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49ers Week 2 Preview: What Bengals film says about Zac Taylor’s offense, Anarumo’s defense


The Cincinnati Bengals are 0-1, but ignoring how they lost is inadvisable. The Bengals, under first-year head coach Zac Taylor and first-year defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, lost 21-20 at the Seattle Seahawks in a rain-soaked game in which the Seahawks had no business winning. The Bengals sacked Russell Wilson four times and limited the Seahawks to 72 yards on the ground, while Andy Dalton threw for a career-high 418 yards (35-for-51) with a pair of touchdowns to John Ross III, who had a career-high 158 yards.

Taylor – most recently the quarterbacks coach for the Los Angeles Rams – and Anarumo – a 30-plus year coaching veteran in his first full-time defensive coordinator role (was interim with the Miami Dolphins in 2015) after spending last season as the New York Giants’ defensive backs coordinator, and the previous six seasons with the Dolphins – ran a brilliant game plan that just didn’t pan out. What went wrong? A lack of red zone execution and untimely turnovers.

In the Bengals’ three possessions in the Seahawks red zone, they came away with just 6 points. The first possession was a field goal (preceded by a delay of game call a couple plays earlier) and the second, at the start of the second half at the Seattle 12-yard line, following a Chris Carson fumble, was met with the same fate. Dalton tried to pull back a screen pass that was covered well, and instead fumbled the ball. There was also a missed field goal from the 27-yard line later in the third quarter which effectively cost Cincinnati the game.

The last red zone trip came midway through the fourth quarter. After an incompletion on a first-and-goal situation at the Seattle 4-yard line, a holding call and a sack saw the Bengals settle for a field goal. A well-defended penultimate possession gave them 21 seconds to drive down for a game-winning field goal; instead, a Dalton sack-fumble ended the game.

Again, this was against the Seahawks in Seattle with first-year coaches and a team that went 6-10 a season ago. Taylor brought with him from Los Angeles an offense much like Sean McVay’s, which has core tenets of the West Coast Offense while taking bits and pieces from elsewhere and with a decent use of the run-pass option (RPO). It’s similar to Shanahan’s in certain respects, though personnel is different.

While Shanahan said that he and Taylor didn’t know each other personally, they have a host of mutual acquaintances and somewhat similar backgrounds. Taylor acknowledged the offensive similarities between the two offenses on Thursday and what his coaching upbringing was influenced by.

“I think the foundations of the systems all stems from the same places. I used to follow [Shanahan],” Taylor said. “I was a big fan of Gary Kubiak and my father-in-law Mike Sherman worked with the Texans together when Kyle was there. I came up under Bill Callahan, Jon Gruden. So it’s all the same West Coast system. I used to follow where Kyle was at with the Texans and always loved studying them and stealing a lot of things that they did. It’s evolved in a lot of different ways. As Kyle’s gone on and I’ve been with different people, it’s taken on a different deal. But you still see the same concepts, you hear the same terminology. If you were to sign a receiver from either team, if they were to swap teams, they would have a general understanding of what they were being asked to do. To the naked eye, it might not look that similar, but to the coaching staffs, it feels pretty similar.”

Bengals’ offense: Singleback and shotgun only, 11 personnel-heavy, using the whole field

Here’s a personnel breakdown of the Bengals’ Week 1 offense, which does not utilize a fullback or two-man backfields like the 49ers:

12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR): 18 snaps (24 percent), 15 from singleback (20 percent), 3 from shotgun (4 percent)

11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 1 WR): 36 snaps (48 percent), 24 from shotgun (32 percent), 12 from singleback (16 percent); ran seven run-pass options (RPOs) from shotgun with this personnel, four pass plays (3-for-4), three run plays. Two examples of their pass options are above.

10 personnel (1 RB, 0 TE, 4 WR): 17 snaps (22.7 percent), all shotgun

01 personnel (0 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR): 1 snap (1.3 percent)

00 personnel (0 RB, 0 TE, 5 WR): 3 snaps (4 percent)

When reviewing what the Bengals did on offense, the only thing they struggled with was running the ball. However, that’s hard to fault them for considering the Seahawks effectively sold out to stop the run. Taylor credited that game plan and said he realized early they’d have to go through the air, which resulted in those career-highs from Dalton and Ross.

While they didn’t run the ball effectively and only rushed 14 times, they signaled early what personnel they would use to run the ball and used that expectation against the Seahawks on play-action passes. A prime example was on the first John Ross III touchdown, which came on a flea flicker from a singleback formation with 11 personnel, from which most of the Bengals’ run plays came.

There was no part of the field the Bengals didn’t use. They went deep, hit a lot of quick slants, curls and flat routes, but for most of the game, didn’t challenge to the outside. Then, like with their personnel grouping on the run utilized to set up the play-action pass, the Bengals did the same thing with out routes and corner patterns.

Those middle of the field throws set up plays like this one to John Ross, who was shaded on the outside by the cornerback Tre Flowers. He effectively got Flowers one-on-one by running an initial slug-o (slant-and-go) up the seam, with the free safety locked onto the tight end. The play-action and soft coverage lets him get off the line quick, and the second move on the comeback takes Flowers by surprise.

Ahkello Witherspoon had a fantastic first game and will likely be lined up with Ross while Sherman takes Tyler Boyd (A.J. Green is still out). Those assignments could be flipped, but with Jordan Willis the go-to slot receiver likely lined up against K’Waun Williams, there’s a pair of dynamic receivers for both to cover at all times.

