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New-Look Bengals Secondary Speeds Into Elite Gear

Dax Hill turns on the jets.
Dax Hill turns on the jets.

Bengals safeties coach Robert Livingston broke into the NFL as a scout working the 2012 NFL scouting combine for Cincinnati and even though Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick ran a 4.5-second 40-yard dash in Indianapolis, they took him with the 17th pick in the draft.

"It's changed," said Livingston Thursday after watching the University of Cincinnati pro day rip through the Bengals' IEL Indoor Facility with 2023 speeds. "A different game. Guys talk speed. It's a trigger. 'Do you want to race?' 'Do you want to race?' I'm sure these guys are going to want to race … We've got a relay team."

"These guys," make up the Bengals' new starting secondary. Three of them didn't start the last Opening Day and they took a hit on experience when the safety duo of Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell left last week.

But what they lost in experience they also gained a jolt of speed. While Bates and Bell have elite jets, the Next Gen Stats miles-per-hour data for the new starters are just as good or slightly better in just what might be the Bengals' fastest secondary ever.

"In theory. On paper. That's what the GPS tells me," Livingston said. "It's also the time of year. You leave Indy (the combine) and when you start watching tape and you say, 'Is this the same guy?' Then you go to our system and it says he ran a 4.3 or something and they just don't play that way. This time of year you can't fall in love with numbers, with measurables. You still have to play the game fast and play with that streak."

Like Bates and Bell did in a system they knew second nature. The nice thing is, Livingston has seen reigning No. 1 pick Dax Hill and new free agent signee Nick Scott, his new safeties, show up with that elite 21-mile-per-hour Next Gen speed in games. Same with cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Cam Taylor-Britt, the No. 2 pick. The 4.38-second 40s Hill and Taylor-Britt ran in Indy last year more than translated to the NFL tape.

Hill's Next Gen Stat high of last season was clocked at 21.8 while Taylor-Britt was at 20.8, the same as Bates. Awuzie hit 21.7 before he was lost for the season with a torn ACL and Scott went as high as 21.2 for the Rams.

The clock doesn't surprise Livingston because he's seen it on the tape. Such as on the last play in New Orleans when Hill came from midfield to knock away Andy Dalton's fourth-and-17 bid at the Bengals 5. He did that in 21.25 MPH, Next Gen says, and he had an even faster play later in the year.

"I don't know what Cam Taylor-Britt ran," Livingston said. "But you watch him finish on the ball, you watch him come up in run support and he plays as fast as anybody."

Livingston also didn't need to see Awuzie's Next Gen times. He was here in 2021 when Awuzie mirrored every move of Packers All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams as Aaron Rodgers tried to hit Adams on the back shoulder down the left sideline. But Awuzie was there first for his first Bengals interception.

"Chido plays that way every play," Livingston said. "It's a combination of toughness, stamina, a lot of things."

The Bengals had the benefit of practicing for two days against Scott before the Bengals' win here over the Rams in the preseason finale, so they knew he practiced fast and they also went against him in Super Bowl LVI.

"You watch some of the times he's playing the left side of the field and it's a sweep or something like that and he's flying across," Livingston said. "It's like that in practice, too. The huge asset we have is that we also practiced with him. It's a great tool to not only evaluate your players and see who is good and who needs to improve, but also see the other side. Saw him run here plenty of times."

Livingston marvels at the changes in college strength training and how the staff of Bengals strength and conditioning coach Joey Boese can transform players. The science, he says, is staggering.

He has watched another evolution. Training for the combine used to be a niche, a two- or three-month routine never to be done again. But when players began having success, many have made speed work a staple of their offseasons. He watched Bates go to a coach in Florida every offseason to train and Hill is now going to the same coach.

"Everybody else can hide a little bit," Livingston said. "But it's really hard to hide outside those numbers. Everybody kind of sees it."

What everybody sees is how fast the Bengals are back there. But not just for the spreadsheets.

"It's a fast game," Livingston said.