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Bengals Film Breakdown: A Deep Dive Into Dax Hill's Roller Coaster Season

Let's look at what went right and what went wrong for the second-year safety.

Dax Hill’s Cincinnati Bengals career is off to an interesting and unique start. 

They took him in the first round (31st overall) of the 2022 draft as the heir apparent for one of the two safety spots the Bengals were likely to lose in the following season in free agency. 

Hill served as the third safety and if Jessie Bates or Vonn Bell missed time, he would be able to step into that role. However, neither safety missed any time, so Hill’s main playing time as a rookie came from playing the slot against Tampa Bay and outside corner against Cleveland. 

That made this season his first season at safety for the Bengals. Overall, it was an up and down adventure with some of his athleticism, mentality, and traits standing out, but with clear areas that need improvement as well. 

Let’s dive into Hill's second season:

Understanding Pro Football Focus Grading

Hill has a PFF grade of 51.6, which is low. It’s been a large area of discussion for fans who want to move on from him after his first year starting. This is not a discussion about PFF being good or bad, but the grading lacks context when it comes to these players and especially for safeties. Safeties are rarely involved in plays, if they are involved it’s usually not a good thing for the defense.

The way PFF grades is that exceptional plays both positive and negative get a grade ranging from -2 to +2. More often than not safeties are going to get a 0 on most plays. They’re staying over the top, the ball is thrown underneath, and someone else makes the tackle. This small sample means that all grades are going to affect them heavily. They struggle to make up for -1 and -2 grades in a way not every position does. That’s part of the reason why Bates would have a variable PFF score. If he misplayed the ball in the air a couple times, he couldn’t overcome that because he wouldn’t be given the opportunity.

The second point of discussion for PFF grading is that it’s more outcome based than you may think. A bounce of the ball upward rather than downward can change a grade from a +1 to a -1. Let’s take this dropped interception from Hill as an example.

This play is excellent from Hill up until the ball hits his hands. He carries the receiver, undercuts him, and gets in position to make a play on the ball. It hits him square in the hands but he drops it. The ball unluckily bounces upward and the receiver catches it for a touchdown. That’s graded as a -1 for Hill despite excellent coverage and getting himself in position to make a play on the ball. If the ball hits his hands and simply falls to the ground it’s a +1. If he catches that ball it’s a +2. Instead he’s charged with a negative play in one of his only opportunities.

The area for improvement here is to work on his hands, but he’s a defender and most defenders have notoriously bad hands. Other than that, it’s an excellent play, but it’s graded the same as if he got smoked in coverage or busted on the back end.

This is not to say that Hill is secretly an All-Pro or that PFF is useless, but to give context to a grade that is well below expectations. The grading system needs to be taken with a grain of salt and cannot be the only way a player is measured.

Areas for Improvement

It’s extremely likely that Hill is going to be starting next year at safety despite some of the fans' outcries. They are not going to give up on him to sign Antoine Winfield Jr. to a contract bigger than what Bates received from Atlanta. They would have just retained Bates if they had a plan like that. Since Hill is likely the starting safety next season, let’s get into the areas that need the most improvement and whether we can expect him to get better.

The first area for improvement that sticks out for him is that he needs to play more under control, take better angles, and stop missing tackles.

He missed eight tackles on the season, which is more than Jessie Bates or Vonn Bell missed in 2022, but each also had a season with Cincinnati that was worse in terms of missed tackles. It’s not an insane amount of missed tackles for a safety playing 1,000 snaps and accumulating over 100 tackles. It’s also a high enough number that it needs to be improved upon.

He can easily improve this number by playing more under control, consistently taking better angles, and if he adds good weight. Playing a little out of control and not taking the best angle consistently are both areas of improvement for a lot of young safeties. It’s to be expected that he will perform better in this area next season as the game may slow down for him a little bit and he is able to make more plays under control rather than triggering too hard and leaving himself vulnerable to any type of move from the ball carrier.

The next area for improvement would be processing and communication in split field coverages.

This play is quarters to Hill’s side and he needs to match No. 3 vertically. He could use a better reroute from the linebacker, who is supposed to carry No. 3 to him, but ultimately it’s his job to take that player and Hill did a very poor job of playing this. 

