The Cleveland Browns manhandled the Cincinnati Bengals in Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday. One of the largest issues that the Bengals had in this game was dealing with the Browns’ power/counter run game.
Nick Chubb ran for 137 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries. Even if you take away his 70-yard touchdown run [you should not do this] Chubb still ran for more than five yards per carry.
The Bengals shouldn't have been surprised by Cleveland's power rushing attack. While the Browns dabble in wide zone, they are able to run just about everything under the sun with Bill Callahan as the offensive line coach/run game coordinator. Not only are they able to run everything that they want, but last year the Browns adjusted to a power run game at halftime to attack the Cincinnati’s odd front.
How are the Bengals defending these run concepts and what could they change for the rematch? Let's dive into the film.
Boxing The Run
The Bengals are “boxing” the Browns’ power run game inside. This is the common way to play against the run from an odd front, single high structure. The Bengals utilize a bear front (3T-0T-3T alignment from the interior of the defensive line) on most mixed downs. This front is fantastic at stopping the zone run game. It is less appealing against the power run game.
This is an example of the Bengals attempting to box the Browns’ power run game inside from a bear front. The nose is head up with the center (0T) and the two defensive tackles outside of him are in between the guard and tackle (3T). Behind this, the Bengals are in some type of single-high coverage shell. This is important for the run fit because the coverage shell and front are married together. In single high, the majority of the help on defense is to the inside, so you want to send the run play to where the majority of the help is (inside).
From a static look, the Bengals have a guy for each gap in the Browns run game. There are just two issues. The first issue is that the personnel for the Bengals on this play is a mismatch. They matched the Browns 13 personnel look with nickel. The second issue with the play is that this is from a static view. When the guard pulls on power, the Browns are essentially creating another gap in the front. The Bengals’ second-level defenders are both safeties on either side over the tight end and Logan Wilson head up over the center. When the Browns pull Wyatt Teller to the left, Vonn Bell has no shot of getting over and helping on the run play. Unless someone is able to shed their block, the Bengals have no one on the front able to make the tackle.
They actually almost got this on the backside where Larry Ogunjobi does force a missed block, but he misses the tackle attempt. Now we have Germaine Pratt setting the edge, Jessie Bates taking on the puller, Josh Tupou getting deuce blocked, and Logan Wilson against the left tackle.
Pratt does his job adequately, but Bates [understandably] is unable to take on a pulling Teller. Putting Bates against Teller in that situation is malpractice. The star safety is pretty good against the run, but he cannot take on a 300-pound pulling guard. Tupou does nothing to help Wilson and just gets knocked over a gap. Wilson has no time to get over the top to play this run because Tupou puts up no resistance. This leads to Wilson getting sealed. There is a clear alley to run and no one to make the tackle for 10 yards. Once Eli Apple misses the tackle, it’s just a foot race to the end zone. Chubb is very athletic for his size and outruns the rest of the Bengals’ defense for a touchdown.
This example is not from a bear front, but the Bengals are still trying to box the run inside from a single high structure. Pratt is once again tasked with setting the edge. He is doing so on this play using “gladiator technique.” This is taking on the kick-out block with the inside shoulder while keeping the outside arm free. He does a very good job on this play to squeeze this down.
This time Wilson is the one taking on the pulling guard and he does a decent job. Bell is the guy who is supposed to get there to make the stop in between Pratt and Wilson. The issue is that Trey Hendrickson gets mauled backward by the double team. The "trey block" (tackle and tight end combo) knocks Hendrickson back about three yards. While Bell is trying to get over the top to make the play, the tight end can easily come off the block and pick him up. Chubb is in a position to succeed, as he makes Bates miss to gain additional yardage after he runs through the giant hole.
This is one of the successful run stops by the Bengals while trying to box the run inside. It takes two fantastic individual performances to stop this run.
Pratt is absolutely dominating the tight end who is tasked with kicking him out. He bench presses him to squeeze this down and not allow the puller to climb through to the second level. The other performance is B.J. Hill against the trey block to the front side. Unlike Hendrickson, Hill is able to take on this block without being washed downfield. Then after the tackle climbs to the second level, Hill sheds the block from the tight end. Not done yet, Hill also makes the stop against Chubb. Just a fantastic rep for both Pratt and Hill.
