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Dissecting the Demise of the Bengals Defense

When you think about the Cincinnati Bengals being at their best, the first thing you probably think of is Joe Burrow launching bombs to Ja’Marr Chase.  Of course you would.  It’s the most exciting combo to exist in the Queen City since Davey Concepcion and Joe Morgan were turning double-plays for the Big Red Machine in the 70s.

At their peak, the Bengals offense has few peers.  Joey B can dice up defenses like the best of them and their skill-position group arguably the best in the league.  Sure, the offensive line is the perpetual scuff mark on the otherwise pristine pair of Jordan 3s that is the Bengals offense, but there are many weeks where that blemish doesn't catch your eye at all.  Sometimes, the glitz of Burrow, Chase and the crew just look that good.

But what else comes to mind when you think about the Bengals at their best?  What about their overlooked collection of clutch, opportunistic, and relentless defenders.  Guys like D.J. Reader, who dominates at a thankless position and sets the toughness tone for the whole group.  Guys like Mike Hilton, who plays so much bigger than the size listed on the team website.  Guys like Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt, who’ve outplayed their 3rd-round draft pedigree to become turnover machines.

In 2023, though, something’s changed.  The defense has…fallen off?  Capsized?  Disintegrated?  I don’t know, pick one.

The demise has been confusing, to say the least.  Of all the wild, unfortunate and frustrating issues the Bengals have dealt with this year, the utter evaporation of the run defense was the one most of us didn’t see coming.

You see, we’ve all seen the Bengals offense struggle.  We’ve all seen what happens when Burrow plays bad football.  We know how inconsistent the O-line can be.  And we know how slowly the Bengals have come out of the gates in recent history.  We didn’t want those things – but we knew they were possible.

But what’s going on with the defense…that was out of the realm of possibility.  And again, it’s hard to make heads or tails of it.  Nearly the entire defense returned, and of the two starters who departed in the secondary, one was replaced by an in-house, first-round pick.  Every starting defensive lineman and linebacker returned, and so did most of the backups.  Even Lou Anarumo, the King of Staten Island, probably the most beloved defensive coordinator in the entire NFL, a man whose name is thrown around pretty much any time a coaching vacancy comes up, came back for another go.

And it’s all gone to shit.

Let’s start with the most obvious problem: big plays.  The Bengals defense has been getting toasted all year.  Last week against the Steelers was emblematic: there’s the Najee Harris run in the first quarter, a run that should have been stopped for a four- or five-yard gain and instead went for 20; there’s the 39-yard sideline shot to Diontae Johnson with rookie speed-merchant D.J. Turner and free-agent signee Nick Scott trailing; there’s also the two separate twenty-plus-yard receptions from tight end Pat Freiermuth.  Tight ends killing the Bengals, where have I heard that before…

The Bengals have lived and died by a “bend-but-don’t-break” strategy over the past two years.  It’s helped them limit the damage Patrick Mahomes and his Chiefs could do in their previous matchups.  It’s been their identity – but this year, the Bengals have taken that concept to its ultimate logical conclusion: they’ve bent so much that they’ve become an infinite loop of surrendered yardage.

The statistics bear it out: after finishing the 2021 and 2022 seasons ranked 18th and 16th in yards allowed (middle of the road, but respectable), the Bengals have careened all the way to 31st.  They’re still doing a decent job of keeping points off the board (ranked 19th in that category), but that’s a far cry from the #6 spot they held at the end of last season – and even that is slightly misleading because the Bengals have had some lucky breaks this season with opponents turning over the ball in the red zone.

Obviously, some of the credit has to go to the Bengals players and coaching staff for being so turnover-conscious, but turnovers are a notoriously hard statistic to predict and often come in bunches.  It shouldn’t surprise anyone if turnovers are harder to come by next year.  And if it wasn’t for the league’s 3rd-best turnover differential the Bengals are sporting right now, I struggle to imagine how dreadful this season could have been.

So, we’ve identified the symptom of the Bengals bad defense, but what’s the root cause?  That’s less clear.  The obvious answer is the secondary, which had by far the most personnel turnover.  While I’ll attempt to defend them somewhat in a bit, there’s no doubt this group has been extremely underwhelming – especially after what we’ve seen in ‘21 and ‘22.

