The Bengals defense has spent the spring and summer quietly rebuilding its swag. On Wednesday during the first padded practice of the season they noisily came out of the shadows with a rambunctious stand in the second half of practice that dominated day.
With the linebackers drawing the admiration of head coach Zac Taylor, defensive linemen Sam Hubbard and Carl Lawson wreaking havoc, safety Jessie Bates III ball-hawking quarterback Andy Dalton's desperate late heave and rookie kicker Tristan Vizcaino's missed chip shot of a field goal that cost the offense seven points, the defense took a resounding win in the ZacBall scoring.
He had it, 18-3. But only after first-year defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo reamed his men after Dalton torched them with unscripted plays in which some looked familiar and some didn't during the first period. With everything going off play-action (new), Dalton sifted a seam ball to tight end Tyler Eifert (old) before finding wide receiver Tyler Boyd (old) on a slant out of a flurry of motion (new).
But that would be pretty much it. Dalton managed just nine of 15 passing in the team stuff (seven of eight in 7-on-7) as Anarumo shut it down.
"I think the biggest thing was Lou holding us accountable as a defense," said Bates, who wouldn't reveal a transcript of Anarumo's plea. "I know we came out a little sluggish. I mean, we came out with a lot of energy but we were making a lot of mistakes. And I think Coach Lou got us all huddled up and held us accountable, and we finished the day off very strong."
If this doesn't sound like last season's No. 32 defense in the NFL, it's because it isn't. For Bates, who started all 16 games as a rookie last season, it all starts with exactly that.
"I think the biggest thing is the accountability part of it," Bates said. "Everyone is being held accountable the same way. The energy that Coach Lou and the coaching staff has brought to training camp is really cool. It's very unique, and I'm very excited for the season."
It's no secret that linebacker is one of the biggest areas of concern, but people forget that middle linebacker Preston Brown and SAM backer Nick Vigil have played a lot of snaps and even the young guys that showed up to stop the run on Wednesday (third-round middle linebacker Germaine Pratt) are experienced signal callers from college. And Taylor liked how it looked.
"I heard some great communication from the linebackers today," Taylor said. "There are a couple of different guys who did it. That's what we're looking for, that leadership to step up and be vocal. I saw that today at that position. I saw a lot of guys get lined up trying to help other guys with their keys so that's what we need some guys to step up and be vocal and not be afraid to communicate and I saw a couple of guys do that today."
The defense couldn't take anyone to the ground, but the coaches wanted them to "thump," the ball carrier. Vigil, on the sidelines when he saw one of the rookies finesse a run play, barked, "This isn't April. The pads are on."
There were some decent moments for the offense, too. In what looks to be a pre-cursor of things to come, A) Eifert didn't appear to play much beyond that first period, B) There was plenty of no huddle) and C) Dalton likes the tempo (they reeled off about 30 snaps in the last team period) as back-up quarterback Jeff Driskel had enough work to establish a very nice day with 11 of 13 passing in team and four of five in 7-on-7.
"Offense our first day in pads, we've got to get out targeting straightened out," Taylor said. "That's to be expected a little bit. Guys have to think when they're tired a little bit now that they're getting beat up. It's a starting point for us. We've got two more padded practices this weekend we're excited about. We'll watch the tape and make the corrections and improve on Friday and Saturday."
View some of the top photos from training camp on July 31, 2019, fueled by Gatorade.
As he promised, Taylor kept up the tempo going into a two-minute drill near the end of practice. That's when Dalton made a bad call to throw it and you can only call it bad when it was under thrown.
"Andy always jokes around with me, and I think that one just got out of his hand," Bates said. "He said it slipped a little bit. It was almost like catching a punt."
The offense has some things to smooth out in this A.J. Green-less stretch and that was obvious Wednesday when Dalton and wide receiver Cody Core weren't on the same page over the middle on one play and his only incompletion in 7-on-7 came off an Eifert drop. But Dalton continues to like the pace and volume of different plays Taylor is pulling out, particularly off play action.
"I think tempo is a big part of how we want to play. It's one thing playing fast. It's another thing getting in and out of the huddle, another thing no-huddle, all the different stuff that we're able to do. That's going to be key to our success this year," Dalton said. "We have the capability to be very versatile. We have a lot of different ways that we can attack a defense. I really like everything that we're doing."
PLAYER OF THE DAY
Pass rusher Carl Lawson
Remember back to that awful non-play back on Oct. 28 against Tampa Bay? Lawson tore his ACL when he pulled up in mid-rush when there was a pre-snap penalty. Since it was Lawson's first snap of the game, it went down as a very surreal Did Not Play.
