The Bengals continued to bring in new faces this offseason. Only 18 players remain on the active roster since Zac Taylor’s first season as head coach (2019).
The team committed over $120 million to defensive free agents, including re-signings, after finishing in the bottom half of the NFL at 22nd overall; 19th in passing defense and 29th in rushing defense last season.
As the remade defense aims to turn things around in 2021, the group has a tall task in front of them this week against Dalvin Cook, Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings.
Minnesota finished 11th overall in offense last season. Cook led the way with 1,557 rushing yards on 312 attempts. He averaged 5 yards per carry and 111 yards per game.
Cook’s 312 touches accounted for 62% of the Vikings’ offensive plays last season.
Sam Hubbard was one of few bright spots of a Bengals’ defense that allowed an average of 148 rushing yards per game.
Cincinnati will get the help they missed up front with DJ Reader returning from injury after playing just five games in 2020. The additions of Trey Hendrickson, Larry Ogunjobi and B.J. Hill should also help their cause.
Hendrickson headlined the newcomers this offseason. Although he was brought in to rush the passer, he had 12 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks last season for New Orleans. Hendrickson looks to fill the void left behind by Carl Lawson and add a spark to a defense that finished with a league-low 17 sacks in 2020.
Ogunjobi will compliment Reader in the interior. The 6-4, 305 pound lineman had 45 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, and in 15 games for Cleveland last year. Cincinnati added Hill in the Billy Price trade last week. He's another piece to the puzzle, as the Bengals hope to be more physical in the trenches this year.
Logan Wilson will lead the linebacking group this season, alongside other young players, including Germaine Pratt and Akeem Davis-Gaither. This trio will need to step up to stop the rushing attack if the defense wants to improve this season.
Safeties Jessie Bates III (109) and Vonn Bell (114) combined for 223 tackles in 2020.
Despite the run-heavy offense, Cousins and company still aired the ball out, finishing 14th in passing offense last season.
The quarterback threw for 4,265 yards and 35 touchdowns. Justin Jefferson hauled in 88 receptions for 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns. Adam Thielen added 74 catches for 925 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Bates was the highlight of the Cincinnati pass defense as he was the highest rated safety according to Pro Football Focus last season. He finished with 3 interceptions, 15 passes defensed and allowed a 54.3% completion percentage.
The secondary will look different this year with Trae Waynes returning from a pectoral injury that kept him out all of last season. Cincinnati also signed corners Mike Hilton, Chidobe Awuzie, and Eli Apple in free agency in the offseason.
Hilton allowed just one receiving touchdown last season and is arguably the best blitzing cornerback in the NFL.
Thielen caught 26-of-34 targets for 326 yards and five touchdowns from the slot last season. Jefferson also saw snaps in the slot, but Thielen’s ability to play slot allowed Jefferson to play outside.
The former LSU star became a top route-runner in the league during his rookie campaign. The Bengals’ defensive backs can’t miss a beat covering Jefferson to slow down the Minnesota passing attack.
Cincinnati’s first-string defense showed glimpses of their potential during training camp and the preseason.
The revamped unit will get their opportunity to make a statement on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. Kickoff is at 1 p.m. ET.
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