Bengals banking on defensive versatility behind Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard

CINCINNATI -- Trey Hendrickson shuffled back, looked into the backfield and waited.

In the offseason, the Cincinnati Bengals signed Hendrickson to boost their pass rush. But on this play during Tuesday’s practice, the defensive end was in pass protection.

When quarterback Joe Burrow looked to his left and fired a pass, Hendrickson was in perfect position for an interception. It capped a dominant day for defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s defense.

One could even argue that Hendrickson’s play provided a bit of vindication for Anarumo. In his first two years, Anarumo has believed in position and scheme versatility. In 2021, with the pressure on the Bengals and the coaching staff to win, it appears that philosophy will be the backbone of the retooled defense.

The defense's flexibility excited Anarumo the most as the Bengals started training camp.

“You can get pigeon-holed a little bit when you send a grouping of guys out there and you only do a few things and the offense knows,” Anarumo said on July 26. “If you can leave the same guys out there and [they] do a bunch of different things, that adds to the offense's issues.”

In the offseason, the Bengals acknowledged the pass rush needed to improve after finishing with a league-low 17 sacks in 2020. They signed Hendrickson, who had 13.5 sacks with the New Orleans Saints last season, to a four-year deal worth $60 million. Cincinnati also re-signed Sam Hubbard to a four-year, $40 million contract, signaling his status as a key piece for the future.

Hubbard re-signing with his hometown franchise showed his belief in what Anarumo and the Bengals are doing. At the beginning of training camp, Hubbard said he believed in position versatility given the complexity of modern offenses.

“I don’t want to talk too much scheme, but whenever I’m asked to play in space or stand up, we did a lot of that in the past,” Hubbard said on July 28. “I’m just constantly working to improve that and enjoy the opportunity.”

Cincinnati’s investment into its edge rushers this offseason comes after a rocky 12 months for its defensive ends.

Last year, Carlos Dunlap, the Bengals' all-time leader in sacks, had a public falling out with the coaching staff and was traded to the Seattle Seahawks. He had five sacks in eight games with Seattle and was second in the NFL in sacks created during that span, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

The Bengals also saw 2017 draft pick Carl Lawson leave in free agency. Despite amassing 5.5 sacks in 2020, Lawson was a prized free agent and signed a three-year, $45 million deal with the New York Jets. After Dunlap was traded, Lawson ranked fifth in pass rush win rate as an edge rusher (ESPN metric powered by NFL Next Gen).

Dunlap and Lawson, like the rest of the defensive ends, were asked to drop in coverage when needed. Hendrickson’s interception at practice and Hubbard’s comments indicated that will continue this season.

Hendrickson said he’s excited to get more snaps with Cincinnati and be asked to do multiple things, whether it’s dropping into coverage or lining up as a defensive tackle.

“The more we can do, the better it will help the defense,” Hendrickson said on June 8 about he and Hubbard.

The Bengals are banking on those defensive ends boosting the pass rush and Anarumo’s unit being more effective in a pivotal 2021. Last season, the Bengals ranked 20th in points allowed per drive and 28th in yards allowed per play.

Anarumo has been one of the happiest coaches at training camp. The defense has stymied the offense on multiple days and given Burrow and the offense fits. Given the pressure on the Bengals to win after six victories over the past two years, that form will need to continue once the season arrives.

“They’re playing better than they have in the last three training camps I’ve been to,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said Wednesday. “That’s just the confidence that they’re playing with, the chemistry that they’ve developed over a short time, the understanding of the principles that we’re employing.”