But in his first action since that moment Wednesday, Lawson was terrific. He seems to have similar quickness that he had two years as a rookie in an 8.5-sack season. He took advantage of Andre Smith just not naturally comfortable at left tackle yet (give him some snaps in pre-season games) when he nicked him for what appeared to be two sacks and he says they didn't give him one against starting left tackle Cordy Glenn.
"I'm not really worried about those, I'm worried about (going against) the ones. I think I got that last one," Lawson said. "I love Cordy, but this is just battles. I feel faster. They didn't play me much today. I guess they're easing me in. I'm not a rookie. It's a long season. I'm just easing my way back in. I feel stronger and faster."
Lawson came back from an ACL tear in college and he said the same thing then. He came back quicker. Maybe the coaches were easing him in, but the offense wasn't. From a little guy (wide receiver Tyler Boyd) to a big guy (left guard Christian Westerman), Lawson said they were popping him.
"The first couple of plays, I got a welcome back. Real quick," Lawson said. "Tyler Boyd hit me. Westerman, trying to win a job, so he came and hit me. I was like, 'Damn, that's how it is when you're back.'"
PLAY OF THE DAY
Left end Carlos Dunlap, he of the 56 career passes deflected, is at it again. He bore in on Dalton on one snap and when Dalton tried to side arm it around him, Dunlap got a hand on it and it appeared to bounce off cornerback William Jackson III's shoe before it shooting back into Dunlap's hands. But everyone must have thought it hit the ground because the defense didn't appear to get any points for it. Plus, Dunlap didn't run.
"We had to go back to two minutes. It's practice. Had to get ready for the next play," Dunlap said. "It's under review. If it had been a game, you know what I would have done."
"SCORED!" said Dunlap, who has three career TD returns.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
Lawson on his number of sacks Wednesday: "Three. I told you, you keep forgetting it. I had one against the ones, too. So when you make your article, say three."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: A.J. Green turned 31 Wednesday and he was nowhere to be seen as recovers from what appeared to be an arthroscopic surgery on his left ankle Tuesday in an effort to improve his recovery from torn ligaments. Tough way to spend a birthday. Dalton made sure he talked to him.
"I think he is doing all right. You can't be sad on your birthday, right?" Dalton asked. "You've got to be in good spirits. He sounded good. He'll be all right. He's going to overcome this thing. I tell him all the time that he's wolverine. He heals quickly, so he'll be all right."
In a close runner-up for play of the day, back-up slot receiver Alex Erickson got a chunk play on fourth down in the two-minute drill. He ran an out and up, got behind the No. 2 defense and when Driskel hung it up for him Erickson came back for the ball to cradle it off the ground. This is what Erickson does. Put him in at receiver and something good happens.
"That's what camp is all about," Erickson said. "When you get a chance to make a big play, make it, because you probably only get one shot a day for a long one. I caught a couple of shorts ones in team and seven-on-seven, but it's always nice to make a chunk play." …
Count Erickson as one of the camp observers that believes the offense is on a quicker pace these days; "We're probably a little faster than what we have been." …
Westerman got the start at left guard and seemed to have a pretty good set in one-on-ones against Geno Atkins. But he did get pulled for John Jerry for one play after a false start …
With center Billy Price expected to be back soon, rookie Michael Jordan centered the second offense after Trey Hopkins took the first group. They traded up in the fourth round to get Jordan out of Ohio State with plans to make him a guard. It looked to be his first action here at center, but then that's where he played last season at Ohio State when he replaced Price after two seasons at guard.
At 21, he's the Bengals' youngest player, but he's quick. Asked when was the last time he worked at center he said, "January first." Of course, in the Buckeyes' Rose Bowl victory over Washington …
Asked which young receiver has impressed him, Dalton didn't hesitate. Troy's undrafted Damion Willis. Or "D. Will," as he's called. He had a nifty one-handed catch down the left sideline in one-on-ones. He's wearing No.9 and undrafted Nebraska wide receiver Stanley Morgan wears No. 8 and sometimes it's hard to tell who's who because both have the bottom of their jersey numbers rolled up and they're both showing up …
Veteran wide receiver Josh Malone took some kick-off returns. He dropped one, but the man is 6-3 and 205 pounds, so he's not a wall flower …
Defensive tackle Niles Scott got carted off with what appeared to be a lower leg injury …
The Bengals are off Thursday and back at it Friday in a 3 p.m. workout on the practice field to be followed by a 3 p.m. Family Dey practice Saturday at PBS …