BENGALS DEFENSE VS. BROWNS RBS NICK CHUBB AND KAREEM HUNT
After cooling off the Jets' scoring machine last week with a mere two field goals, the Bengals defense is suddenly playing with a stone-cold efficiency that has allowed just one touchdown in the last 10 quarters heading into Sunday's game in Cleveland (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) against the Browns' dangerous two-headed running game.
There are plenty of reasons for why the Bengals started the season allowing offenses historical anomalies and in the last three games have offered the fifth fewest points in the league from weeks 11 to 13.
Start with the improved health of what had been a ravaged defensive line buoying their Big Base look, the emergence of rookie middle linebacker Germaine Pratt in the run game, the addition of the physical, savvy play of slot cornerback Darqueze Dennard, the revamped nickel package featuring g more safeties than linebackers, and you begin to get the idea.
But talk to everyone from safety Jessie Bates ("We began having more one-on-one meetings with the coaches and each other") to rookie defensive tackle Renell Wren ("It's been starting to slow down for me") and there's a sense this defense that has been rocked by change the past two seasons has finally been able to put its foot in the ground and get settled during the last month.
With four defensive coordinators in the past three seasons, the biggest change came during this year when Lou Anarumo took all his observations and reached into what turned out to be a creative and deep well of different looks and pulled out a five-man defensive front that has played well of late on first and second down. What has been a 4-3 look for pretty much this entire century has now taken on the characteristics of a 3-4 with ends Carlos Dunlap and Sam Hubbard sandwiching three big tackles and Hubbard spinning off into other duties as well as rushing. Five D-linemen, otherwise known as the Big Base on those early downs.
"It took a while to get comfortable in the system," says linebacker Nick Vigil, who was drafted under Paul Guenther, started under Teryl Austin and is one of the last backers standing under Anarumo. "I think everyone has a pretty good understanding of what we're trying to do in the scheme and how it all fits together. It took a little longer than we expected and what we would have liked. It's a new scheme. We had guys that hadn't played much in a system like that. New run fits, new coverages. There's a lot that had to be worked through. A little learning here and there. (The schemes) are a lot different."
Anarumo knows he's the fourth DC in the run and what that means. As he evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of his depth chart, he's shifted pieces around to get the right fit and at the moment it looks pretty good.
"You go through the process of seeing what they can and can't do and kind of honing in on things. But each week is different game-plan wise," Anarumo says. "I think that the guys are settling into everything. We've got guys up front healthy and playing the way that we thought that they would. I think the linebackers are fitting their gaps and being technical in their job responsibilities. All of that stuff playing together has equated to better play across the board."
That's where it all starts for these guys. Up front. Home to Dunlap and tackle Geno Atkins, their Pro Bowlers and top sackers. Dunlap is coming off a three-sack game and since Atkins has been resting two out of three days for the last couple of weeks in practice he's been causing some havoc even though he doesn't have the sacks with 10 pressures in the last two games.
"In college they give these guys stars, right? Your five-star guys, you're three-star guys," Anarumo says. "Well, your five-star guys have got to play like five-star guys. And that's what we expect from the players that have got pelts on the wall. Pro Bowls and things like that. All Pros. Those guys. And the more we can get play from them like that, the better we'll be as a group for sure."
Hubbard, the second-year third-rounder out of Ohio State, is looking to be the heir to Dunlap and Atkins. But Anarumo is also looking for him to be a versatile answer when he invokes the hallowed names of the Steelers outside linebackers.
"He's no different than Bud Dupree or T.J. Watt," Anarumo says. "He's an outside backer. That's what he plays for us in the base stuff. And when we go to sub, like everybody, he's a defensive end in the 4-3. Just like he did in college, same rule."
Hubbard, who reminds you he's had three coordinators in his two seasons because head coach Marvin Lewis took over for Austin in the middle of last year, likes it. He's had to adjust, but he likes it.
"I think you can see we're getting more comfortable in the defense," Hubbard says. "We know our fits better. The communication is better."
You can tell by the rushing numbers per carry. In the last three weeks they're eighth in the league allowing just 3.75 yards after the first 10 weeks they were second-to-last in the league at 5.16. But, of course, that was after a Pandora's Box of the most dangerous running quarterbacks in the league: Lamar Jackson twice, Kyler Murray, Josh Allen and spicing it with a 49ers running attack no one has stopped.
"We got off to such a tough start," Anarumo says. "When you play Baltimore twice and you play San Francisco, the two best running teams in the league, so you've got three times against those guys. What did Baltimore do to San Fran? Another 190 yards or something. They're just difficult. We're all trying to figure it out at this point. But yeah, it was frustrating, but they kept fighting.
"We've had good practices. We've walked off the field maybe a handful of times and said, 'Hey, that wasn't what it needs to be,' to be honest. So they're busting their butts every day, and for them to get what they deserve -- and deserve has nothing to do it with it -- but they deserved that one on Sunday. So I was happy for them. Just keep going in that direction. Never let go of the rope, and don't take a step back. That's kind of been our theme the last month or so."
Dennard has been one of the anchors in this tug-of-war with his sure tackling that seems to be contagious since he returned from the physically unable to perform list in late October. Cornerback William Jackson is coming off a career-high 10 tackles and since the 49ers racked up most of their 259 rushing yards after contact in the second game, Anarumo has been hammering home tackling. It's been better, another sign of comfort.
"We were missing way too many tackles. (Dennard) settled that part of it down out of the secondary," Anarumo says. "I think tackling across the board has gotten better. That certainly helps …Guys up front healthy and then backers fitting the way they need to and they're doing better."
They have to Sunday. Chubb is the NFL's leading rusher. Hunt has 20 catches in his four games. Both average five yards per carry. Even after getting through all the quarterback magic, Chubb and Hunt give the Bengals their toughest test all year out of the backfield.
How good are they? Here's Anarumo, who has practiced against both of Cleveland's explosive receivers, Jarvis Landry when he was the Dolphins secondary coach, and Odell Beckham, Jr., last year when he was with the Giants, and calls them "two great players. Not good, great," and yet he has spent the week emphasizing Chubb and Hunt.
"No. 1 this week, swarming to the ball and tackling," Anarumo says. "No one guy has brought these guys down. It's been gang-tackling type efforts."