Look Behind Bengals' Virtual Curtain

Defensive line coach Nick Eason, seen during last season's spring ball, is still up front virtually.
Defensive line coach Nick Eason, seen during last season's spring ball, is still up front virtually.

Nick Eason, the Bengals' AFC North bear of a defensive line coach, has invited you to Zoom one of his meetings this week with an email titled "DL Jungle Meeting."

Like any jungle, no participant is safe within the gregarious Eason's viewfinder. As he dissects one clip from last season's game in Cleveland, he tells Geno Atkins, the Hall of Fame tackle, he needs to stay square and clean up his footwork. When he asks Kansas State undrafted tackle Trey Dishon about his technique on a blitz, he makes the rookie run through it again until he realizes, "You're thinking about the wrong defense."

And Eason isn't just tough on the Xs and Os in these walk-throughs that he conducts in his walk-in closet, where his coats hang with his calls for two hours   He's got a locker-room needle that stretches all the way back to an NFL playing career that began when Dishon was seven. "Hey (Renell) Wren, is that wallpaper? Old school at the top of the wall." Eason misses nothing and that includes Wren's childhood bedroom.

"(Eason is) one of the early entrants (to sign on to the meetings) just talking to guys, getting to know guys," says Sam Hubbard, the blossoming third-year right end. "He can bring everyone out of their shell. He gets everyone involved. He's easy to talk to."

As his players' faces begin to pop onto the screen as the meeting time nears, Eason zeroes in on Hubbard, famously Cincinnati born and bred.

"Only one guy can't have a beard in the defensive line room," Eason says. "That would be Sam Hubbard. That's Captain America. He's got to keep his looks. He's the face of Cincinnati."

Not even guests are safe. Eason wonders if Hubbard has an imitation of the visiting Zoomer and Hubbard gets off the ball quickly.

"He's holding his coffee," says Hubbard with an imaginary cup in his hand, "and asking, 'Hey, uh, what do you think of Joe Mixon?'"

Tough room. But that's the way Eason wants it.

The pandemic that has ignited the Zooming '20s has wiped out most of this spring's off-season workouts and prevented Eason from unleashing his monstrous new blocking sled, an unyielding slab of metal and pads he vows to use to unmask various "con artists," that toyed with the docile one they had last year at practice.

But the virus hasn't stopped Eason from delivering daily virtual reminders of the culture war at play in the trenches. That's why he calls it a "DL Jungle Meeting." He bristles with the edge of the century's first decade when he played 85 of his 117 NFL games in the AFC North of Marvin Lewis, Ray Lewis and Jamal Lewis during the days it was the Joe Louis heavyweight division.

"My message is at some point in time you have to get mad. You have to get mad. You have to get mad," Eason seethes after everyone has hit "Leave Meeting." "This is supposed to be, 'The Jungle.' In the jungle there are anacondas, snakes, mosquitoes and all kinds of creatures out there that make you uncomfortable. That's the way it has to be with the Bengals.

"You come to Cincinnati to play in a damn jungle. Making this a hostile environment the way it was when I came in here," says Eason, who played for the perpetually rebuilding Browns and the Super Bowl champion Steelers. "It was always uncomfortable coming in here to play. You knew you were in for a long day. I was playing against guys like Willie Anderson and (Eric) Steinbach."

Eason starts toughening up his guys today the way he always does. He assigns one of them to come up with a quote and why. The days have already wound down to the rookies and a picture of Dishon playing in college comes on the screen.

"The quote I had today is, 'Becoming is better than being,'" says the bright, intense Dishon. "When I think of this quote I think of complacency. I come from a really small place and everybody thinks I'm this and I'm that … That's the reality check. 'Being is better.' Always chasing that goal, find a way to get better and move up a level and get on the field. Anything like that."

Which is just one of the reasons the Bengals love this rookie class. After Eason led a round of applause, they embarked on a 25-minute installation meeting before the ends split into a separate Zoom with defensive line assistant Gerald Chatman and senior defensive assistant Mark Duffner. Or "President Duffner," as Eason calls him. Eason stayed with the tackles for nearly an hour.

"Duff's been around a long time and he's seen it all," says Hubbard of the coach who led NFL linebackers rooms during four presidents. "Gerald's hungry and he really wants to be a great coach. I really like that room, too."

This is a big meeting. The day before head coach Zac Taylor directed the players to run them and Eason took a lot of notes from his own guys.

"I found out I need to do a better job teaching," Eason tells them. "I think you know what to do. But when I ask you about alignment, assignment and adjustment, the first thing you should tell me is your alignment. The second thing is assignment. And then (it could be), I'm keying the top of the shoulder pad of the offensive guard or I have the B gap on the run and on the pass I have inside pressure."

He's trying to get everybody to not only speak the same language, but with the same dialect. Look at it from left to right. Their alignment and what they do against the run and what they do against the pass.

"That's it," Eason says.

Before they break up, Eason runs through packages where the ends and tackles have to coordinate drops and technique and fourth-year end Carl Lawson is all over it. Lawson is an A student. At a hint of any technological distress, Eason might say, "Carl help me," or he also might say of a call, "Carl Lawson, explain it to the room."

