Since so many offenses are adopting multiple-receiver and multiple-tight end looks these days, defenses have responded by beefing up their depth throughout the secondary in order to play more regularly in nickel defensive sets.
The Cincinnati Bengals have one of those defenses. Depending on the offense and the team they're playing, the Bengals can spend large chunks of games lining up in the five-defensive back formation. In order to get to the quarterback in such passing situations, they'll move a defensive end into the line's interior, and have him aid in the rush up front.
As much as we could go on and on about the nickel defense the Bengals are expected to run often this season, this particular post is about their offense, specifically quarterback Andy Dalton, and how he fares against the formation.
The Tuesday Bengals factoid is the following: 79.8
One of the stats you'll see used by ESPN from time to time is Total QBR. It's a metric we use that relies on a host of factors surrounding a quarterback's play, and it correlates to how well he performs in given situations. One way of looking at it is to think of it as an advanced passer rating. The traditional passer rating statistic takes into account the passing-related statistics quarterbacks have (completions, attempts, touchdown passes, interceptions). The QBR tries to account for other quarterback plays and decisions, too, like scrambles and sacks.
The QBR is measured on a scale of zero to 100. The higher the number the better the QBR. A QBR of 50.0 is said to be average.
Whenever Dalton faced a nickel defense last season, his QBR was 79.8, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He faced nickel coverages in 15 of his 16 regular-season games. The highest QBR in the league versus the nickel last season belonged to Josh McCown, who had a QBR of 95.2 in six games for the Bears. Among quarterbacks who faced nickel defenses eight or more games -- half the season or more -- Peyton Manning led, notching a 92.1 QBR in 13 games against the nickel.
If we're counting only quarterbacks who faced the nickel in eight or more games last season, Dalton's 79.8 QBR ranked fourth in the league. Along with Manning, Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton had better QBRs against the nickel. Across 12 games, Kaepernick's QBR was 87.6 in those situations. Newton, facing the nickel in 15 games, had an 80.2.
OK, that's a lot of numbers. Basically, they suggest that these guys were pretty good against a defense that's designed to put pressure on them and cover up their many playmakers.
One of the reasons Dalton (and for that matter Manning, Kaepernick, Newton and even McCown to a degree) had better-than-respectable numbers against the nickel was because he had so many different weapons to pass to last season. A.J. Green may have paced the team at receiver, but Marvin Jones proved to be a legitimate No. 2 option there last season, and running back Giovani Bernard ran his share of routes out of the backfield. Tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert also were receiving threats at times.
With so many potential playmakers at different levels of their offense, the Bengals were able to stretch the field horizontally and vertically. They could go deep to the wideouts, intermediate with the tight ends or short to Bernard, or mix all of that up. Because of the amount of talented pass-catchers they had, the Bengals were able to counter a lot of the nickel Dalton saw. Since those five players are back, and another good receiving back in Jeremy Hill was added to the fold, expect much of the same success for Cincinnati against the nickel this season. When playing the nickel, it's all about stretching the field, finding soft spots in coverage and getting the ball off quickly against the rush.
Seven of Dalton's 33 touchdowns last season came against the nickel. That tied with Manning and Newton for the most touchdown passes against that coverage.