Losing Jessie Bates III has been a significant blow, much bigger than I ever would have guessed.  In his first season in Atlanta, he’s turning in an All-Pro-caliber campaign.  But the Bengals prepared for his departure.  Dax Hill hasn’t been Bates – not by a long shot – but he’s flashed some elite traits and looks like a keeper.  Losing Vonn Bell though…that’s been a disaster.

That’s mostly because, until recently, the Bengals have been giving most of the snaps to Scott.  It hasn’t worked.  It seems that moving forward, the Bengals are giving the job to rookie 3rd-rounder Jordan Battle, but the damage of the first ten weeks is done.

There’s more blame to go around though: after returning from a season-ending knee injury, Chidobe Awuzie has struggled significantly as a rotational corner and rookie 2nd-rounder D.J. Turner has been on the wrong end of a lot of highlight reels this year.  Second-year corner Cam Taylor-Britt has had moments where he looks like shutdown material, but he’s had some negative plays too.  Even Mike Hilton, who continues to amaze with his work in the run game and as a corner blitzer, has been burned a few times.

But pinning it all on the secondary is painting an incomplete picture.  To understand this Picasso that is the Bengals 2023 defense, we must examine all of its aspects…

That brings us to the defensive line.  Yes, it’s the defense’s best position group.  Yes, they still find ways to disrupt the game.  No, they haven’t been up to their usual standard.  Outside of Trey Hendrickson, no one is playing as well as they did in 2022.

Don’t even get me started on the backups.  The Joseph Ossai experiment has to be over.  Cam Sample is invisible for 98% of his snaps.  Zach Carter is a liability.  At least Myles Murphy showed something this past Sunday, but it’s Week Eleven!  He’s a first-round pick!  Why are we waiting until Week Eleven for our first-round rookie defensive end to get onto the field?

We can’t forget about the linebackers either.  As great as Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt are creating turnovers, they’re also on the wrong end of a lot of downfield passes.  They also aren’t making plays in the run game like they did last year.  I’m not saying it was a mistake to sign the duo for a combined $56 million this past offseason, but it’s definitely something to monitor.

To sum up, everybody is to blame.  Not one position group gets positive marks.

The combined regression has affected every aspect of the Bengals defense.  They can’t stop the run, something that seemed unfathomable heading into this season.  They give up too many big plays in the passing game.  Tight ends are killing them again.  And despite being middle of the pack in the NFL in total sacks, their pass rush is hit-or-miss at best, as evidenced by their 21.1% pressure rate which is lower than their pressure rate in 2022 (22.4%) and in 2021 (24.5%).

There are some who would point the finger at the Bengals offense, saying that because the offense hasn’t played well and can’t sustain drives, the defense has been on the field and hung out to dry too often to be effective – and there’s some truth there.  But that doesn’t excuse the pathetic 88 first downs the Bengals have allowed this season, tied for 30th in the league.  It’s usually their own fault they can’t get off the field.

There is a bright side though: this is probably the worst it will get.  Now that Battle has the starting gig, the secondary should stabilize as the young players get more reps together.  Murphy still has loads of potential and could be an enormous difference-maker for the Bengals next year.  Wilson and Pratt are young enough where you’d expect a bounce-back.  Most importantly, the disappointing performance of the defense this year probably will keep Anarumo from finding greener pastures elsewhere, giving him another year to work with this defense and restore the old magic.

For 2023 though, there doesn’t seem to be much hope.  Opponents are already well-aware of the areas to attack the Bengals on defense, and the Bengals don’t have the personnel to stop them.  But now – at the very least – they know where they need to improve for 2024.  The Bengals should have a premium pick in the first round for the first time since 2021, and even if they don’t spend that pick on a defender, they will have plenty of cap space to work with once free agency begins (and potentially more, if Tee Higgins isn’t signed or if he’s traded).

So go ahead, panic for 2024 if you want.  With Burrow out for the remainder of the season and some tough games ahead (on the road against Jacksonville, on the road against Kansas City, on the road against Pittsburgh, at home against a potentially playoff-desperate Cleveland team), the prognosis was already bleak.

Recovery, though, is still possible.  Probable, even.  The young players should get better.  Some of the veterans should play better too, especially if Anarumo returns.  It’s tough to think about next year during the middle of the season, but let’s face it: without Burrow, the Bengals are going nowhere, whether the defense plays up to its standard or not.  But if they correctly identify their issues and surgically remove them, this defense could be in top form in no time.

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