It can be argued that good coverage is the product of good corners and great coverage is the product of good pass-rushers.
A defense tremendously improves in the back end when its foundation, the defensive line, has ample athletes that can rush the opposition. But when it does not, the defense is as if founded on sand: softly built and briskly sinking as the rest of the defenders are forced to take on a heavier duty, resulting in more mental mistakes. The Cincinnati Bengals don’t have that issue, having been built quite sturdily against the pass as they showed on Sunday in their rout of the New York Giants when they amassed four sacks and two interceptions. The two interceptions, especially Nate Clements’, summed up the philosophical approach of the Bengals’ defense to a tee.
Clements stood at the edge of the defensive line, striking a pre-snap pose akin to an Umberto Boccioni futuristic statue, and accompanying him were two other defenders that “sugared” the uncovered A-gaps. They were both linebackers, and both showed blitz along with Clements. But in typical Mike Zimmer fashion, they weren’t going to be coming. It would just be a four-man rush that would get after Eli Manning, but the potential downhill rushers were important to note because they were drawn up to screw with the Giants’ blocking scheme. If all went right for Cincinnati, the three interior offensive linemen would pinch inside, creating one-on-one meetings on the outsides for the rabid defensive ends.
That didn’t quite work because the Giants were prepared for it, committing a half-slide on the right side of the offensive line to the outside, creating three blockers vs. two rushers. On the other side of the trenches, there were also three blockers vs. two rushers.
Pass rush neutralized, right?
Not so fast…
One of the isolated matchups was Geno Atkins, a 24-year-old defensive tackle who has the gift of an unparalleled and astounding burst for a man carrying three bills of weight, against 29-year old Kevin Boothe, who admittedly is not as gifted as Atkins and is a left guard for a reason. Atkins’ relentlessness was a problem for the Giants’ blocker on this play, and it helped him prevail when he pushed his way through the heart of the pocket, pressuring Manning into stepping out and up. When he stepped up, Atkins came again, circling around the blocker prior to grabbing the tail of Manning’s jersey, which forced him to get rid of the ball as soon as he could.
Pressure does odd things to people. It forces them to react crazily, and it often leads to poor decision making. That was the case with Manning here as he forced the ball into the Bengals’ coverage. Clements was in midst of dropping back as a curl/hook defender when Manning threw the uninspiring pass. He read the eyes of the pressured passer and continued to move in reverse in coverage to undercut an intended pass to Martellus Bennett.
This big play by the Cincinnati defense showed exactly what a strong defensive line does. It intensifies the pressure on the quarterback, consequently resulting in poor decision making. Atkins’ isolated win over Kevin Boothe also illustrates just how important one-on-one matchups are in the NFL. When the scheme doesn’t work as intended, players have to make up for it by beating the man in front of them just like the good ol’ days of the sport.
That’s what a strong foundation is for.