The issue I personally have with the Bengals’ plan to box these runs to the inside is that it’s just such a difficult assignment. They either need everyone to do their job at a high level or they need a couple of amazing performances on a play. Against the Cleveland Browns all-star offensive line, this task is monumental and directly led to the worst performance that the Bengals run defense has had all season. Rather than boxing the power run game to the inside, Cincinnati should try to spill the run to the outside.
The History Of Spilling Power
Some quick history on the philosophical idea between boxing versus spilling the power run game.
In 1981, Joe Gibbs was hired by the Washington Football Team. With him, Gibbs brought a nasty power run game where he utilized both power and counter. In his second season, he won a Super Bowl with this run game. Then in 1987, he won his second Super Bowl behind another top 5 rushing attack. They were still utilizing the same power concepts in this season to take advantage of the idea of boxing these runs to the inside. Washington started 10-0 and won another Super Bowl in 1991, but times were changing
The Cowboys recently hired Jimmy Johnson from the Miami Hurricanes and he brought a 4-3 quarters defense with him while most of the league was running a 3-4 defense. After two seasons of rebuilding the roster, Johnson built a playoff team in 1991. In the first match-up between Dallas and Washington, the Cowboys gave up 140 rushing yards and 33 points. This led to Johnson going back to the drawing board about how to play against this run game.
When the two teams matchup up again, Washington was 10-0 and Dallas was 6-5. The Cowboys held Washington’s run game to only 50 rushing yards and upset the future Super Bowl champions. He did so "spilling" the run game to the outside. In 1992 and 1993, the Cowboys won back-to-back Super Bowls behind a top 5 defense and a strong offense.
This 4-3 front become the trend until Mike Shanahan and the Denver Broncos developed a wide zone offense to attack it. After the Broncos won two Super Bowls, the zone run game became more popular. This led to a shift back to the 3-4 odd front and you can start to see how football is a cyclical game. The main takeaway from this historical anecdote is that one effective defense against the power run game is to spill the run outside from a 4-3 type of front.
Spilling The Ball Outside
Now that we know exactly what spilling the ball means, let’s go over how and why it works. Rather than asking a guy to set a hard edge against the kick-out, that guy will “wrong arm” the puller to spill the ball to the outside. Everyone else will flow to stop the ball after it has been forced outside of the blocking scheme. The reason this works is that it only requires one guy to do their job against the blocking scheme. When we looked at the Bengals attempts to box the ball inside, it took multiple players doing their job correctly. There were instances where the edge was set, but no one was there to make the tackle. There is also a temporal element to spilling these power runs to the outside. When the ball is being run to the inside, it is quicker. This makes it harder for defenders who are further away to get involved in the action. When the ball is being forced to the outside, the run will hit slower. This allows safeties to get involved from deep or other defenders to flow to the ball.
It’s a 4-down front with a two high structure behind it. This means that against power and counter, the defense will spill the ball to the outside. The defensive end nearly takes out both pullers with his wrong arm technique. You can see on this play how everyone working to the inside of the pullers forces the ball to the outside. Also, notice how long it takes for this run to start going since the runner has to keep working outside and away from his offensive line. It goes for no gain.
This example has the defensive end take out both of the pullers when he goes to spill the ball. Just another example of a 4-3 type of defense that is spilling the ball to the outside. The amount of time it takes the runner to get upfield in conjunction with the help being ready for the action stops this run for no gain once again.
This is the last example of a defense spilling the ball outside. Multiple defenders attack the inside of the pullers to force the ball outside. The running back just keeps working one more gap outside until eventually, the defense collapses on him. Again notice how long this run takes compared to when the Bengals were trying to box these runs to the inside. This was another play that went for no gain because of the defense spilling these power and counter runs to the outside.
The Bengals should watch what other teams are doing to these types of runs and implement them for the next matchup against the Browns. By spilling the ball to the outside, the Bengals' defenders get to avoid most of the Browns' all-star offensive line. Instead, they just have to deal with the back, and while the Browns have very talented running backs, I would rather only deal with one all-star. It’s possible that Cleveland adjusts and moves back to their wide zone when they see the Bengals get into this type of front. If they do that, the Bengals just need to be prepared for a cat and mouse game with the Browns.
There are more things that Cincinnati can do to stop this such as post-snap movement, but we can cross that bridge when we get there. No matter what the Bengals do, they need to find a way to stop the Browns rushing attack.
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