Through six weeks of the season, the Bengals have found themselves in the unexpected catbird seat in the AFC North Division in large part because they have fixed one of the most gaping holes on the team from recent years: the defensive line.
However, that patchwork came loose in a 28-17 loss in Week Six to the Houston Texans, in large part because of key knee injuries to defensive end Antwan Odom and defensive tackle Domata Peko.
The four-man pass rush employed by the Bengals for the majority of the second half—without Peko and Odom—was futile against the quick-strike attack employed by Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, allowing him to compile 207 yards after the break.
Even before Odom and Peko went down, the Bengal deficiencies at the point of attack were apparent.
Texans offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan recognized the propensity of the Bengals’ defensive line and linebackers to over-commit to play-action, freezing them for a critical second to make them vulnerable to wide receiver bubble screens and halfback dump-offs.
Houston dinked and dunked their way to 392 passing yards on the day, exploiting the Bengal front seven’s unpreparedness for the short passing game in the process.
When the Bengals did adjust to the Houston aerial attack, with Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer holding off on many of his customary blitz packages, Shanahan was able to run four and five-man routes against the Bengal cover-two scheme, only requiring basic pass blocking schemes to cover the tamer Bengal pass rush without Odom on the outside.
Replacing Odom’s disciplined edge rush with the inexperienced and one-dimensional Michael Johnson significantly downgrades the defense, negating one of the Bengals’ strong suits through the hot start.
Zimmer will have a tough time pulling the trigger on compensatory blitz packages, as well, as playmakers like Chicago’s Devin Hester possess the ability to change a game through exploitation of the holes vacated by blitzing linebackers.
This is similar to what Houston’s Andre Johnson and Steve Slaton did in combining for 237 receiving yards in Week Six.
Zimmer has performed short-handed magic before, such as the three-game win streak his defense—decimated by injuries to Odom, Keith Rivers, and Robert Geathers—pulled off the finish up the 2008 season.
If the Bengals wish to remain in the penthouse of the division, they will have to conjure up some of that alchemy and use it to take back the most critical terrain on the field—the trenches.