Bengals' defensive goal? Be 'smart bullies'

CINCINNATI -- The Lombardi Trophy has taken up residence in the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room during this training camp.

OK, let's rephrase that.

Printed on the fronts of T-shirts and plastered into an image that occasionally flashes on the television screens mounted atop the wall posts inside the Bengals' locker room, representations of the Lombardi Trophy have been visible. The actual trophy has never seen Paul Brown Stadium, although the Bengals hope to change that this year.

In their quest to win the franchise's first Super Bowl this year, the theme for the Bengals' camp this summer is comprised of two words: "smart" and "fast." Printed on the T-shirts and emblazoned on the same image of the trophy that flashes on the TV screens are those words, along with a series of claw marks. When it comes to making Cincinnati's team this year, coaches want to stress the words "smart" and "fast."

On defense, they want to stress another one -- "bullies."

When I asked third-year safety George Iloka what the defense wanted to be known as this season, he brought up a statement defensive coordinator Paul Guenther made during a meeting at the start of training camp. Clearly, Iloka was paying attention.

"We want to be smart bullies," he said.

That philosophy fits with the overall theme of the camp, but what exactly is a smart bully?

"Our mentality is to go out there and play aggressive and physical, but we've got to be smart," Iloka said. "We've got to know when to take chances. We've got to know if it's third-and-1, we've got to know if it's fourth-and-1, we've got to know if we're backed up that they're going to try to give you a hard count. Little things like that. You don't want to be too aggressive where you're hurting yourself."

It's an important fact to stress because at times last season the Bengals did let their aggression get the best of them.

They ranked 11th in the league in defensive penalties last season, incurring 41 infractions. While that number might not be astronomically high, the yards they were penalized for in all three phases were. Flagged for 1,000 total yards, the Bengals ranked fifth in overall penalty yards in 2013. When it came specifically to the defense, the most egregious violations seemed to come at inopportune moments (is there really a good time to draw a penalty, though?).

Linebacker Rey Maualuga's body slam of a Bears offensive lineman just after a third-down stop late in the fourth quarter of the season opener was costly. Had Maualuga kept his wits and not thrown down the lineman, the Bengals' third-down stop would have led to a punt. Out of timeouts and with a little more than a minute left in a game in which they trailed by a field goal, the Bengals had just enough time to get a good return and set up a possible comeback that could have ended in a Week 1 win.

Instead, after Maualuga's 15-yard penalty, the Bears went through a series of kneeldowns the Bengals were helpless to prevent because they didn't have any timeouts. Cincinnati lost 24-21.

"You want to cut down on penalties. You want to cut down on mistakes. But it's not even those things," Iloka said. "Let's say it's third-and-4 and all week we've practiced that this team in this formation is going to run a seam route. Why are you going to be overaggressive and jump the out route? Just be a smart bully. You're smart, and when the time comes to make the hit ... you bully them and you make the play."

While Guenther didn't use the term "smart bullies" at a kickoff luncheon earlier this week in Cincinnati, he made it clear that he was looking for that kind of play as he begins his first year as a coordinator.

"I like how passionate they are, how smart they are and how flexible they can be," Guenther said. "I'm really hammering home being a smart football team."

Will being smart and fast bullies be enough for the Bengals to finally obtain their goal? Iloka thinks so; as long as he and his teammates avoid the complacency that can come with having a top-3 defense like they did last year.

"Until we're No. 1, there's always room for improvement," he said. "Since I've been here the defense has been one of the strong points of this team. We really emphasize it. We just want to go up. Obviously [ranking third] wasn't good enough because we didn't win the Super Bowl. The defense has room for improvement. Turnovers, third downs, you name it. We can always get better."