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Film Breakdown: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly From Vonn Bell's First Season With the Bengals

Cincinnati signed the veteran safety in free agency last offseason.
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Vonn Bell really had the tale of two seasons in 2020. 

Earlier in the year, he was seen as a fairly large liability, especially in coverage. Later in the season, he became one of the better safeties in the NFL. Numerous Bengals fans are wondering which of these half-seasons revealed Bell's true colors. 

Let’s watch the tape and find out where he excels, where he struggles, and the real difference between his inconsistent play last season.

Bell is at his best fitting the run, tackling, and creating havoc. He can be thought of as more of a traditional strong safety or box safety—similar to Jamal Adams. 

Bell looks like a linebacker when he is fitting the run from the box. The Bengals commonly used him in traditional linebacker spots.

Here we get a 4-3 over (3T to the run strength) front with Bell taking the place of the SAM linebacker. On the snap, he can read the Browns’ run play as a full-flow wide zone. 

Bell keeps his eyes on Kareem Hunt and then once Hunt passes the cutback opportunity, he gets fills into the D gap between the two tight ends. He ends the play by latching onto Hunt’s ankle and allowing other Bengals to finish the tackle. His ability to stop the run allows the Bengals to play in their nickel defense while keeping solid run defense.

Another look at Bell stopping the run with quick processing and great tackling ability. He quickly reads the offense and fits this play. Once he sees the offensive line work vertically and the tight end sift, he knows this is a run play. This quick processing allows him to avoid the oncoming block from the wide receiver so he can tackle Hunt for a minimal gain.

Not only does Bell show the ability to make the play on the front side, but he can also blitz off the backside and bring down the running back. It helps that he's usually coming in unblocked, but he still must maintain the correct track to the running back and make a one-on-one tackle. 

Here are a few more examples of him making this exact play off of the backside.

All of these plays showcase Bell's playmaking skills against the run and his his ability to tackle. 

He finished with 114 tackles last year and had just five miss tackles. As a quick reference, this past year Budda Baker missed 13 tackles, Adams missed nine tackles, and Harrison Smith even missed eight tackles. 

That doesn't mean Bell is as good as these players, but it shows that this past year he was at a similar or even better level when it came to his tackling ability. This works as a yin-yang type of relationship with the Bengals other safety Jessie Bates whose only true weakness is his ability to tackle.

As I mentioned earlier one of the areas that stands out with Bell is his ability to create havoc. He's great at forcing fumbles and generating pressure. Bell made two insane plays this past year that ended in forced fumbles.

I have probably watched this specific play about 100 times this past year and still do not understand how Bell forced a fumble as Engram fell to the ground. He punches the ball perfectly and then is able to pick it up before anyone even notices that he got the ball out. This turnover took away a Giants red zone opportunity which is more important than the general turnover. This forced fumble and recovery took away an easy scoring opportunity.

The other forced fumble is the one that Bengals fan are going to remember until the end of time. This one occurred on Monday Night Football. Bell is playing the lurk in a cover one lurk situation. This is essentially playing the shallow zone top-down from a deep safety position. 

Once Ben Roethlisberger’s hands separate, Bell triggers and begins sprinting right at Juju Smith-Schuster on the shallow. Once the pass is completed, Bell unloads on him like a runaway train. The ball squirts out and the rest is history.

The other area of creating havoc is his ability to get pressure. Most of these pressures came from being unblocked, but Bell always made the most of his opportunity to hit the quarterback.

Knowing that the Titans like to run wide zone and that the flow is going away from him lets Bell play the quarterback here. This is a play-action off the wide zone which leaves the boot side unblocked. Typically the quarterback is able to throw this ball before the pressure arrives, but Bell made Tannehill his only target rather than playing the run and then popping out for the pass. Bell unloads on Tannehill on what should have been a sack, but ends as an incomplete pass.

Now he is blitzing against more of a traditional drop-back pass. He comes around the edge unblocked and smashes into Tua Tagovailoa for a huge quarterback hit and what could have been an interception. A nicely designed pressure that Bell executes to perfection. If this pressure does turn into an interception it would've likely led to points for the Bengals.

