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Quick Hits: On Day One, Bengals Defense Communicates The Message;  Money Mac Adjusts To New Kickoff Rule; Joe Burrow Flashes Varied Offense

CB Mike Hilton during training on Tuesday, May 28, 2024 at the Kettering Health Practice Field in Cincinnati, Ohio.
CB Mike Hilton during training on Tuesday, May 28, 2024 at the Kettering Health Practice Field in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Mike Hilton could look up from the slot and see Cam Taylor-Britt out of the corner of his eye. Linebackers Logan Wilson and Germane Pratt conferred in front of him. In front of them on the defensive line, B.J. Hill stood next to Trey Hendrickson, on the other side of Sam Hubbard.

And he could hear a very big birdie behind him in the voice of Vonn Christian Bell on Tuesday as the Bengals defense began laying down the soundtrack of another post-season run in their first seven-on-seven snaps and first 11-on-11 walkthrough plays of the season in a voluntary practice on the Kettering Health Practice Fields.

"I definitely think we have a little higher sense of urgency to make sure we're starting off with a really high level of communication," said the relentlessly productive Wilson, a mere six interceptions from becoming the Bengals' most prolific interceptor ever at linebacker at the start of his fifth season.

"Because, obviously, last year we had those lapses of communication, so we've harped on it all offseason. Even in walkthroughs, we're trying to make sure we over-communicate. If we're all wrong, we're all right. As long as we're on the same page, we can survive every down in this league."

Hubbard calls it a point of emphasis in the wake of a season the Bengals were in the NFL's top tier of big plays allowed.

Tuesday's plays marked those defenders' first snaps together since they started the 2022 AFC title game in Kansas City, where they held Patrick Mahomes' soon-to-be-crowned Super Bowl championship offense to two touchdowns. Bell, returning after a year hiatus, has, Wilson agrees, not missed a beat in the Bengals scheme.

"Like riding a bike," said Bell after those get your-feet-wet 10 snaps or so in seven-on-seven.

Hilton helped conjure up Bell's game-breaking interception for the Bengals in overtime of another AFC Championship in KC by simply communicating who had help where. On Tuesday, Bell chimed with music to his ears.

"With Vonn back, for me personally, having that extra voice at my rear, it takes a lot off my shoulders and lets me settle down and play my game," Hilton said. "Another voice who knows the system and knows how to win. The energy was there. Once the football gets thrown around, it gets you going. But you could just tell from our first snap our communication is where it needs to be."

Although they're only one day in, Wilson sensed the message had been overemphasized enough to make it through the offseason and hit home now. And who better to deliver it than Bell, the man they call "Coach Vonn," and "Sensei,"?

"He's kind of just picked up where he left off," Wilson said.

The way Bell sees it, it is not just being on the same page, "but seeing it through the same lens."

"I feel like we had really good communication out there," Wilson said of Tuesday's first run. "Even though a lot of us have been in the system now and know what we should be doing and what we should be in, but just even saying it, making sure we're all on the same page can get us playing high-level football.

"While we're making adjustments on the front with the D-line, we can hear the adjustments in the back end going on. It's just how we gelled and created this system and our safeties have to do a lot of adjusting."

It will never be this early again this year. But Hilton liked the sound of their first day against the offense.

"We had a lot of simple calls out there, but a lot of voices were echoing," Hilton said. "A good first step."

MONEY MAC REACT: With players able to line up opposite each other for the first time, Tuesday was also the first day everyone could see in person just how jarringly different the new kickoff rule is.

"It doesn't feel too much like football," said Bengals kicker Evan McPherson. "But I'm sure it will."

The receiving team and coverage teams lined up five yards from each other at the receiving team's 35-line yard line while the kicker lined up at his 35. He can't cross the 50 until the ball touches the ground or a player in the last 20 yards or the end zone. The other ten can't move until the ball hits the ground or player in the last 20 yards or the end zone. Plus, a kick in or out of the end zone is now penalized and moved to the receiving team's 30.

