Keys to Success for the 2019 Bengals Defense

CINCINNATI, OH - DECEMBER 4: Carson Wentz #11 of the Philadelphia Eagles scrambles away from Geno Atkins #97 of the Cincinnati Bengals and Carlos Dunlap #96 of the Cincinnati Bengals during the first quarter at Paul Brown Stadium on December 4, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OH - DECEMBER 4: Carson Wentz #11 of the Philadelphia Eagles scrambles away from Geno Atkins #97 of the Cincinnati Bengals and Carlos Dunlap #96 of the Cincinnati Bengals during the first quarter at Paul Brown Stadium on December 4, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

New Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s scheme remains somewhat of a mystery. The former Giants defensive backs coach has never been a permanent coordinator in his career. Here are the keys to last year’s most porous defense making a much needed leap forward in 2019.

Stay healthy, play fresh

The Bengals’ injuries on defense were well documented last season. Second year defensive linemen Ryan Glasgow and Carl Lawson were lost to ACL injuries. Preston Brown hit IR with a knee issue. Although you can’t plan for injuries, the Bengals will be keen to ensure they have the depth to survive similar problems this year, should they arise.

The Bengals made no bones about looking for defensive line reinforcements. Their interest in edge rusher Shaq Barrett and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was unusual for a franchise that tends to spend their money in house. Although neither panned out, it highlights their desire to take the pressure off their veteran stars.

Carlos Dunlap, 30, and Geno Atkins, 31, remain the linchpins of the defense, but they are approaching the back end of their careers. Getting the most out of them will depend on using them more selectively. Anarumo needs young ends Sam Hubbard and Jordan Willis to carry some of the pass rushing load. New addition Kerry Wynn’s versatility and familiarity with Anarumo should make him a great asset.

Do not be surprised if the Bengals continue their search for further defensive line depth as the season approaches. With roster cuts looming, they could still pick up a tackle that can be a more natural fit in their nickel package or a run stuffer to spell Andrew Billings.

Simplify for the sake of speed

Lou Anarumo’s recent conversation with reporter Geoff Hobson threw out a few hints about his defense. He highlighted the importance of bringing back some simplicity.

This will be particularly relevant to the linebacker corps. They were quite clearly the weakest unit of the defense in 2018. With only Germaine Pratt coming in as a new potential starter, it seems the Bengals are seeking improvement through scheme changes as opposed to a personnel overhaul.

By going back to basics, Anarumo will hope to get the best out Preston Brown. Brown spoke openly about losing weight ahead of the season as reported in the tweet below by Paul Dehner Jr.

With modern NFL offenses being based around high-powered, fast schemes that spread opposition defenses out, the needs from the linebacker position are  changing. Players need to locate running backs, cover tight ends and drop into zone coverage with equal proficiency.

If Anarumo can accelerate the processing speed of his linebackers by way of a simpler system, there will likely be a marked improvement. It may also help athletic guys like Malik Jefferson play a more effective role.

Multiplicity is key

The other buzzword from Hobson’s interview was ‘multiple’. Slowing down opposition offenses is a tricky task and the best way to do it is by disguising schemes. This is done with the hope of creating doubt within the quarterback’s mind.

Anarumo should be more creative with formations than last year’s coaches. Too often a four man blitz and dropping seven into coverage was too easy to pick apart. Teams knew where the weak points of the Bengals defense were and exploited them ruthlessly.

Key to this will be returning edge rusher Carl Lawson. He has the athletic ability to rush the passer and occasionally drop into coverage as a linebacker. This isn’t his preferred style, but it keeps the offense guessing.

Rookies earn game balls in Bengals' win over Browns
(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

Dropping him back on occasion gives the defense the option of a five man front. Having Atkins, Dunlap, Hubbard, Wynn and Lawson along the line will cause offenses a moment of uncertainty  not knowing who will drop off or whether an all out blitz is coming.

Another aspect to watch for is the use of Shawn Williams or Clayton Fejedlem as a de-facto linebacker. Both are physical enough to play in the box and offer good coverage on passing downs, similar to how Landon Collins was used for the Giants. The addition of B.W. Webb means the Bengals have plenty of secondary options. If they wish to move one of their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage, they can.

Turning talent into production

The final and most important key to the unit improving is  getting production from what is a talented roster on paper. Anarumo spoke fondly about Brent Grimes’ turnover proficiency from his time in Miami while also saying he hopes William Jackson III can turn into a true shut down corner.

Jackson is an upper echelon cornerback, but ended 2018 without an interception. The team as a whole managed only 12, tied for 18th in the league. None of the corners nabbed any of those. The new scheme should see plenty of man press coverage. Increasing turnover volume will also likely be a point of emphasis.

The struggle continued up front last year. The Bengals ranked 28th in sacks, with 34 on the season. The lack of pressure from the front four meant maintaining coverage assignments proved difficult for the secondary. The return of Lawson, who tallied 8.5 sacks in his rookie year, will ease the pressure on the reliable Dunlap and Atkins, while Hubbard will look to build on his six sacks in 2018.

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It is clear there are bags of talent on the Bengals defense. If Anarumo can improve in these areas they could make huge leaps on that side of the ball. Pair this with a modern approach to offense and it is easy to see why many Bengals fans are optimistic for the first time in a while.