Bell still does have areas that need improvement or need to be mitigated. Mainly it is his man coverage ability as a safety.

Having Bell in press-man coverage against Mark Andrews was never going to end well. Once the Bengals safety attempts to jam him, Andrews swipes that away instantly creating separation. Bell just does not have the jamming ability or the man coverage skill to stick with a tight end like Andrews.

Another example of the Bengals putting Bell in press-man coverage against a tight end that he can not keep up with. You can say what you want about Engram, but he does have the ability to win vertically down the field. Bell gets frozen off of the jab step on the release which gives Engram enough space and time to stack him and win vertically. It ends up as a huge gain taking advantage of Bell’s worst area as a player.

He was better when he got to play off man coverage, but still had his struggles like here. Bates is in some type of jump or bracket situation away from this play and Bell really does play this pretty well. Baker Mayfield is just able to hit David Njoku in the perfect spot just outside of Bell’s reach for a touchdown.

Here is the second example of Bell playing pretty good off coverage, but he just does not have the same type of ability to reach through hands and break up passes that Bates has. The perfect pass beats him again as he is a little bit late on getting his hands inside to break up the pass.

Now that we have an understanding of Bell’s strengths and weaknesses as a player, we can take an in-depth look at what the difference was between the two halves of last year. 

I rewatched and charted four different games and added that to my previous knowledge and hypothesis about what could have been the difference between the beginning and end of last year. Using the bye as the break between the beginning and tail end of the season for Bell, there were a few noteworthy observations. 

The first one is that Bell struggled when guarding good receiving tight ends this past year. Before the bye, we would have Bell on the opposing team’s tight end in man-to-man coverage as part of our cover one hole/rat. 

Example of cover one hole/rat: 

Screen Shot 2021-07-15 at 11.47.37 PM

Despite playing more cover one hole after the bye week, Bell had fewer snaps of man coverage against tight ends. This is due to two differences. Bell played more man coverage against running backs in this set. The Bengals also started to use him more as the deep middle of the field player with Bates in man coverage against opposing tight ends.

Here is a good look at us playing cover one hole with Bell as the deep defender and Bates as the defender playing man against the opposing team’s tight end. Bell is not attacked in coverage, because no one goes to the deep middle of the field and Bates showcases his high level man-to-man ability as he breaks up this pass to Gesicki.

Over the two games that I watched prior to the bye, Bell only played the deep middle of the field three times. All three of those plays were in cover three situations. 

In the two games that I watched after the bye, Bell had 11 instances of deep middle of the field coverage with eight of those being cover one man situations. Playing Bell as the deep player on cover three can be an acceptable change-up, but playing him as the deep player on cover one is better than that. It allows Bates to take a player away and forces the offense to respect his ability. 

All four of Bell’s touchdowns given up were in man coverage against tight ends. Three of which were before the bye week when he was asked to cover them more often in man coverage.

Bell got better as time went on, but Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo learned his strengths and weaknesses so that he could be used more effectively. It also helps that all of Bell’s forced fumbles and fumble recoveries happened after the bye week which inflated things such as his Pro Football Focus score that could be used to make the case that he got better after the bye.

This is not to say that playing Bell in deep coverage solves all of the issues the Bengals have on defense.

Look at the lack of range from Bell as the deep middle of the field safety on this play. It's jarring to compare that to Bates, who has some of the best range in the entire league. Bates may not get over top of this and make the play every time, but he has shown the ability to do so. I do not think Bell has shown that he can get over the top of these vertical routes on the outside.

Still, even with the lack of range, it is a nice change-up to throw at offenses who previously looked to just exploit Bell in man coverage. Anarumo certainly has more knowledge about the talent that he has on this team and how to more effectively use them.

Bell is the perfect complementary piece to Bates. Everything that Bates is weaker in is a strength of Bell’s and vice versa. As the season continued, Anarumo learned how to better use Bell so that he could be more effective. I would expect his next season to be closer to the second half of last year due to this. With some more turnovers, Bell could be a key contributor on this defense.

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