Through a third of the NFL season, the Bengals are a surprising 4-2. Cincinnati is second place in the competitive AFC North, and if the playoffs started this week, it would own the AFC’s fifth seed. The Bengals haven’t made the postseason since 2015, but in coach Zac Taylor’s third season, the team is off to a strong start that has put them in contention to end their playoff drought.
It’s easy to attribute Cincinnati’s success to its point scorers. Quarterback Joe Burrow, running back Joe Mixon, and receiver Ja’Marr Chase—an obvious Rookie of the Year candidate—are a fun collection, without question. But six games have revealed that the Bengals defense deserves just as much credit for the team’s hot start.
“I think the most important thing is proving [we can compete with the top teams] to ourselves and, again, building an identity as a team, as a defense,” said cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, an offseason free-agent signee, following a 25-22 overtime loss against the Packers in Week 5. “I think we’re still striving through those moments.”
Awuzie, who’s had an outstanding start to the year, is one of five defensive starters whom the Bengals signed during the offseason. The other veteran signings—defensive linemen Larry Ogunjobi and Trey Hendrickson, and cornerbacks Mike Hilton and Eli Apple, along with trading for defensive tackle B.J. Hill in August—represent Cincinnati’s pointed attempt to assemble a more physical, competitive defensive unit coming to fruition.
There’s been a concentrated effort to build a defense that can combat the AFC North’s offenses, including the 5-1 Ravens, whom Cincinnati will play this weekend. The Bengals face the Ravens, Browns, and Steelers twice each per season, and these are three franchises that have established themselves through the years by touting some of the NFL’s most bruising, physical offenses. Since Taylor took over in 2019, the Bengals have been stuck as fourth in the AFC North pecking order, characterized by a pass-happy, finesse offense and an underwhelming defense. But by investing resources into their defense, the Bengals have a legitimate chance at making the postseason.
“Certainly in our division, it helps to have smart players, because you see a lot of different scheme varieties,” Taylor said Monday. “And so you’ve gotta be able to adapt. Our guys, we do have a smart defense. All those guys have a high football I.Q., so that’s a good start when you’re building a defense, [getting] so many talented guys that are physical. ... We’ve got a group that we feel really good about.”
Last season, there were glimpses of progress on defense, but simply too many missing pieces for sustained success. Star defensive tackle D.J. Reader, who signed a four-year, $53 million deal in 2020, played only five games last season before going down with a quad injury. Cornerback Trae Waynes, who signed a three-year, $42 million contract in 2020, missed the entire season because of a torn pectoral muscle. The Bengals finished 27th in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA ratings, a marginal improvement from 30th in 2019.
In 2021, things have dramatically improved. Third-year defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s unit currently ranks fifth in defensive DVOA. The 55-year-old’s defense has kept Cincinnati in games when its offense has sputtered and has maintained leads when everything’s clicked, holding opponents to 18.5 points per game, the NFL’s fifth-lowest mark. According to Ben Baldwin’s database, the Bengals defense ranks third in opponent success rate (40.5 percent) and seventh in expected points added allowed per play (negative-0.3). Cincinnati has given up explosive passes at the ninth-lowest rate (8 percent) and is 19th in explosive run rate allowed (11 percent), per Warren Sharp’s database.
Anarumo most often employs single-high safety looks, but he’s mixed in two-high shells depending on the opponent. While Anarumo doesn’t blitz often (the Bengals are tied for 23rd in blitz rate (20.2 percent), according to Pro Football Reference), he isn’t shy about heating up quarterbacks on third downs, frequently bringing Hilton on nickel corner blitzes and occasionally turning free safety Jessie Bates III or strong safety Vonn Bell loose to muddy passing lanes and hurry passers. But in neutral situations, he relies on the front four to generate pressure on its own. The results have been about average overall (the Bengals are 19th in pressure rate), though Hendrickson, who’s coming off a breakout year with the Saints, has sustained his success with Cincy, generating the seventh-most total pressures (29) while tying for the sixth-most sacks (six) among interior linemen and edge defenders, per Pro Football Focus. Hill has capitalized on limited snaps, too, as his three sacks rank tied for sixth most among interior linemen. Veteran defensive end Sam Hubbard is third among edge defenders in ESPN’s run-stop win rate. The group’s effort has shown up the most in the red zone. Last season, the Bengals had the ninth-worst red zone defense, giving up touchdowns on 63.8 percent of opponents’ trips. This season, the Bengals have cut that number to 52.6 percent, the 10th-best mark in the league. One of the most important sequences of Cincinnati’s season was its goal-line stand against Jacksonville in Week 4, when Ogunjobi and linebacker Logan Wilson stonewalled quarterback Trevor Lawrence to force a turnover on downs and keep the Bengals within 14 points before an eventual comeback win.
