The Minnesota Vikings and the Cincinnati Bengals could be considered alternate-universe versions of the same team, with the Bengals inhabiting the world where they didn’t promote their promising defensive coordinator to head coach and the Vikings absorbing the defensive talents of the unit.
It’s more than the Mike Zimmer connection, however, that ties the teams together.
The Bengals defense, from a personnel standpoint, isn’t too far removed from the Vikings defense except for striking differences at safety and linebacker, while the offense looks like what might have happened to the Vikings if they hadn’t overhauled their offensive line and started anew up front.
Last year, the Vikings put together the worst rushing performance in team history with a putrid offensive line that consistently allowed rushers into the backfield. To fix that, they not only revamped their trench play but grabbed a new running back in the second round of the draft after they had committed to goal-line back Latavius Murray in the offseason to pair with the smaller Jerick McKinnon.
The Bengals also chose to sink a second-round pick into a running back despite having a qualified scatback in Giovani Bernard and a plugger in Jeremy Hill. While the Vikings saw their running game explode, even after their rookie went down, the Bengals haven’t seen much from a running back corps that should be authoring a deadly attack.
It’s almost baffling how a Bengals team that went 12-4 to win the division two years ago with the second-most efficient passing offense in the NFL and a defense that gave up the second-fewest points in the league could falter to 5-8.
I asked Joe Goodberry, of USA Today’s Bengals Wire, to tell me more.
“In a bad season, what hasn’t gone wrong? Just on offense, they’ve been the worst rushing offense in franchise history — up until two weeks ago — and it starts up front,” he explained. “The offensive line has one good starter and four others trying to keep their heads above water. The line was a known issue coming into the season and it took them far too long to figure out how to function on offense with a bad offensive line.
“They’ve gotten better at doing just that, but it took firing the offensive coordinator and then slowly building a new plan in order to get the offense to move at an average pace,” Goodberry added, referencing the promotion of Bill Lazor to replace the fired Ken Zampese. “Already limited at quarterback, they wanted to surround him with weapons to maximize his production, but John Ross was never healthy and Tyler Eifert went down again. The offense is AJ Green or nothing and he’s had some subpar games.”
It really does seem as if the offense runs through A.J. Green.
Normally, that’s not a surprise — having one of the best receivers in the NFL is something coordinators should strive to exploit, like the Lions did with Calvin Johnson and the Falcons do with Julio Jones — but the offense simply can’t function without funneling itself through Green.
The Georgia product is one of the quickest receivers in the NFL despite his 6-foot-4, 211-pound frame. His uncommon agility makes him an excellent after-catch receiver, but also makes him a devastatingly efficient route runner.
In the clip above, you can see Green absolutely demolish Tre’Davious White, who is having a legitimately Pro Bowl-quality season. White is a little caught off-guard by the snap, but Green takes advantage of it to win the release by forcing White to bite outside. After beating White to the inside, Green creates even more room by angling his route further to the outside before breaking in and catching the ball.
His tremendous body control not only allows him to make the catch but turn that catch into more yards on the run after, something most receivers would have trouble doing given the contortions necessary to secure the ball.
That body control is a massive asset, too. Green isn’t as well-known for his route running or agility as he is for his incredible ability to high-point catches and win contested passes
There are a number of such examples from this year. A notable one comes from early in the season against the Houston Texans:
Green has had issues with more physical cornerbacks despite his skill in the air, and Xavier Rhodes might be a perfect matchup to test Green’s weaknesses. On the other hand, Rhodes has struggled more often against quick receivers — the dynamic between these competing skill sets should prove to be rich.
To that end, I asked Matt Harmon at NFL.com, a writer who has spent serious time breaking down the top receivers in the NFL route by route, what he thought of the matchup.
His measured response left significant room for Green to have a big game, though he didn’t count out Rhodes having another big day.
“Generally, I think we overate wide receiver vs. cornerback matchups, as it is,” he said. “It’s probably because I do some much work in fantasy, but nothing sends people into a panicked frenzy like a wideout going against a team with a top-tier cover corner. I think he’s one of the best in the game, but some of Rhodes’ recent games provide a good example of the range of outcomes for these matchups.
“Marvin Jones stung the stud corner for over 100 yards and a pair of touchdowns, mostly winning in contested situations,” Harmon continued. “Then Rhodes went on to nearly blank Julio Jones on the stat sheet. While Rhodes gave up just one catch to Devin Funchess over his coverage attempts, the Panthers lined up their top receiver in the slot on the play where he scored his touchdown to get him away from the Vikings top corner.
“Rhodes vs. Green should be one of the best matchups on the Week 15 slate. If the Bengals and Andy Dalton still want to make sure their best weapon thrives they’ll target him in tight coverage and move him around the formation, regardless of Rhodes’ coverage.”
That tight coverage might cause problems, however. As Goodberry has mentioned above, Dalton has struggled, in part because of a weak offensive line. Dalton hasn’t been under pressure that often by PFF’s definition of pressure, but it’s in large part because he’s gotten rid of the ball faster than everyone but Derek Carr.
That quick passing game to compensate for the offensive line has led to significant timing errors. Targets headed towards Green have led to six interceptions, according to PFF — the second-highest total in the league, after Demaryius Thomas.
None of the interceptions Dalton has thrown in Green’s direction have been wildly off-target; four of them have deflected off of Green’s hands while a fifth was deflected off a defender in the passing lane. Accuracy and decisionmaking haven’t been the issue, with turnovers instead resulting from a combination of poor ball placement, Green seemingly being unprepared to corral the ball and bad luck.
Those timing issues could persist against a team with a talented defensive line like the Vikings — if Rhodes can force Green off his route on those quick slants, more tipped passes could be coming.
The offense is always more than just a story told by two players, but the rest of the offense has suffered just as much. The Bengals rank 25th in points per drive, 30th in rushing yards per attempt and 24th in number of trips to the red zone.
That hasn’t always been the death knell for teams.
After all, teams that have struggled on offense have relied on a powerful defense to advance far into the playoffs and the Bengals have a number of talented players. Geno Atkins is playing better than any three-technique not named Aaron Donald, while second-year player William Jackson joins players like Jimmy Smith and Casey Heyward as secretly being the best cover corners no one talks about.
Defensive ends Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap and Carl Lawson are doing a great job putting pressure on the quarterback and Vontaze Burfict is excellent at stopping the run when he’s on the field.
Despite all that, they seem to be a league average defense in points allowed per drive and Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric.
Goodberry expounded on that, too.
“In defense,” he explained, “they’re a decent unit, but have missed their leader (Burfict) far too much. His reputation has cost him a handful of games and when he’s out, they’re a lifeless group. They’ve been soft up the middle and in zone defense, the voids between the linebackers and safeties continue to be exploited.”
According to Football Outsiders, they rank 26th in DVOA for passes thrown through the deep middle of the field and 28th against tight ends.
“They’re a bad football team that’s likely picking in the top 10 for the second straight year. Their stars can still beat you, but they’re not getting much help from the coaching staff.”
Don’t be surprised to see the Vikings attempt to throw deep despite the interior pressure coming from Atkins; both Kyle Rudolph and Adam Thielen should be able to take advantage of those weaknesses in the deep middle of the field while McKinnon or Jarius Wright take advantage underneath the slower linebackers that populate the Bengals defense.
The Vikings have been kicking themselves for losing a very winnable game against the Carolina Panthers. There’s not much shame in the Vikings drop a third consecutive road contest against a team with a winning record.
In this case, the Vikings should expect a win — Vegas favors them by 10.5 points while close observers of the Bengals see Zimmer’s terrifying squad and wonder what could have been.