He plays this almost as if it’s cloud with how much width he gains on the snap, but everyone is playing quarters other than him. Rather than gaining width to split No. 2 an No. 3, he should be gaining depth and reading No. 3 to No. 2 to match whichever player gets vertical. He put himself out of position by trying to split the two of them and was unable to recover on the play.

The other area that he could improve on in quarters coverage is that it felt like he was not consistently triggering quickly enough. This led to some easy gains for the offense when he should have been in a position to make a play on the ball. If No. 2 is vertical in a 2x2 set, then that’s his man. He needs to react quicker to take these throws away.

When it comes to half field coverage, he had issues as well although generally he played better here than he did as a quarters safety.

This play is on him as the deep half defender in Tampa 2 coverage. He cannot take the bait from the inside player and needs to be in position to get over the top and make a play on the vertical from the outside player. 

He also had some miscommunications on the back end, which most infamously led to a huge explosive play for the Chiefs.

The problem with having these processing issues and communication issues as a safety is that these are almost guaranteed explosive plays. If a linebacker screws something up it’s a 10 yard gain, but if the safety is the one who misplays coverage, then it’s 50+ yards for the offense.

We should expected him to improve in this area because he’s very green at the deep safety. The communication especially should improve as he spends more time with the defensive backs. Defensive communication is not talked about enough because those guys communicate on every play to make adjustments and change coverages based on what the offense lines up in or does pre-snap.

His processing should improve, but there’s always the possibility that this either takes more time than expected or doesn't get better. 

Personally, I expect Hill to process the game quicker next season because he’s fairly new to the position and wasn't really asked to play deep safety too often at Michigan. Hopefully these misplayed coverages are going to help him in the future as learning experiences.

This section also needs to acknowledge that he needs to improve his hands. He dropped multiple interceptions this season. If those swing the other way, the general feeling from fans is that he’s a playmaker or ball hawk that is improving. Instead, he dropped those and now fans don’t really care that he put himself in position to create a turnover.

Where He Excels

Hill has clear areas that are positives for him as a safety as well. It’s not just negative with him when it comes to playing the safety position.

The first positive from him this season is the same as last section, but a different spin. He excels at getting in position to take the ball away. The only way you can drop multiple interceptions is by getting in position to make those plays in the first place.

Here he plays everything very well as he breaks on the throw and gets both hands on the ball. Even though it’s not an interception, it’s a great play.

This is another example of using his athleticism to break on the ball and almost come away with a turnover. Getting yourself in position to make plays on the ball is the hardest part. Making the interception is something he needs to work on, but these plays should be seen as flashes of positivity rather than just the negative of dropping the interception. Hill has the makings of a ball hawk at safety; he just needs to come away with the ball on more of these opportunities.

Another area that showed his talent and athleticism was his man coverage against the tight end position. While the tight end position killed the Bengals this season, Hill wasn't the reason for that. Tight ends feasted against the Bengals zone coverage in the middle of the field. Hill was at fault for some of that, such as the play to Pat Freiemuth that was discussed earlier, but he wasn't the main issue. When he was asked to cover the tight end man-to-man, he won more often than not.

This is probably the area of Hill’s game that I came away with most impressed upon re-watching him this season. Despite the issues that the Bengals had defending the tight end position, he covered them at a high level when asked to play man or match coverage against them. Even against stars like Mark Andrews, George Kittle, and Travis Kelce, he more than held his own. Not to say he was perfect in coverage here. There were times when he got beat, but taking it as a whole, he was great.

Hill also plays better when he’s closer to the line of scrimmage. He probably played at his most consistent level when he was in the box. He does a good job of taking on blocks from wide receivers and you can see some of the linebacker mentality in him.

He does a better job of taking angles and tracking the inside hip of the ball carrier when he’s in the box rather than playing from deep. He was a solid run defender and if he added some more good weight to take on those blocks, he could move to an even better run defender within the box. 

It might be an area that he is best utilized on the team because he was also a very good blitzing safety this season for the Bengals.

The last area to talk about is his range. Despite some of the misplays from deep, he showed that he has good range as the center field safety. While he didn't break any of these passes up, you can see that he can get from the middle of the field to all the way outside of the numbers.

All of these flashes show you why he should be the starting safety next to Jordan Battle next season. If he can continue to do all of this at a high level while also improving the rawness in his game, he could be a high end safety in 2024. It’s not a guarantee that he will become the player the Bengals envisioned, but he showed plenty of reasons to stick with him, despite a roller coaster of a season.

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