloch has allowed a higher 81.8% completion percentage but also has an interception and is on pace with Levy in YPPR. Overall, the Lions have been susceptible in the short middle of the field, giving up 62 of 76 passes for 498 yards and two touchdowns, but they’ve largely shut down passes behind the line of scrimmage, giving up just 3.47 yards per attempt in that part of the field. They’ve managed to pick off two passes intended for halfbacks on non-screen routes, but have also allowed 6.7 yards per attempt on those passes. Bernard will certainly face a tough test with this duo of athletic coverage linebackers.
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