Riding the Double A

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The NFL now has the word on the Double A Gap Blitz as authored by Mike Zimmer and Paul Guenther (above).

The Bengals and Vikings open the preseason Friday night (7:30-Cincinnati's Channel 12) at Paul Brown Stadium and it won't be long before the Xs and Os turn into Zs and Gs.

Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther deploys his third season of alignments in a playbook he helped Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer write during the previous six years Zimmer led the Cincinnati defense on a night they'll be fighting to get into the A gap.

"There were teams blitzing up the A gap long before Mike Zimmer and Paul Guenther were doing it," says Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham, who begins his 31st season in the booth after dealing with such blitzes as a Bengals offensive lineman in the '70s and '80s.

"But never with as much variance as the Bengals do out of it … It's been done. It's just how much the Bengals do out of it. That's the uniqueness of it."

What also is unique is that a franchise known for spreading offensive innovation throughout the NFL from engineers like Paul Brown, Bill Walsh, Sam Wyche and, more recently Hue Jackson and Ken Zampese, has watched many in the league adopt the Double A Gap Blitz.

Why not? In Guenther's second season running the show last year the Bengals set a franchise scoring record while allowing the second fewest points in the NFL and winning the AFC North. The Vikings won the NFC North in Zimmer's second season as the head man with a defense that allowed the fifth fewest points.

"You're just trying to take advantage of the offensive protection rules," Guenther said this week. "It forces the offense to block things a certain way and you can do about 20 different things out of it. Easy."

It starts out easy enough. Line up two backers in the gap between the center and both guards and then let the fun begin. Recently the Bengals have been moving into almost as many three-man fronts as their signature four-man fronts out of the Double A and sometimes standing up their ends.

"You can bring them both. You can drop them both," Lapham says. "You can bring one and drop the other. You can run different blitzes and coverages out of it.

"Confuse them."

When Zimmer arrived in Cincinnati in 2008, all but one of his 14 NFL seasons had been with the Cowboys and he noticed that division rival Philadelphia with defensive coordinator Jim Johnson was the only team really doing the Double A Gap Blitz with any success.

"The Eagles were very similar to us when they had a real good 4-3," Guenther said. "Good ends, good corners. We looked at the tape and put together the rules."

Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway, in his 11th and last season, has watched Zimmer put it together in Minnesota. If the Bengals use it about half the time, Greenway says it's a staple on third down for the Vikes.

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New backer Karlos Dansby (56) fits because his versatility can be a factor in the Double A.

"The biggest thing for him was to get his personnel for  the scheme and they've done a good job in his first three drafts finding guys that fit what he wants to do. And you get a guy like No. 55," said Greenway after one of the practices this week, nodding at Anthony Barr, the physically gifted Pro Bowler who was Zimmer's first draft pick. "You have to not only be smart in your position, but understand where the pieces of the puzzle go and do it on the fly. That's the biggest thing fans have to understand is how quickly those decisions are made.

"As a linebacker in this scheme you can't be a one-trick pony," Greenway said. "You can't be a cover guy. You have to rush, cover, play the run and be physical."

Barr is the first of five linebackers the Vikes have drafted since Zimmer arrived as he tries to build the corps like he had in Cincinnati. The Bengals have their own Pro Bowl No. 55 in Vontaze Burfict. Not as fast as Barr, Burfict wrecks offenses with instincts, IQ and incomparable relentlessness.

"Vontaze does a great job baiting quarterbacks," Lapham says. "He does such a good job with angles. You can see where he makes guys throw where he wants them to throw."

Zimmer and Guenther have always sought brains before anything else at linebacker to make the A gap stuff go, so it was probably fitting their first middle linebacker in 2008 was an old Jim Johnson guy in Dhani Jones. When Jones retired, he gave his No. 57 to a former college free agent from Duke who admired his cerebral approach to the game.

"The NFL is a game where offense dictates what they want to do to the defense," said Vincent Rey, who has started 21 games in the last two years at two different spots.  "The Double A allows us to dictate to the offense. Since Paulie's been running it, he's been teaching the whole defense more about it. I don't know if we've added different things in the last three years, but the more we've run it, the better we're getting at it."

Here's the damage brains and the Double A can do:

Go back to last year's regular-season home opener against San Diego with 11:50 left in the game and the Bengals leading, 17-13. Crafty Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers had the ball on his own 9 and just had to call a timeout because the Bengals were moving around on third-and-six. When Rivers got back to the line he saw Rey and linebacker Emmanuel Lamur (now playing for the Vikings) line up in the Double A showing blitz.

"Sometimes Paul gives us the freedom to get in or out of it. At times," Rey said of the double blitz look.  "This was an instance where I was given the freedom.

"I wasn't freelancing. I was thinking what (Guenther) was thinking. We've got the same mind. I've got to go out there and keep (Rivers) on his toes. Make him think."

What Guenther and Rey had in mind was switching the call at the last possible instant so Rivers couldn't change the protection in time. When Rey made the call at just the right time, he and Lamur backed out of the blitz while the Bengals rolled out of a four-man front to a three-man line that gave Pro Bowl nose tackle Geno Atkins one-on-one with first-year center Chris Watt. Atkins beat him cleanly, left end Carlos Dunlap joined him in the sack and the Bengals were on their way to another Paul Brown Stadium victory.

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Vincent Rey (57) is one of the smart guys needeed to run an effective Double A Gap Blitz.

"If NFL offenses know what you're going to do," Rey said. "They're going to beat you."

Fast forward to December when the Double A Highway paved the way to another victory. The Bengals were locked in a scoreless game late in the first half of quarterback Andy Dalton's first NFL start in San Francisco and had Blaine Gabbert looking at a third-and-six deep in his own territory. The backers lined up in the gap, but Dunlap dropped into coverage instead of rushing, prevented a first down when he ripped the ball from 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin, and ran 21 yards the other way to set up the game's first score and the 11th victory of the season.

"That's why it's good to have ends like that. Guys that can drop and cover. It allows you to show more things," Guenther said. "You need smart guys. Not dumb guys."

Starting Friday, Guenther and Zimmer start picking them out.

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