The Bengals’ newfound physical identity on defense begins up front, but it’s arguably even more impressive on the back end. Bates and Bell are thumpers, and through six games have delivered a handful of huge tackles and broken-up passes. Bates, arguably the defense’s best player, dropped Vikings receiver K.J. Osborn with a big third-down tackle in Week 1, then helped force a fumble from Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook—a dodgy call, perhaps—that set up kicker Evan McPherson’s game-winning field goal. Green Bay’s Davante Adams was on the receiving end of a big Bates tackle in Week 5. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s Ray-Ray McCloud and Green Bay’s AJ Dillon have taken big licks from Bell, too.
On the outside, Apple and Waynes (the latter has appeared in only two games so far this season), have been serviceable. Hilton has made impact plays here and there. The Bengals signed former Seahawks starting corner Tre Flowers off waivers last week, adding another veteran to the unit. But the breakout star in the Bengals secondary is Awuzie. The former second-round pick didn’t find his footing during his first four seasons in Dallas, but he’s enjoying a career year in Cincinnati. Awuzie is allowing 8.6 yards per completion and only 5.3 yards per target, both on track to be career lows. He’s been assigned with covering some of the NFL’s top receivers in Adams, Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson, and Chicago’s Allen Robinson II, and for the most part, he’s held his own. Don’t let Adams’s big numbers from Week 5 fool you; more than half of the All-Pro wideout’s production came on over routes when he beat trailing linebackers and a few deep routes when he was covered by other Bengals defensive backs. Awuzie was resilient in coverage, allowing a season-low 35.0 passer rating when targeted, while also snagging his first interception of the year:
The biggest question mark on the defense is at linebacker, where the Bengals’ youth is particularly stark. Cincinnati’s three starting linebackers—Wilson (second-year pro), Akeem Davis-Gaither (second-year), and Germaine Pratt (third-year)—are all inexperienced. Opponents like Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and even Jacksonville’s Trevor Lawrence have been able to take advantage, especially when breaking outside of the pocket. Horizontal, spread-based attacks have posed a challenge. But there’s also been flashes of brilliance between the trio in when their athleticism has been displayed:
“The biggest difference is we’ve got guys who trust in each other and we’re playing hard,” Wilson said after Cincinnati’s Week 4 win against the Jaguars. “When you’ve got guys flying to the ball and trying to make plays on the ball, that’s effective. We’re all believing in Lou’s system and sometimes, people are going to make plays. We’ve got guys that never back down no matter what happens and keep fighting. That’s something we can definitely work with.”
The offense already has taken on an identity of resiliency with Burrow behind center. His second pro season will be defined by his comeback from last season’s devastating knee injury, but there’s a chance to potentially make it more than that, thanks largely to the Bengals defense. Their offense’s starpower is evident, but consistency has yet to arrive. Cincinnati has improved mightily in generating overall explosive plays, going from last in the category to 14th this year. But the Bengals are only 19th in success rate (45 percent), 17th in EPA per play (0.041), 19th in offensive DVOA, and 23rd in scoring percentage (36.8 percent of its drives end in points). These underwhelming stats are not all on Burrow—his offensive line ranks 19th in pass-block win rate—and he’s been impressively accurate, ranking 10th in completion rate over expectation (5.2 percent) and 12th among passers in EPA per play (0.191).
The Bengals are throwing the ball significantly less frequently this season, going from a 60 percent pass rate (13th highest) last year to 54 percent (25th) in 2021. For a franchise player coming off a major knee injury who’s playing behind an underwhelming offensive line, it’s a prudent move, although not foolproof. Burrow suffered a throat contusion in Week 5. He’s been sacked on 8.4 percent of his dropbacks, the seventh-worst rate among passers. The concern, however, is whether the Bengals continue to taper Burrow’s attempts if it comes at the cost of tangibly restricting the offense’s production, particularly in a year when their defense is playing at a high level. Prior to last week’s 34-11 win at Detroit, Cincinnati was averaging 22.8 points per game, which would rank 20th in the league.
“I think we can go really far with this team,” Chase said after the Week 5 loss. “Our defense is playing great ball right now, honestly. I want to say that because they’re keeping us in the game with great teams—on the road at Pittsburgh, and this game. The defense is holding it down for the offense.”
There’s reason to believe that the defense can continue producing at a consistent rate. Limiting the Packers, who are ranked fifth in offensive DVOA ratings, followed by a three-quarters shutout on the road in Detroit served as proof that this unit can be dominant. Bell credited the new veterans for the group’s success.
“Everybody with their football smarts and intelligence,” Bell said Monday. “We’ve just been bonding, and it’s just been gelling together. We’re playing together. It’s a great feeling.”
The Bengals have built up to this moment through the past few seasons. After years of irrelevance, the Bengals are on the cusp of the top spot in the division.
“That’s one thing that we know we are,” Awuzie said. “We’re a tough team. We give everybody our best shot. It could be the first half, second half, or a complete game, teams are going to get our best shot. That’s one thing I know for sure about us.”