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Transition In Bengals Secondary Won't Take Tuesdays Off

S Dax Hill warms up during the first day of offseason workouts at IEL Practice Facility on Monday, April 17 2023.
S Dax Hill warms up during the first day of offseason workouts at IEL Practice Facility on Monday, April 17 2023.

The first Tuesday of a new NFL season found Bengals safety Michael Thomas thinking about those real Tuesdays during the regular season.

Those are the off days, the days his secondary still comes to work for those player-only meetings to prep for that Sunday's quarterback. This secondary may be in transition as they replace starting safeties Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell, but those real Tuesdays are staying the same. Where Bell was 'Defensive Coordinator Vonn Bell.'

"He was the one running the show," said Thomas before an offseason Tuesday workout as he paraphrased a line from the football movie classic, Remember the Titans.

"It's a running joke. One person doesn't replace a Gerry Bertier," said Thomas as Denzel Washington as Herman Boone. "Between myself, Mike Hilton, Chido (Awuzie) we're going to have to step it up … That's the standard. There's going to be no drop-off. There will be no going backward, but I think it will take multiple guys stepping up. It will be carried on. It's the standard of the Bengals secondary."

Over the last two seasons, it's an NFL top-ten standard when it comes to defending the pass. The Bengals rank sixth and ninth, respectively, when it comes to allowing completion percentage and passer rating and have taken down, in no particular order, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, and Tom Brady.

Now with last year's No. 1 draft pick Dax Hill and Rams free-agent Nick Scott the starting safeties, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo is relying on his returning veterans to keep the run going. Before he became a guru, Anarumo was a respected and seasoned secondary sage in league circles and he knows how important having success is back there.

"They've been here. They've won. It's big because they're confident in what they can do," Anarumo said. "There are still a lot of guys that have been here. Chido, Mike, the other guys in the room. Mike Thomas. Guys we can depend on and help bring the new guys along. They know what the standard is and they know what it takes to keep it going."

All eyes are on Hill after he played just 131 snaps during the season, nearly half of them coming in a start in the slot against Brady in place of the injured Hilton. That's where he also got some high-level experience in the AFC title game when Anarumo mixed it up and gave Hill a couple of inside snaps against the Chiefs' monstrous 6-4, 206-pound wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling.

Anarumo didn't want to move Hill around so much as a rookie, but now he thinks it's going to help him master the defense at safety.

"I think just getting him down to one position will help," Anarumo said. "But now that he's been exposed to a bunch of different things, I think his overall knowledge will be beneficial because of what he did last year."

Hill agrees. After spending a month training in Tampa, Fla., focusing on building up his lower body with an emphasis on the hamstrings, he's got a new beard to match a new role. He doesn't care what it is as long as he knows what it is. Everybody knows now it is safety.

"It's just regular football. It's not a huge adjustment," Hill said. "I think (moving around) help me get an understanding of the defense. It's only going to help me this year."

Ticking off Hills' strengths, Anarumo talks about his two rookie highlights: Coming from midfield to defend Andy Dalton's last-play sideline bomb to preserve the win in New Orleans and the playoff snap in the slot on the first series of the second half of the Divisional win in Buffalo when his third-down defense in the end zone on Bills tight end Dawson Knox saved four points in a 10-point game.

"Dax's biggest thing overall is his athleticism, his ball skills," Anarumo said. "He knows how to go get the ball and he's tough."

And while Bates and Bell had their different roles, Anarumo said he thinks Hill, "can do whatever we ask."

Awuzie, the No. 1 cornerback rehabbing a torn ACL, has been impressed by Hill from the get-go.

"He had a great preseason. Making plays left and right in camp. Hopefully, now the game slows down and he's able to settle in," Awuzie said. "We need to count on him for leadership as well. Safeties in our defense are the play-callers. It's expected for him to get caught up in the schemes of the defense and be in direct contact with (the coaches) and all of us on the defense. Make sure everybody is in the right place."

That's where a vet like Scott helps. Thomas, who rarely plays from scrimmage now, is the incumbent special teams captain who admired Scott's work in the kicking game while preparing to play him in the Super Bowl the Rams won.

"We've already broken the ice and had that conversation. That's still tough," Thomas said. "Nick is clearly a reliable guy. Coaches depend on him, teammates depend on him. The type of guy who does the right thing in the right place at the right time. The plays he's supposed to make, he makes them. That's the kind of guy you want on the field at safety."

Thomas and Hilton, a.k.a., the best slot cornerback in the game, are already talking about who is going to run the cyber pointer during Tuesdays' sessions as they go through the video on the big screen.

"We're going to learn how to run the pointer," Thomas said. "The different shortcuts when you're getting the film. When we create a cut-up. How to actually go and get it. We'll figure that out because we have to."

A new Tuesday. Another year. Different faces. But the DBs are relying on the same tone.

"The way we look at it is," said Thomas, already pointing, "is we've got nothing but respect for the guys who were here. Homage will be paid. But going forward, this is the standard and we're going to hold all of ourselves to that standard and not lower it for that transition."