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Bengals Hunt For Answers Up Front

Margus Hunt back in the day.
Margus Hunt back in the day.

The turnstile on the defensive line turned into a vestibule Monday when old friend Margus Hunt returned to where he started and signed to help the Bengals decimated front.

Hunt, 33, released by the Saints last week, waited through a week of Covid tests to re-enter the facility Monday that he first visited during the 2013 draft season, when the Bengals took him with their second pick in the second round.

Hunt, who has 25 career starts, all with the Colts, was a backup for New Orleans' top 12 defense in its first four games with playing time topping out at 48 percent in the loss to the Raiders. He's looking at a similar role here with starting end Sam Hubbard (elbow) hopefully back for the Nov. 15 game in Pittsburgh. Hunt becomes the sixth veteran defensive linemen the Bengals have acquired in the last 67 days.

"Some familiar faces and a chance to get on the field and contribute," Hunt said Monday on why he decided on the Bengals in a league desperate for defensive linemen.

A Junior Olympic sensation out of Estonia who took the gold medal in the shot put and javelin, Hunt came to the United States to continue  his career but took up football at age  22 at Southern Methodist when the school dropped the sport. By the time his draft rolled around the 6-8, 295-pound Hunt was viewed as an alluring project and a physical freak who dominated the NFL scouting combine.

He played 44 games in four seasons and had 1.5 sacks as a backup on the Bengals talented defensive front before leaving in free agency for three seasons with the Colts and six sacks in 47 games. At this point in the season, with Hubbard sidelined two more games and the team devastated at tackle, they jumped at Hunt's NFL experience and ability to set the edge against the run and versatility that allows him to go inside to rush the passer.

The Bengals personnel people like his length and high effort, and his power in the run game should help an edge they've had trouble at times hemming in the run.

Hunt arrives to find a much different defensive line on a much different landscape. When he was a rookie, it was the strength of the team and a driving force behind defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's top ten defense that was the centerpiece of veteran head coach Marvin Lewis' re-boot.

Now it's a position on a defense and team in transition as second-year head coach Zac Taylor ushers in a new era headed by quarterback Joe Burrow.

Left end Carlos Dunlap, 31, an 11-year veteran who is a sack away from tying the franchise record and has one this season, took to Instagram Monday night to clear the air. He confirmed he's not happy with his part-time role as a third-down pass rusher but pledged to stay with the program and told his followers he remains committed to issues he has embraced in the community, such as bullying, on a platform he has been nominated as the Bengals' Walter Payton Man of the Year.

According to various accounts of Dunlap's appearance he said, "As you all know/ask/see/have heard I was frustrated with my role and hearing about what I was being asked to do. Yes, I want to play.... And if any player wasn't frustrated about that then I don't want to play with that person."

He also said, "Who am I to challenge this vision that the Bengals and Zac have for what they want the team to look like? ... I am employee 9-6, as I have always said."

Taylor and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo are dealing with a depth chart gutted by injury. On Sunday, with four linemen on injured reserve, Dunlap pretty much shared snaps with Amani Bledsoe on what amounted to about 60 plays. Bledsoe, undrafted out of Oklahoma last season and cut by Tennessee this training camp, has played in all six Bengals games with two starts after signing Aug. 15.

"He's stout in the run game. He's hard to move. Buff. Gives good effort. Young player," is what Anarumo likes about Bledsoe.

But he says he'd like to use eight-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins more than he has. Atkins, 32, has just a total of 37 snaps in the last two games, his first two of the season after injuring his shoulder in the Sept. 3 scrimmage. Anarumo indicated they don't want to bring Atkins back too soon. But they do want him on the field more when he's ready.

"We're paying close attention and he's just two weeks into it," Anarumo said. "As he feels more comfortable and we feel more comfortable, again, he's only got two games under his belt. I'd like for him to be out there every snap. But it's kind of not where we're at right now."

When the Bengals started courting Hunt after the Saints cut him, Atkins was one of the guys that reached out via text. But it was special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons that leaped on his phone first.

Hunt is not only a walking blocked kick, but Simmons used his athleticism on kick cover and punt return. In his last season in Cincy in 2016, Hunt blocked a field goal and two extra points and that gives Simmons some formidable players in the post with Dunlap's four career blocked field goals.

 Hunt is fond of the coaches he had in Cincinnati and credits Zimmer and his successor Paul Guenther for introducing him to the NFL.

"It taught me how to play the game," Hunt said. "The way I had to learn everything so quickly, coming from a very, very simple system in college to come and learn what Zimmer had to offer and the playbook he had. It was very, very shocking. Sensation overload. I just had to learn quickly and that really helped elevate me to understand what the league is about. Paulie as well. He was very, very detail oriented on what to do every week."

Hunt sat down with Anarumo quickly Monday after he signed to briefly go over his role and the game plan. He'll delve into it more Wednesday. But he figures it's going to be a lot easier to figure out than that first trip to Paul Brown Stadium.

"Oh yeah," Hunt said.