CINCINNATI -- Nobody realized it at the start of the 2019 season, but a reckoning was coming for the Cincinnati Bengals.
As they dropped 11 straight games under new coach Zac Taylor, it was painfully clear the franchise was in the depths of rebuilding. And the front office and coaching staff took the defense down to the studs.
Safety Jessie Bates and defensive end Sam Hubbard are the only two players remaining who started the opener in 2019 at Seattle. Over the past 24 months, the Bengals drafted players to be key contributors and spent big money in free agency.
With added resources comes added pressure. For the Bengals to be in the playoff hunt, the defense must continue to make strides under coordinator Lou Anarumo.
After full participation in voluntary workouts and the one-day minicamp, Anarumo was encouraged by what he saw in the offseason.
“The fact that we got these practices in, the fact that we’ve been meeting with the guys and doing all this with all the new guys that we have, we feel like we’re exactly where we want to be,” the third-year coordinator said on June 16.
Cincinnati’s defense has been problematic even before the current coaching staff was hired. Then-coach Marvin Lewis fired defensive coordinator Teryl Austin in the middle of the 2018 season before Lewis eventually resigned, paving the way for Taylor’s arrival.
The defensive production has not been good. In 2019, the Bengals were last in most yards per play allowed. Cincinnati moved up only four spots in 2020. When it comes to points per drive allowed, the Bengals were significantly better, ranking 20th last season. But that still leaves a lot to be desired.
Cincinnati has spent significant cash on revamping the defense with good players. In 2020, defensive tackle D.J. Reader and cornerback Trae Waynes signed contracts worth a total of $95 million, a deviation in strategy for a front office hesitant to spend on external free agents.
That tentativeness was quickly realized when Waynes missed all of 2020 with a pectoral injury he suffered while weightlifting during training camp, and Reader went down in Week 5 with torn quadriceps.
Waynes, Reader and new defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who signed a four-year deal in March worth up to $60 million, were among the defensive players who were in full attendance for every offseason workout.
Reader said the unit wants to be one that can win games for the Bengals in 2021.
“We want to have a good defense that is going out there and knowing the game is going to be on us,” Reader said. “We’re excited about that.”
Much of the defensive improvement will hinge on the pass rush. Cincinnati had the 17 total sacks last year, the lowest in the NFL. The Bengals are banking on Hendrickson, who had 13.5 sacks with the New Orleans Saints in 2020, to carry over that level of production to Cincinnati.
Hendrickson said he expects to be lined up across the formation, which is expected given Anarumo’s penchant for versatility among his linemen. And the new Bengal is up for the challenge.
“It’s looking very unique of anything I’ve ever played before, but I think it’s playing to both the defense and what I can bring to the table,” Hendrickson said in June.
That eagerness is necessary for a defense that allowed 26.5 points per game last season. Cincinnati’s offense has stolen headlines because of the high-profile talent on that side of the ball: quarterback Joe Burrow, running back Joe Mixon and a group of wide receivers featuring Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins and rookie Ja'Marr Chase.
After all of the transactions the past two years, Cincinnati is expected to compete for a playoff berth in the AFC North. For that to happen, the defense must be better than it has been in recent years.
This is the year for the Bengals to get all the answers they’ve been searching for since 2019. An improved defense will play a major role, but if things don’t get better, those concerns will only grow during a pivotal year.