BENGALS SS VONN BELL AND FS JESSIE BATES III VS. LIONS TE T.J. HOCKENSON
Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, who texted Bell this week even though they meet Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) at Ford Field because it goes beyond football, knows exactly what has been going on in Cincinnati this week during a season Bell has been a Pro Bowlish factor making the Bengals defense a force again.
"I know Vonn Bell," says Glenn, who knows him better than most from their days in New Orleans when he was his position coach. "He's going to study every little thing that Hock does to try and give himself an advantage."
There is always crossover tape and Glenn saw him excelling against the Vikings in last month's opener in starting a season he currently leads all NFL safeties with five tackles for loss and is tied third with four pressures. No surprises there. His old player is older and better and he doesn't have to imagine what Bell means to the Bengals off camera.
"He means so much," says Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard. "He's one of the best teammates I've ever been around. The way he goes about his business. He's so serious and it comes out in a way he communicates on the field. And how hard he plays … it's contagious. He and Jessie are elite. The best tandem in the NFL."
Back in 2016, Saints head coach Sean Payton let Glenn and the defensive coaches have a big say in drafting the safety they wanted to direct a revamped secondary. Glenn, a former first-round pick, three-time Pro Bowl cornerback and a 15-year vet, put Ohio State's Bell at the top of his board because of that tenacity and timing that always put him around the ball.
He got his man.
"I had Vonn when he was a baby. He's one of those throwback guys," Glenn says. "He's not going to ask you why. He's going to do it because you asked him to do it. That's a guy you enjoy coaching. Tough as nails."
And if Bell doesn't have enough to play for Sunday, there is Glenn on the other side.
"Got to have the best defense," Bell says.
In one of those many NFL games where the coaching connections are a spider enveloping both sidelines, Sunday's game ties up the Bengals and Lions in a neat little X-and-O web.
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo have been grinding the week against the staff of Lions head coach Dan Campbell, the man they called plays for when he was the Dolphins interim head coach in 2015. To spice it up even more, Taylor was Lions quarterback Jared Goff's position coach when they went to the Super Bowl with the Rams three brief years ago.
And there are Bell and Glenn who remind you the game is much more about matchups and leverage and YAC and why the texts come every week of the year.
When Bell signed with the Bengals in the spring of 2020, his older brother Volonte, but really his twin, had been gone less than a month. That nightmare still sears Glenn. Getting the phone call from Vonn at 4 in the morning about the accident on the Tennessee interstate. Staying on the line for two hours. Doing a lot more than coaching.
"He's a tough-minded person," Glenn says. "One thing he knows is that as tough as it is, as hard as it is, life goes on. He knows what his brother wants him to do."
And that's play safety at an elite level and lead like a coach, which is what Volonte was doing in a career that was most assuredly taking him to a Division I basketball staff. Vonn calls him simply, "My angel."
"You can tell the difference between this year and last year," says Bates, Bell's partner in one of the league's most prolific safety tandems. "He's getting more comfortable in the locker room. He's talking to everybody. Tapping into other people as well and that's a part of leadership. He's a great leader. His preparation is second-to-none."
That passionate charisma is a big reason Glenn put him at the top of his board.
"He's not fake," Glenn says. "He has that ability to attract people with his personality and he grows on you."
That's what he's done on this defense, but Bell chooses to take a low-public profile. He's pleasant with the media, but stingy with his time and focus that famously begin each day before most of his teammates and staff arrive at Paul Brown Stadium. It is not uncommon for some of the defensive coaches to arrive by 6:15 and he's already in the weight room or at his locker.
He acknowledges that Sunday is a bit of marquee day for him and Bates. Both figure to get their shot at covering the 6-5, 250-pound Hockenson, a third-year player coming off a 67-catch season and the centerpiece of a Lions offense trying to get a foothold without established wide receivers.
"A top ten pick," Bell says of Hockenson, the eighth pick in the 2019 draft. "A challenge. I love challenges. That's the thing about the next game. There's always a challenge."
The challenge is the tight end. It's a position that bedeviled Bell and the Bengals last year during some stretches they gave up big plays. Because Bell is who he is, Robert Livingston, his current position coach, had no problem challenging the veteran safety in the offseason when it came to covering tight ends.
(Livingston says this is the kind of guy Bell is: He'll struggle to name his best plays. But ask him to tick off five snaps he'd love to have back and he'll give you the down and distance.)
"He wants to be elite," Livingston says. "Everybody knows you can play in the box. You want to be well-rounded. A complete player. We've worked on it. Everybody has. Fundamentals."
"We really worked on it a lot in training camp," Livingston says. "Playing man, too often when you're playing man, you want to stop every route, Can't be done, but you have to know where your help is and play the ball. We put him in tough situations. Flexing him out wide. Playing press, off man. Working it in different spots."
And then there's one of those snaps he wants back. Last Sunday's blitz with three minutes left in regulation and missing the tackle in the backfield on Packers running back Aaron Jones on a 57-yard run.
"But look at the end of the play," Livingston says. "His teammates saw him come back and make that tackle 57 yards down field. When you see that, a guy laying out for his teammates like that, that says more to your teammates than anything you could tell them."
But Bell wants it back. He knows what it would have meant if he had cleaned up Jones.
"Would have been four TFLs, right?" says Bell, who immediately dismissed his three on the day that included two utterly necessary red zone stops in overtime.
Now this week he's looking to make an impact with Hockenson beyond the line of scrimmage. But it begins in the room, where two lockers down is his old Ohio State teammate Eli Apple. When Apple signed in the offseason, he was supposed to be a valued backup. But hamstring injuries to Trae Waynes have made him virtually the starter from Opening Day on.
Every time you turn around, Bell is talking to him.
"Vonn is definitely one of my better friends and better leaders out there that I know," Apple says. "Just having him close helps the whole defense. He's somebody that understands football. That's all he does, that's all he focuses on."
Several times during his media availability this week, Apple referred to being "locked in." That's a Bell saying. But now you can't tell if it's a Bell saying or a defensive saying because it seems like they've adopted it and they kid Bell about it.
"Stay locked in, stay keyed in all of the time," Apple says of Bell's advice. "Having that great communication back and forth in the secondary. He's a great leader in the locker room and meetings too."
Bell is taking on another role, too. Volonte's pre-school son Julian, hasn't made it to a game yet, but he knows that's coming as he morphs into a father figure.
"I'm starting to get used to it," Bell says.
Of that, Glenn has no doubt on Sunday's other sideline.
"He knows he's also doing it for his brother and his nephew," Glenn says.
Sometimes it goes beyond matchups.