The Wide Receiver Screen
This is becoming a broken record, but the Bengals are facing another team for the second straight game that makes heavy use of the wide receiver screen. Unlike the Steelers, they only have one variation and employ it based on the defense’s alignment.
The offense aligns in a 3×1 bunch formation. The defense is in zone coverage, with a safety rolled over to help, but the third cornerback is aligned over the tight end to the right. Against man coverage, Manning likes to send the man at the top of the bunch on a short comeback, while the underneath receivers run a rub route, crossing paths in order to tangle up their defenders and become free.
But, against the zone, the numbers work in the screen’s favor. It is pretty simple, the two other receivers block, and the tackle, guard, and center release to block downfield while the running back slows down the rush enough for Manning and his ridiculously quick release to get the ball out to Thomas.
Against this play, run to the defense’s weak side, Burfict would be in his element. His quick reactions to wide receiver screens will help immensely, although Ben Roethlisberger does not get the ball out nearly as quickly as Manning. Still, check which linebacker is aligned towards the bunch side against the Broncos. If it is Maualuga and the Bengals are in zone coverage, look out for the screen and hope Maualuga does a better job of recognition.
How to Blitz Manning
As mentioned earlier, the Bengals do have a trick up their sleeve that could be surprisingly effective against Manning.
One of the few effective things that the Saints defense did against manning was the “sugar” blitz. On this play the Saints aligned a linebacker, safety and cornerback in gaps along the line of scrimmage and stay unmoving throughout Manning’s pre-snap reads.
As soon as the ball is snapped, the linebacker bails and breaks up a pass on the crossing route on Manning’s vertical pass play. With the blitz, Manning thought the crossing route would be open, but by taking a jab step towards the gap then bailing, the linebacker was in perfect position to break on the route just as Manning released the ball.
Back when I talked about Zimmer and Kevin Coyle facing off with similar defenses in Miami, I talked about the sugar A-gap blitz, in which both linebackers align in the gaps on either side of the center, with both tackles lined up over the guards in 3-techniques. Either linebacker can bail or blitz, but even if he bails he takes a jab step inside at the snap to pull a lineman away from his assignment and fool the quarterback into thinking there is an open zone.
Against Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger is a strong, mobile quarterback and not as susceptible to the inside blitz. The Browns running game was the focus previously, and the Bengals backed off the sugar blitz.
With Manning, however, now is the perfect time to dust it off. The strong safety blitz is too easily diagnosed by Manning, but with the linebackers in the A gap he has no idea what is coming because there is no pre-snap tell. He can not use a hard cadence to figure it out, since even if the linebackers bail they still take a hard jab step.
It will still be a challenging game for the Bengals’ two weakest positions, linebacker and strong safety, but if the Bengals can get pressure against a severely underrated Denver offensive line and the cornerbacks stay on top of their receivers in coverage, the defense does have a chance to slow, if not stop, one of the all-time greats.