Nuts and Bolts of Romeo Crennel’s 3rd-Down Masterclass vs. Cincinnati Bengals

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A look back at how Romeo Crennel’s fiendish 3rd-down defense baffled Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football in Week 10 of the 2014 NFL season.

Forget Andy Dalton’s war of words with J.J. Watt, A.J. Green’s fumble or even DeAndre Hopkins’ physics-shunning one-handed catch. Romeo Crennel is the real news you should be reading about after Week 10’s edition of Monday Night Football.

His devilish and league-leading third-down defense inspired the miserly Houston Texans to a 10-6 upset win on the road against the previously 8-0 Cincinnati Bengals. Here’s the how and why behind Crennel’s masterclass under the primetime spotlight.

Dalton didn’t like it the first time he saw Watt standing over the center. The NFL’s premier defensive end was flanked by outside linebacker John Simon and inside ‘backer Brian Cushing.

This trio lurked with intent between rush end Whitney Mercilus and D-tackle Jared Crick, the only player along the Texans’ line who put his hand down and adopted a three-point stance. Even nickleback Charles James got in on the act. He hovered on the outside shoulder of Mercilus, showing blitz.

Dalton probably blinked to check his eyes hadn’t deceived him. They hadn’t. Six potential rushers, four of them standing, lined up in front of five defensive backs, all moving back and forth to disguise their coverage.

To you, me and Dalton, it was a heady mix of personnel and scheme close to impossible to decipher. For Crennel and the Texans, it was just another wrinkle from their stingy third-down Rubik’s Cube.

While Dalton’s brow creased in confusion, Crennel’s lips might even have relaxed into a wry smile. He’d posed another unfortunate quarterback a head-scratching puzzle he would likely never solve. It’s what Crennel’s been doing on football’s money down all season long.

On his watch, the Texans have  allowed a league-low 31 conversions from 115 attempts in 2015. Dalton and his stymied Bengals offense accounted for just four of them in Week 10.

Third down is usually the down where defensive coordinators get cute with pressure packages and coverage combinations. But Crennel was a bona fide sweetie pie on Monday night.

When he positioned Watt as the middle man of three standing rushers it was the Bengals’ first third down of the night, 3rd-and-5 at their own 38-yard line.

Even after motion from Mohamed Sanu took Charles to the slot on the other side of the formation, the Texans still wrecked Cincy’s plans. They did it by taking away Dalton’s two money players on third down: tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard.

Once the ball was snapped, Eifert found himself bracketed by Simon, who bailed off the line to jam the tight end over the middle. At the same time, safety Eddie Pleasant stayed over the top in case Eifert gave his underneath coverage the slip.

On the other side, Cushing ran a stunt with Mercilus, twisting around his teammate to blitz off the edge. His pressure meant Bernard had to stay in to block, exactly what Crennel wanted. In fact, Crennel had guaranteed Bernard would have to block.

By aligning Watt in the middle, in the A-gap between the center and right guard to be exact, Crennel ensured Cincinnati’s offensive line would slide its protection toward him, and away from Mercilus and Cushing.

With left tackle Andrew Whitworth faced with blocking two, Bernard had to lend a helping hand. Not that it mattered. Cushing ran through his block and decked Dalton to force a Cincy punt, the first of seven on the night.

Crennel used a mix of roving rush ends, Watt’s movement and chameleon-like coverage to baffle the Bengals all night.

The combination worked a treat the next time Dalton faced third down, this one a 3rd-and-9 from the Houston 46. This time Watt stayed outside at end. He and Mercilus bookended Cushing and Simon, both of whom stood inside threatening the blitz.

Now it was Cushing’s turn to bail underneath and take away Eifert. As he did, Pleasant locked up Bernard in the short middle. His effort trailing Bernard across the field gave Dalton no room to throw. With Watt and Mercilus closing in, his pass sailed hopelessly out of bounds.

Dalton and his receivers had been hoodwinked by an initial coverage that morphed into something new post-snap. Initially, the Texans had shown a 2 Man look, man coverage underneath a pair of deep safeties.

But once the play went live, Houston slipped into a more passive Cover 2 zone shell. Underneath defenders passed vertical routes off and rolled down to the flats and short hook and curl zones to take away Dalton’s quick throws.

As coverage exchanges go, this was as good as it gets. It was also the perfect illustration of Crennel’s commitment to taking away Dalton’s preferred underneath targets.

As a member of the Bill Parcells/Bill Belichick coaching tree, Crennel is all about defense by elimination. He doesn’t play a set scheme and insist his talent will simply beat up on yours.

Instead, Crennel takes opponents out of their comfort zone and challenges quarterbacks to win another way. It’s a riddle few solve. Dalton certainly didn’t have the answers on Monday night.

While Bengals’ offensive coordinator Hue Jackson didn’t have the Cliff Notes, Crennel definitely had his number. He knew the key to unravelling Jackson’s heady and potent mix of revolving personnel and bizarre formations was to take away a signature concept. Namely, the quick pass to the flat.