 But most everybody gets that treatment at some point.

"That's the cool thing about Coach Eason," says four-year defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow. "He treats everybody the same regardless. The teaching points with Geno, yeah, I'm sure Geno thinks he can improve on a play or something, but those points are for everybody in the room."

The two rookie edge players, fifth-rounder Khalid Kareem and undrafted Kendall Futrell have impressed vets like Hubbard with their way around the meetings. Kareem is as learned as you'd expect a Notre Dame captain to be and Futrell shows the awareness of a guy that knows his 80 1/4-inch wingspan helped him get 11 sacks at East Carolina last season.

"They can retain information really well whenever they've been asked questions," Hubbard says. "I've been kind of surprised at how far they are long."

If it sounds like the rookies pop up a lot on these virtuals it's because they do. They need the work. Eason begins to ask Lawson about a drop but cuts himself off with, "Let's go to my man Fu." Don't think Eason is always tough. He'll offer an encouraging word to the kids. "You'll get this because you're a smart-assed guy," he tells Futrell.

Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo bolts out of nowhere as Eason points out what they need on a particular zone blitz.

"Good points by Nick, fellas," says Anarumo, conjuring up himself as he Zooms in and out of the various position meetings. He briefly expands on how he wants the ends to play the routes and gives the floor back to Eason. When one of the rookies has a question about a term, Eason asks Anarumo if he wants to elaborate and the coordinator defines it but says the technique won't be used as much this season.

Anarumo exits as quickly as he arrives and as the ends go into their own meeting, Eason gets tackle clips from the loss in Cleveland, the one they allowed 145 yards on the ground. The tape doesn't appear immediately and he tells his new nose tackle, D.J. Reader, that he's going to make him the host of the meeting for a few seconds so he can log out and log back in to unfreeze it. Reader tries to pull a gag and lock him out, but it doesn't work.

"He must have had a password," says Reader, the highest paid nose tackle in the league who apparently also has a rich sense of humor.

"I've been watching D.J. play since I came into the league and he's a great player" Glasgow says. "He's good in the meetings and is pretty funny. He and Nick get along well. Both Clemson guys and they've known each other for a long time."

His name comes up "David Reader," and he comes as advertised. One of the best young players in the game as J.J. Watt's running mate in Houston with a terrific team attitude. Just the kind of old AFC North throwback Eason was looking to add this offseason. And he uses flash cards to prepare.

"I know there's a big emphasis on stopping the run," Reader says. "(Eason) does a good job making sure that we understand the run support. You have to earn the right to rush the passer. He does a really good job of communicating that to guys.

"He knows what it means to play and grind. You can always respect a coach like that who has done it for a long time and was right there in the transition of what it is today. The mobile quarterbacks, spreading it out, take your shots."

Reader's toughest assignment on this day was no doubt this play against the Browns:

"Talk to me, D.J., about 97 in the three technique," Eason says.


Reader: "He does a good job knocking the guy to the ground. He doesn't get blocked and he's got good technique."

"OK," Eason says. "Let me give you my opinion."

Atkins isn't the only vet under the spotlight.

"Money Glas," Eason sings out for Glasgow, like Lawson, an honor scholar. "Talk to me how Josh (Tupou) can be better on this play."

Glasgow: Just about his technique or everything?

Eason: Go through everything.

Glasgow does, the way Eason wants it. Alignment. Assignment. Adjustment.

"And nothing else," Eason says.

Glasgow realizes nothing replaces bonding with your mates in person and walking through Xs and Os. In fact, Eason is advising them to even line up five water bottles as offensive linemen and walk through them on their own before they return to Paul Brown Stadium.

But Glasgow thinks Taylor and his coaches have done a good job with virtual team building. Breaking them up into nine players per group for some competitions seems to be a big hit. There is Bengals Jeopardy and there are video contests. Hubbard's team won the 50-second rap video challenge behind the efforts of new veteran cornerback Tony Brown.

But it all gets back to the game. Near the end of this session, Eason is letting them know things are not only going to be simpler in the playbook, but in practice. After he and Chatman watched tape of last year's drills, Eason decided, in the name of efficiency, that there won't be as many practice gadgets.

"I think there is a place for ladders and the Ickey Shuffles we were doing in the offseason," Eason says. "But we're not going to do those drills during the season or the days we practice. We will do (agility drills), still do popups, but we need to do position specific technique. We're not going to waste time with the ladders. We're actually going to be focused on position specific things we do."

One thing Reader has noticed is that the physically gifted Wren, the 2019 fourth-rounder, gets a hard time. But like Glasgow says, "What's the old adage? It's when the Coach stops yelling at you that you have to worry. Renell has a lot of talent."

During the session, Eason notes a play Wren made against Cleveland. "A good play," he says. "But you're 6-5, 315 pounds. That little tight end shouldn't have a chance. Violently escape."

Wren must not mind. He's the last guy to sign off from Eason for the day.

"The less you're thinking the more you can focus on beating people down," Eason says. "I'm just trying to simplify it. All you need to tell me is, "Coach, here's my alignment and here's what I do on the run and here's what I do on the pass."

"I've got it written down already," Wren says.

"Put a semi-colon after each one," Eason says.

Tough room.