Witherspoon had a rough last season, especially on those types of comeback routes and Sherman had three defensive penalties last week. And while the defense excelled last week, Tarvarius Moore is effectively a rookie free safety and Witherspoon needs to show up again. If the Bengals do run similar schemes, however, there will be an opportunity or two for more interceptions; on the second Ross touchdown, the ball was misjudged by Seahawks’ free safety Tedric Thompson and could have been picked off. Instead, it went for a Bengals score.

Bengals defense creates plenty of pressure and opportunities; will Garoppolo capitalize?

Arguably the bigger concern for the 49ers is the Bengals’ defense. Anarumo had his defense mostly in nickel, but brought out a bunch of other looks, including a rare 5-0-6 dime formation with five down linemen and six defensive backs. The Bengals have 11 defensive linemen on the roster and they take absolute advantage of them on most snaps. Before signing LaRoy Reynolds (previously on the 49ers), the team had just four linebackers on the roster.

The defense would sometimes have two linemen drop into coverage or operate from a standing up technique, where it was effectively a 3-4 set, but by personnel, those alignments were still technically 5-2. Here’s how the formational breakdown went by snap count:

4-2-5 (standard nickel): 36 snaps (70.6 percent)

5-2-4 (base defense): 7 snaps (13.7 percent)

4-1-6 (dime): 6 snaps (11.8 percent)

5-0-6 (dime): 2 snaps (4 percent) – one of those snaps shown below

The Bengals’ defense was tremendous, but was taken advantage of on deep balls and play-action passes. A perfect example was on what proved to be the game-winning touchdown pass from Russell Wilson to Tyler Lockett. The play-action drew in the lone safety who blew the coverage and let Lockett, on a slug-o route, get wide open down the field.

This wasn’t an isolated incident. The Seahawks ran multiple quick slants, often targeting DK Metcalf over the middle (who caught for a Seahawks rookie debut-record 89 yards), setting up other deep passes like the one below.

The Bengals showed weaknesses in deep coverage; that’s great news for the 49ers. Or, it should be.

The issue is that Jimmy Garoppolo showed weaknesses throwing deep passes last week. His only connection of 15-plus yards was with Richie James Jr. for the 39-yard touchdown and it was thrown perfectly; but many of his other throws missed his receivers (behind Marquise Goodwin twice, too high for Kendrick Bourne once).

But his most egregious mistake outside of his horrendous pick-six wasn’t a bad throw to an open receiver; it was a bad throw to a covered George Kittle with a wide open Kendrick Bourne waiting, and discernibly confused, to catch a touchdown pass. On the play below, watch Garoppolo’s eyes; there’s not a single moment in which he’s not staring down Kittle.

He fails to read the deep coverage on that side of the field or go through his progressions and misses Bourne wide open in the gap between the free safety and linebackers on a post route. Yes, he has to step up in the pocket, but Bourne is still open at that time and his throw gives Kittle zero chance to make a play on the ball.

The other issue the 49ers are dealing with is the loss of Tevin Coleman. While Matt Breida’s no slouch, and proved his speed can open up options deep, Coleman has a bigger frame than Breida and has more reps and familiarity in the Shanahan pass game; his value to the 49ers is probably greater as a receiver than as a runner back.

Still, the Swiss Army knives of Kyle Juszczyk and George Kittle coupled with Shanahan’s ingenuitive play-calling will always open up short options for Garoppolo, like this play below:

And this:

Garoppolo will need to both read the defense and make decisions quickly.

The Bengals’ four sacks came from using a combination of blitzes and five-down attacks. Second-year defensive end Sam Hubbard was deadly, coming away with 10 tackles (two for a loss), two sacks and four quarterback hits.

While Mike McGlinchey should do a significantly better job against him, there’s no way the 49ers completely avoid the pressure of a defensive line which features Hubbard, Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins and a host of other plug-and-play rushers that the Bengals rotated to keep fresh in Week 1.

Kittle acknowledged the threat that presents on Thursday.

“They got to Russell [Wilson] a lot,” Kittle said. “That’s how you disrupt them. If you take out Russell, it alters a lot work they do. We have to let them not get to Jimmy and we have to make plays on the outside because they do some crazy stuff with their coverages and if can catch them in something that they don’t want to be caught in, then we can make some big plays.”

For the 49ers to win on Sunday, they will have to exploit the gaps in the five-down looks they’re given with zone rushing plays. Outside of that, they’ll be faced mostly with a familiar wide-nine nickel look that the Bengals used almost as much as the 49ers did last week, which naturally presents a large gap for outside zone rushes.

The loss of Coleman could hurt more in the pass game than in the ground game; though, if the run can be established to set up play-action passes, there will be gaps for Garoppolo to exploit. Those gaps will likely open regardless through clever playcalling from Shanahan, but the main question is if Garoppolo can hit his throws and actually go through his progression in a way he didn’t last week.

Crucially, the defense will have to remain staunch. The Bengals took advantage of zone coverage well, and took plenty of deep shots down the field. The Seahawks sold out to stop the run and if the 49ers can be even half as effective in stopping the run, there will be opportunities for more interceptions. Tarvarius Moore is likely to be much more under the microscope than he was in Week 1 based on how Dalton attacked the Seahawks’ free safeties. If he and Ahkello Witherspoon are effective together, it will at least give the 49ers a chance to win.

 

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