For all the Bengals have done to change the window dressing this season, splitting linemen out and dropping receivers into the backfield, the actual plays run from these looks have been rather elementary.

Specifically, quick out passes to the flats have killed teams. Dalton has been getting the ball into the hands of a premier playmaker like wideout A.J. Green at lighting speed, thanks to a heavy dose of bubble screens and shallow crossers.

The Texans left no room for either in Week 10. They proved that when facing 3rd-and-17 from their own 21 later in the opening quarter.

Once again, Houston stood five rushers along the line of scrimmage. Crick and Mercilus bracketed Simon, Watt and Cushing.

When Dalton got the ball in his hands, Crick, Simon and Cushing dropped. At the same time, James came flying off the edge over left tackle.

Yet again, it was all about eliminating Eifert and Bernard. Crick bumped the big tight end out of his route on one side, while a blitzing Charles created another blocking assignment for Bernard on the other.

But it was Cushing’s drop that did the most damage. He’d sprinted out to help cover Cincinnati’s three-receiver trips look. The Bengals were running a quick screen to Marvin Jones in the flat, with Sanu and Green as his blocking convoy. Cushing was waiting for Jones and wrapped him up for a meagre seven-yard gain.

This type of play has been gashing the Bengals’ opponents all season. But the Texans were ready for it. They stayed ready for everything the Bengals had all night.

Everything like another trips stack on 3rd-and-4 in the third quarter. From their own 26, the Bengals showed Crennel’s D’ a 3×1 formation with a bunch set, featuring Eifert, Jones and Sanu stacked together, tight to the left side of of the line. On the other side, Green was split wide, while Bernard aligned in the backfield.

Houston again set up a five-man pressure look. Mercilus and Watt flanked Christian Covington, Cushing and Simon, with the latter two standing up. Watt was aligned particularly wide, as a 9-technique outside of right tackle Eric Winston. It was a matchup that favoured the Texans and demanded a double-team block from Bernard, once again denying Dalton one of his best outlets.

On the bunch side, Houston wisely played zone. So many teams line up in man against stacked sets and pay the price once receivers begin to criss cross and engage in rub routes or legal pick plays as they should be known.

By dropping off, Crennel’s DBs had more room to work. They sat on the routes and passed each through the zone. Dalton didn’t have the quick throw he wanted and had to hold onto the ball. That proved costly when D-tackle Covington flattened him for a six-yard loss, one of three sacks by the Texans.

Crennel kept on showing Dalton one thing and doing another once the ball was snapped.

His parlour games caught the fifth-year quarterback cold during the fourth quarter. It was another 3rd-and-4, this one from the Cincy 24-yard line.

The Texans put six along the front. Watt and Mercilus were on the edges, with Crick, Cushing, Pleasant and Simon in the middle. Only Crick and Watt had their hands down.

The look screamed pressure. The actual play was anything but. Instead, Crennel rushed just three. Mercilus, Watt and Crick attacked in front of an eight-man coverage shell.

Simon bailed out to the flat to bump Green as he came off the line, before passing him to cornerback Johnathan Joseph. On the other side, Cushing smothered Eifert’s release.

Dalton’s late throw for Green was rebuffed by Joseph. It was Cincinnati’s sixth failure in a row on third down.

After threatening, and usually sending, some form of rush all night, Crennel gave up pressure to increase the population of the underneath passing zones. It was ingenious, cloak-and-dagger stuff.

Thanks to Crennel, the Texans were able to put a bullseye on both Eifert and Bernard, the aces up Jackson’s sleeve this season. They also kept Dalton and the blockers in front of him guessing.

The defensive dominance was vindication for Crennel, as veteran Houston Chronicle scribe John McClain noted:

After some heavy beatings earlier this season, Crennel’s group hasn’t allowed a touchdown in 10 quarters. That’s an endorsement of his standing as one of the shrewdest defensive minds in the NFL.

To put his derailing of the Bengals and their offense into historical perspective, ESPN SportsCenter provided this telling stat:

It’s a number that owes everything to Crennel’s melting pot of defensive schemes. But the brilliance of his mercurial mind needed flawless execution to bring it to life between the hashmarks. There were some outstanding performances.

In particular, Mercilus was a consistent menace rushing off the edge He was a Grade-A draft pick when the Texans selected him in the first round back in 2012. While he’s taken a while to reach those standards, Mercilus certainly doesn’t have people longing for Jadeveon Clowney to finally get healthy.

In coverage, Crennel was helped by Joseph shutting down Green most of the night. Cincy’s marquee pass-catcher was held to just 67 yards.

Crennel also took advantage of the hybrid skills offered by a rush end like Simon. He gave the ex-Ohio State man a changing pressure and coverage brief, the same way he often did with Willie McGinest for Belichick’s Patriots.

With Crennel finding his groove again, don’t rule out these quarterback and Arian Foster-shy Texans from winning the AFC South. I’d take this defense over an Indianapolis Colts team without Andrew Luck.

Dalton will just be hoping he isn’t trying to decipher Crennel’s group again come playoff time.

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