Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, still flush with his Yankees' recent sweep of the Red Sox, finally got a look at his new power-packed lineup during the first two days of walkthroughs and says they've reached the fences when it comes to the Paul Brown Stadium locker room.
He feasted his eye on a brand new clean-up hitter in D.J. Reader, a nose tackle sniffing the Pro Bowl. And there was one of those shortstop-captains the Yanks always love in middle linebacker Josh Bynes, not to mention an explosive centerfielder in Vonn Bell and experienced corner outfielders in Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander.
But Anarumo needed the late Bob Sheppard, the legendary Yankee Stadium public address announcer, to make the introductions.
"I'm just getting the new faces coordinated. Yesterday was the first time when they got in the huddle (and introduced themselves)," Anarumo said Wednesday afternoon. 'Hey, I'm Vonn, hey, I'm so and so, hey, I'm this guy.' It was unbelievable to be honest with you even though they've been Zooming together and all that, you're finally together on the field."
Such is life for an overhauled defense in a pandemic. There's only so much Anarumo can say so early. Except that what looks to be at least five new third-down starters, they showed up as advertised, starting with the $53 million man in Reader.
"Great guy. Very, very motivated guy to be the best. He came back in unbelievable shape," said Anarumo, impressed with how Reader shed 20 pounds to get to about 320. "D.J. is very professional. I know how he is as a player. I did not know him as a guy. But we hit a home run there as an organization."
And the other guys are hits, too.
Bynes, a 10-year pro with a Super Bowl ring who came off the couch last October to re-set the Ravens' run defense. Confusion went to execution with Bynes in there. Baltimore finished in the top five vs. the run and didn't lose with Bynes until the playoffs.
"I'm not patting ourselves on the back but I'm kind of steering myself that way because … he's a guy that's done it," Anarumo said. "He's a high-character guy, he can really help these young guys out in how they approach not only the stuff on the field but off the field as well. My good friend James Bettcher (coached) him in Arizona and had nothing but great things to say about him. He's a huge asset, both on and off the field. He's going to play a pivotal role, not only on the field but in the locker room as well."
Bell, just 25, already has five play-off starts with the Saints and brings a big-time air that he first inhaled for a national championship team at Ohio State. With free safety Jessie Bates turning just 23 a few months ago, the Bengals are spry with some young legs in the middle of the field. And Bell, who had no problems proclaiming he was an alpha when he signed, brings them some badly needed bite.
"The guy is a workhorse from a meeting standpoint," Anarumo said. "Great communication, great leader and he's a physical guy. We got younger back there a little bit with him. He's a good blitzer. I'm just excited to get him and see him move in a live situation. He really brings a bunch of energy and juice to the group."
Waynes, on the outside, and Alexander, in the slot, re-make them back there. They were both raised right by Vikings head coach and Bengals old friend Mike Zimmer, but they're not the only new cornermen Anarumo is watching. LeShaun Sims has played a lot corner for the Titans in his four seasons and was a key special teamer in their run to the AFC title game last season. Winston Rose, who led the CFL in interceptions last season, has 14 pro picks in Canada.
"It's not just those two," Anarumo said. "Those two have played a lot of ball and have done very well, but don't sleep on LeShaun Sims. Don't sleep on Winston Rose. Those guys are guys that have been successful. Winston up in Canada, having all those interceptions the last couple of years. LeShaun Sims has played meaningful football in big games. They're all big guys. They all have length to them."
Anarumo went to great lengths to underscore the challenges. The lack of the chances to tackle with no preseason games. The truncated training camp cutting into that valuable time his new group needs to jell and bond. The loss of backup tackles Josh Tupou (opt-out) and Ryan Glasgow (knee).
"We start immediately in the walk-through," he said of tackling. "I told the players this, first off tackling is primarily about timing and angles. The physical part of it you'll get work on, but if you don't have the proper angle and the proper timing then you don't even have a chance to physically get the guy on the ground. We can do all that stuff without pads on. Once we get pads on we'll emphasize the physical part of it. Like every year we'll work on it every day with even more emphasis this year."
During the offseason, long before the losses of Tupou and Glasgow, defensive line coach Nick Eason said he wanted to cut back on everyone's reps. Last year, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins played a career-high 816 snaps and it didn't translate into more production when he finished with an uncharacteristic 4.5 sacks.
But there were a lot of reasons for that and most of them couldn't be pinned on Atkins. But everyone agrees, less is more, as long as it's not ridiculous.
"I think we were playing Oakland last year, and I look to my left and I look to my right and I saw Geno on one side of me and Carlos (Dunlap) on the other, and I'm like, 'Damn, why aren't they on the field? So, you have to keep those guys' rep count low just because of where they are," Anarumo said.
But, no question. Atkins may be 32 and Dunlap may be 31. But Anarumo wants his heavy hitters up there with men on base in the late innings.
"Now they're both in great shape as always, but what happens is you don't really see the effect on those guys early in the year," Anarumo said. "It's later in the year where they just get worn out, beat up the older they get. I saw it with Cameron Wake down in Miami, where we'd start off the season and by the end of the year, it's just, they take a toll on the quality. So, we'll have a pitch count, per say, with those guys. But when the most impactful plays are about to happen hopefully they're in there. "