As the Bengals grapple with a split personality of a defense (winnable in Seattle and Buffalo while gouged at home by the 49ers and Cardinals), defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said Monday they'll give some younger players a look in Sunday’s game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Channel 12) at AFC North-leading Baltimore.
Don’t take that to mean there’s a yard sale at Paul Brown Stadium before the NFL trading deadline at the end of the month. There are no indications the Bengals plan to unload their veterans and they seem more intent on getting A.J. Green back on the field for them rather than rehabbing him for someone else.
That won’t happen in Baltimore (maybe at Paul Brown Stadium the next week against the Jags and, of course, Jalen Ramsey) and the organization’s focus looks to be on making sure Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, one of those new-wave QBs, doesn’t do what Arizona’s Kyler Murray did in Sunday’s last-snap 26-23 loss.
Pass for 253 yards and run for 93 more and there is plenty of institutional knowledge because most of this defense was around for Jackson’s first NFL start in Baltimore against the Bengals back Nov. 18. That was another close loss, 24-21, marred by a fourth quarter the Bengals couldn’t get the ball back as Jackson’s sleight of hand generated 267 yards rushing and a withering 38-minute time of possession. They have a reunion the week after the Cards went off for 266 on the ground.
“They are elite athletes so now they put so much stress on you. They'll mix it up,” Anarumo said of Murray and Jackson. “Baltimore will have several personnel groupings that they use. They're big and good at tight end and they use those guys. We'll have to be prepared for that. A little bit like yesterday. They don't incorporate the 10 personnel stuff (four receivers) that we were anticipating seeing, but they are a little bit different in how they use their personnel. They'll bring that big defensive tackle in and he'll play fullback and try to knock the hell out of you.”
For the second straight game an opposing offense forced the Bengals defense to adjust to a wrinkle. A week ago it was the Steelers’ zone read. On Sunday it was Arizona’s changing personnel groups, unable to rely on its four-receiver sets because of injuries. So they went with different looks.
“This is the second week in a row that they were a 10 personnel team, four wide receivers, almost 60 to 65-percent of the time and that was the last thing they did yesterday,” Anarumo said of the Cards. “They spiked up to 12 personnel (two tight ends, two wide receivers and a back), 11 (three wides, a tight end and a back) and 12. And that had to do with wideouts being down, but it was a totally different run scheme out of their 12 looks. In the second half we did a little bit better job but at the end of the day, it’s not good enough. You can’t stop the run in this league you’re going to have trouble winning games. We have to do better.”
That was juxtaposed to how the Bengals responded to Green, John Ross and Alex Erickson going down at receiver. The Bengals stuck with their base 11 personnel for all but handful of their 62 plays. Which meant that rookie wide receiver Damion Willis (40 snaps) played more than running back Giovani Bernard (26) and more than tight ends Tyler Eifert (18) and Drew Sample (15) combined.
“We keep looking at what personnel groupings will give us the best chance,” said head coach Zac Taylor. “We carry four tight ends and we have four running backs up right now, so we continue to look at how to give ourselves the best chance.”
The one guy not on the field last year in Baltimore was rookie middle linebacker Germaine Pratt, who has been struggling to get on the field. Against the Cards he was in on nine plays and the week before that he had a season-high 12. But Anarumo says he’s going to try and get more snaps for Pratt, rookie nose tackle Renell Wren and third-year safety Brandon Wilson.
“I think some of the younger guys have earned the right to maybe get some more snaps,” he said.
Wren wasn’t active against the Cards, but when he played a combined 36 snaps the previous two weeks, the Bengals held the fort against the run. Wilson played just one snap on Sunday, when Anarumo used his speed and athleticism to “spy,” Murray. He may use him more in that role against Jackson. Wilson, who played three snaps in last year’s Lamar Game, showed what he’s got in those areas when he took his second NFL kick return 52 yards on Sunday and they need plenty of that on defense Sunday.
Speed is Pratt’s game, too, and Anarumo is trying to balance that desperate need with the even more desperate need of production against the run. But it may be time to live and learn.
You can understand Anarumo’s dilemma. He needs the speed, but he doesn’t need the young mistakes that result in big runs. Especially the longer the game goes.
“We had a couple of run-fit issues with him early in the game and that gets everybody out of sorts,” Anarumo said. “Where you want those young guys to go in there and you try to keep it simple for them. ‘Hey, you see that gap? You got it.’ And sometimes, when they mess up the simple things, I get nervous and, ‘OK, get him out.’ We have to eliminate those simple little adjustment plays where he can get the momentum run.
“You can say what you want -- yards, yards, yards. At the end of the day, you can’t give up those yards. But points is how you win and lose. What were they, 1-for-6 in the red zone, which is good? We were in the game right until the end. When you’re giving up a play here and there, you get nervous. You want those guys to get out. “
But, there are just things that can’t be ignored. Pratt runs well in a position the Bengals don’t have a lot of that. And, he’s a try-hard guy that wants it.
“It could be. He’s that kind of guy. He’s a pleaser,” said Anarumo, when asked if Pratt is pressing. “He wants to do well. He wants to do everything right and he knows when he makes mistakes.
“He did show some speed yesterday. He ran around. He made some plays,” Anarumo said. “H had a good tackle in space. I’m going to, we are as a defense, just let him gut through some of those plays where maybe he wasn’t exactly right. We’ve got to live through those right now. That’s where we’re at.”
But Anarumo was quick to also point out the play of veteran backer Nick Vigil, stacking Sunday’s 13-tackle game on top of the 11 against the Steelers.
“He keeps himself alive. He’s active. He’s running around,” Anarumo said. “If you’d ask him, he felt like he can do more and that’s kind of what you want from guys. You have B.W. (Webb) out there with a cast on. You got guys like Nick. And everybody’s busting their butts. But I think that Nick in particular had a productive day.”
Webb had a productive game in the slot and made a huge third-down play on Hall-of-Fame traveling exhibit Larry Fitzgerald with 3:41 left to set up the Bengals’ tying touchdown. Webb, with a cast on his forearm, played an extremely tough 76 snaps. Early in the game, the clever Fitzgerald forced Webb to use that injured arm and he stumbled on a third-down conversion, but Webb fought back and knocked away two other third-down passes from Fitzgerald.
Anarumo needs to get similar play like that from key guys at key moments. On fourth-and-two, Murray got just enough on William Jackson III, the Bengals’ similarly gifted cornerback, to convert a fourth-and-two for a rushing touchdown.
“Will made him cut back. He could have been better initially, playing closer to the line,” Anarumo said. “He made him cut back. He didn’t out run him to the pylon. He made him cut back and then Will didn’t have a great tackle attempt at it. It was speed for speed. He got him to cut back but you’ve got to make the play.”
That’s what Anarumo needed on Arizona’s dagger run, running back Chase Edmonds 37-yard touchdown off a toss to the perimeter halfway through the fourth quarter that made it 23-9: “That should have been a seven-yard. You want fewer than that, but you’ve got to make that tackle.”
And Murray’s final 24-yard scramble: “We got two high on the edge with Carl (Lawson) and he saw that and took off running. We want to be aggressive and pressure the guy, but it didn’t work out.”
Now they’ll try a shot of youth.