Bengals training camp starts on Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the 2021 season. The practice fields are sweltering, most of the team has received their vaccines, and thus the long climb to the Super Bowl in Los Angeles begins.
We have chopped up the offense and special teams already in this series. Now it's time to focus on Lou Anarumo's unit as they complete the transition from the Marvin Lewis leadership core to this year's group that's full of fresh faces. Anarumo has to bring some semblance of consistency to this defense that ranked near the bottom of the league in most categories last season.
The Bengals defense showed minor improvements going from last in points per play (32nd) in 2019 to four spots higher (28th) in 2020. They also finished 20th in points per drive allowed. Regardless, those numbers have to take another leap, along with the rest of the team if this squad is going to make a run at the playoffs.
Safety Jessie Bates III and defensive end Sam Hubbard are the only two defensive players left who started the 2019 opener in Seattle. Anarumo has molded the defense in his image, and he might not get another chance if things continue going south.
Here is the final part of our Training Camp Three Down Look.
First Down: Finding a Pass Rush
One of the hardest stats to swallow from last year's defense was directly tied to a New Orleans Saint the team signed this offseason. The Bengals had 17 sacks as a team last season, narrowly edging out new defensive end Trey Hendrickson's career-high 13.5 sacks.
Pressuring the quarterback is priority number one for any NFL defense. The easiest way to screw up an offense is by rattling the signal-caller. Cincinnati was the worst team at bringing down the quarterback last season and wasn't much better pressuring them either.
According to Pro Football Reference, only the Detroit Lions (105) had fewer pressures than the Bengals last season (111). The Bengals didn't lack creativity either, ranking 15th in blitz percentage on the year (31.1%). With D.J. Reader going down and Geno Atkins injured, they couldn't get a push from the interior, and the whole unit suffered because of it.
Hubbard (18) and Carl Lawson (44) combined for over half of the team's pressures. No other player had more than eight. Now that Lawson is in New York, Hendrickson might be the most important player on this defense.
Bates takes the crown as its best player, but his impact won't be as great if Hendrickson reverts to his pre-2020 form. In 30 games from 2017-19, he posted 6.5 sacks in three starts. He blew that number out of the water last season, but analysts put more weight into pressures than raw sacks for a reason.
Hendrickson tied for the second-most sacks in 2020 but ranked t-9th in Brandon Thorn's True Sack Rate metric, which assesses the individual difficulty of each sack produced league-wide. Still an impressive metric among all NFL edge rushers but one that spells some regression for Hendrickson in 2021.
The Bengals knew Hendrickson coming in and Reader coming back wouldn't solve their front seven issues entirely. They addressed those further in the draft with Cam Sample and Joseph Ossai, while adding a secondary wrinkle from a rival in the offseason.
Mike Hilton could play a decent role in getting this pass rush off of life support. The slot cornerback is the best blitzer at his position in the NFL. Hilton's been sent on more slot blitzes (148) than any other defensive back since he entered the league in 2017, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
Of the eight defensive backs to notch at least 55 pass-rush snaps in 2020, Hilton's sack rate (5.5%) ranked second behind Jamal Adams according to Sports Info Solutions.
After only sending 37 slot blitzes since 2017, expect the Bengals to pull out all the stops experimenting with Hilton in camp.
Second Down: Passing The Linebacker Torch
After bringing in veteran Josh Bynes to smooth out their linebacker rotation in 2020, the Bengals trust their recent draft picks with the task this season. Bynes brought a strong leadership quality to the locker room but was not a long-term answer for Cincinnati after spending three high picks on the position between 2019 and 2020.
The linebackers are the fulcrum unit for the Bengals. When healthy, the defense boasts a strong presence on the interior and secondary, but youth breeds question marks. Bynes was the team's third-leading tackler last season (99 tackles); not replacing that production speaks volumes.
Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt figure to handle most of the starting reps, with Akeem Davis-Gaither filling a hybrid role while being active on passing downs. The time is now for Pratt to put it all together in his third season.
The NC State product finished with a 41 overall grade from Pro Football Focus last year, but showed flashes in coverage down in the season's final weeks. Although flashes don't make an NFL starter, Pratt needs to be a complete linebacker against the run and pass in 2021. He missed the third-most tackles (10) of any Bengals defender last year and allowed a 111.1 passer rating on the season, the highest of any linebacker on the roster.
Wilson carried over his strong coverage and catch ability from Wyoming to allow the third-lowest passer rating on the entire defense (66.4 on nine targets). After posting 10 interceptions as a Cowboy, he nabbed two picks as a rookie despite playing just 32% of the teams' snaps. Wilson struggled to find the field consistently in just two starts and finished with a 54.7 PFF grade. Yet, he showed every reason why the Bengals selected him in the third round of last year's draft.
Cincinnati called Davis-Gaither's name a round before Wilson, and the two wound up having similar rookie seasons. Davis-Gaither picked up an interception of his own but struggled to find a defined role in the linebacker room. His 31 tackles were the fewest among qualified Bengals linebackers, but he did finish just behind Wilson with the fourth-best passer rating allowed (69.2 on 12 targets).
Questions surround all three of these players, and their ability to answer them is the catalyst for this defense's ceiling.
Third Down: A Reliable Cornerback Duo
Bengals fans aren't asking for the shutdown secondary group many great defenses are built on today. They want consistency and availability. Something hard to come by after Darqueze Dennard and Dre Kirkpatrick departed in free agency.
Cincinnati was down to their seventh corner midway through the season last year. Injuries have a lot to do with luck, but the best ability is availability, and the Bengals need that from Trae Waynes and Chidobe Awuzie this season.
Experts maligned the former as an overpay on a three-year, $42 million deal and he has a chance to prove the doubters wrong. Cincinnati needs solid number one corner play, and that's what Waynes has brought in his last two seasons. Waynes posted a 69.1 and 67.1 PFF grade in 2018 and 2017 while being strong against the run coming into a rush-heavy AFC North. He has posted a run defense grade of 74.5-plus each of his last four seasons.
Waynes has brought a high floor and low ceiling during his career, yet 17 games of that type of production would be a welcome sight for a defense that started LeShaun Sims for ten contests last season.
Awuzie will do his best to match Waynes snap for snap as he leaves a dumpster fire in Dallas. The 2020 Cowboys defense couldn't understand filling a rush lane in Mike Nolan's system, let alone stop offenses at all three levels. Toss out 2020 and flip on tape from his first two full seasons as a starter.
The secondary playmaker earned a 63.8 PFF grade in 2018 on 1,018 snaps and a 72.2 PFF grade on 1,020 snaps in 2019. Awuzie's shown the chops to force tight windows since coming into the league. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Awuzie's forced a tight window on 30.9% of his targets since 2017, which is the 7th-highest among 71 defensive backs with 200+ targets over that span.
Awuzie was not a strong fit in Nolan's system last year but after dealing with injuries throughout the season he has a chance to redeem himself. The entire defense is trying to join him after slowly falling off since this team last made the playoffs in 2015.
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