McPherson is certain he can adjust, even though on Tuesday he attacked kickoffs the exact opposite of the way he's done it his entire life. Now, instead of booming, he's shortened his stride and chipping it inside the 5 to the corners.

"It's definitely interesting. It brings a lot of placement into play. It's all touch. It feels weird for me," McPherson said. "I'm used to kicking it as high as I can, as hard as I can. Now I have to throw it inside to the 5-yard line in specific areas. It's definitely an adjustment. You have to play the wind a lot more now."

The wind betrayed McPherson twice Tuesday. Of his handful of kickoffs, only one sailed into the end zone when the wind took it. He was five of six on his field-goal tries and the one he missed from 53 yards looked to barely sail past the right upright when the wind, swirling gently on a perfect 75-degree day, got it at the last instant.

But McPherson says drastically altering one part of his game won't interfere with his rhythm on field goals. Exhibit A is the 55-yarder he drilled down the middle to end practice.

"You're kind of taking the aggressive swing away and really just three stepping (the kickoff) and hitting it like a field goal approach to it," McPherson said.

HOT MIKE: New Bengals tight end Mike Gesicki has lined up everywhere on The Banks this spring. In the slot, split out, on the line, always, it seems, in motion.

"Love it," said Gesicki Tuesday. "During my (seven-year) career, I've moved a ton."

He's appearing in a lot of double tight-end sets (12 personnel) these days with either Tanner Hudson or Drew Sample, but when asked if he thinks this marks an influx of more double tight-end personnel for an offense that has led the NFL in three-receiver looks (11 personnel) the past few years, Gesicki said, "We just got through the first seven-on-seven of the season. Ask me that in late August."

Just from watching in the slot, where the 5-9 Hilton has to occasionally deal with the 6-6 Gesicki, Hilton thinks they'll be more varied.

"We saw a lot of 12 today," Hilton said. "I think they'll mix it up a lot. Gesicki, that's a big slot receiver. So you get that 11 look. We know he can play on the line, But when he makes his money, he's split out getting those matchups. Obviously, he's a big receiver. He's not really a burner, but really savvy in his routes. His length is a problem. I feel he fits in perfectly."

SLANTS AND SCREENS: The Bengals are using those formations without their two top receivers, wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. Head coach Zac Taylor isn't concerned they're not here in the voluntary workouts.

"I think that they'll get to work in at the necessary time. And please, we have a high turnout for voluntary workouts," Taylor said. "I told the guys I understand it's voluntary. I appreciate them showing up. The guys who don't are still working hard elsewhere and they'll be back at the right times. And the beauty is we know those guys, we know what they're about, and that they'll be ready and focused when it's time to come back." …

No change as quarterback Joe Burrow continues to sift it.

"He's been accurate, he's been on time. He's throwing with great velocity and power," Taylor said …

As he heads into his sixth season, Taylor, the Bengals play-caller, says he's bequeathing a lot of the offense this spring to first-year year offensive coordinator Dan Pitcher while he takes on "more of a head coaching role."

"It's my time to spend more time with the defense and let the offensive coordinator call the reps during practice and talk to the quarterback," Taylor said. "It's good for me again, to get to know the defensive players better, sit in those meetings, not devote all the time and energy on the offense and take more of a head coaching role.

"Still, in all the meetings, still have my own ideas and expectations. And we do all that as we meet as coaches and out here we get on the field and get a chance to be more of the head coach and spend more time with the defense." ...

Burrow went 8 of 10 in his seven-on-seven work with cornerback DJ Turner II breaking up a pass over the middle to wide receiver Trenton Irwin. Turner, who indicated he was in a zone look, leaped as the ball went over him, and knocked it down. Asked if he could have made that play last year as a rookie on the first day of seven-on-seven, Turner said. "Maybe. Just the thought processing making that play, though, no. It was a mental play (more than athletic). I knew where it was going." ....