The Buffalo Bills nickel cornerbacks are going to get a workout on Sunday.
The Cincinnati Bengals have used three-receiver formations on 80% of their plays the first two weeks. That means the Bills will respond with their five-defensive back, nickel defense for most of Sunday’s home opener at New Era Field.
The Bengals’ pass offense is clicking, even though star receiver A.J. Green is out due to offseason ankle surgery. Cincinnati has averaged 343 passing yards the first two weeks, the second most in the NFL.
“I’m real excited,” said Bills nickel cornerback Siran Neal. “I’m going to practice hard and take it play by play and just try to do my job.”
The Bills’ top nickel cornerback, Taron Johnson, missed the New York Giants game with a sore hamstring and did not practice Wednesday or Thursday. That means Neal and veteran Kevin Johnson will be on the spot in the Bills’ secondary.
“The Bengals have shown on tape they have a lot of firepower at quarterback, so we need to be in tune on the back end,” Kevin Johnson said.
It’s no surprise the Bengals lean overwhelmingly on 11 personnel – one back, one tight end and three wide receivers.
New Bengals head coach Zac Taylor came from the Los Angeles Rams, who used 11 personnel an NFL-high 90% of the plays last season. No other team hit 80%, according to Sharp Football. The NFL average was 64%.
One might think such limited personnel substitution makes it easier for the defense. However, the Rams – and now the Bengals – compensate by using a lot of pre-snap motion and various bunch formations. Furthermore, the receivers all play every wideout position. You can’t count on the biggest, best wideout to be in the "X" position at the far left of the formation, or the littlest receiver always to be running underneath routes from the slot.
“They show a lot of different stuff, putting their guys in different alignments,” Kevin Johnson said. “Their wideouts are versatile. They play all of the roles. It’ll make us be sharp on who’s doing what.”
Like the Rams, the Bengals like to align the three wideouts in condensed formations, closer to the offensive tackle than the sideline. That gives them all “two-way gos.”
“They like to be in condensed formations as much as they can, so they have a lot of room to go both inside and outside on their routes,” Kevin Johnson said.
Another upside of condensed formations is the wideouts are in a better position to block on outside runs. The Bills do it too, employing Zay Jones as an edge blocker.
There’s a downside, however, to condensed formations. It puts more defenders closer to the quarterback. So a blitzing defense can create more uncertainty. Who’s rushing? And from where?
The Rams have an elite corps of wideouts who get quick separation. The Bengals aren’t too shabby, even without Green.
John Ross, whose 40-yard dash time of 4.22 seconds is the fastest of any NFL player this millennium, has 11 catches for 270 yards, with 102 coming from the slot position. Tyler Boyd has 18 catches for 182 yards, with 99 coming from the slot. Rookie Damion Willis was the No. 3 receiver last week. You see the Ram/Bengal slot guy run a vertical route a bit more than some teams.
“We do move those guys around a lot, so really they don’t learn X, F, Z,” said Taylor, referring to the lettered receiver positions. “They just learn the concept. That way it enables you to move then around anywhere. You can have an injury. You can just move a guy if you want to put him in a better position to suit his skill set. You can do a lot of different things. Those are things we did from Day One in OTAs. So they were forced to learn it that way instead of learning one position.”
The Bills play a lot of Cover 3 zone defense, with the outside corners responsible for the deep third on their side of the field.
One way to attack it is to run four verticals up the field. Expect to see a lot of high-low route combinations to one side of the field, too. Teams will run a flat route 6 yards downfield with a corner route 20 yards downfield to the same side.
“Definitely pre-snap communication is key to our defense this week,” Neal said. “We have to line up in our gaps and get our alignment right then play the play.”