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New Defensive Leaders Take A Stand To Re-Group Bengals

Nick Chubb went for 124 yards Thursday night.
Nick Chubb went for 124 yards Thursday night.

For the last three years the Bengals have allowed the most rushing yards in the NFL and that's why during the offseason they made defense the centerpiece of their most expensive offseason in history.

And that's why on Friday the 215-yard onslaught unleashed by the Browns running backs in Thursday night's 35-30 loss in Cleveland had them in grim reflection.

"Rome wasn't built in a night," said strong safety Vonn Bell, one of the linchpins of The Overhaul as he Zoomed the media on Friday. "You just have to keep on harping on it every day. It has to be contagious. It has to be oozing out. It has to be guys wanting to get better. It has to be all in, everybody, coaches, too. I think we're getting to that point where we need to turn the page and keep on turning it." 

Bell, who was the victim of just one 200-yard rushing performance during his four seasons for a New Orleans' perennial play-off defense when he was a rookie in 2016, knows what his role is in the turnaround. So he met the media on Friday. So did middle linebacker Josh Bynes, who signed a one-year deal coming from the Ravens' top five run defense.

And Thursday night, nose tackle D.J. Reader, the most expensive free-agent in Bengals history on that four-year, $53 million deal, and immediately emerged postgame to take all the tough questions.

These three new defenders didn't hide. They are stand-up guys who know they've been charged to lead their teammates to the next level in ways beyond Xs and Os.

"I think we just have to do things in a better light. You know, culture change," said Reader, who had only been through a 200-yard game twice in his four seasons in Houston. "We're trying to bring a winning culture to this team and I don't think we've had that before. So now you're working on that. That's what comes with it. There's a tough lump that comes with it. But there's no excuses for it.

 "If you're not this pissed off after a game you just lost and gave up (more than) 200 yards rushing, then that's not right. You've got to want to win. This hurts. It's tough to win in this league. Week to week, it's real tough. So you've got to want to do it. You've got to put your mindset to it, every day, day in and day out."

It wasn't so long ago the Bengals defensive culture was at the heart of five straight play-off appearances in a run that ended in 2015. But starting with the 2018 season, they've allowed nine 200-yard rushing games in the past 32 games during a stretch that left two coordinators in its wake, Teryl Austin and Marvin Lewis, the head coach that fired Austin after just nine games and took over the rest of his last season.

Lou Anarumo, the current coordinator, has made stopping the run his top priority, a project not only boosted by the offseason but also challenged. The scope of the turnover as well as the elimination of spring ball, a truncated training camp and lack of pre-season games haven't made for the easiest of transitions.

"It was a combination of a lot of things and that can't happen in football," Bynes said. "You got too many things going on. Not making the right plays and not making tackles when we need to. At least when you get them down, we can fix it and talk about it on the sidelines, stuff like that. It was just not a great showing at all last night."

Bell didn't want to hear about a lack of field time and he's got that right. Browns running backs Nick Chubb (124 yards) and Kareem Hunt (86 yards) looked to be in mid-season form. Not to mention Myles Garrett on the other side of the ball.

"I'm not going to use that as an excuse. We are all pros here," Bell said. "We just have to keep on getting better each and every day. Come in with a mindset and a task that it's your job when you walk into the building, hold each other accountable and just keep on going.

  "For sure. It's only our second game playing together, just trying to get the ins and outs of each other and playing off each other. At the end of the day we all as one and when we step onto the field we're all as one and we just have to play together, win that down, win that series."

One common denominator over the recent years has been the sub-standard tackling and on Thursday night they had working overtime. The web site had them for 19 missed tackles. Free safety Jessie Bates, who played so well last Sunday, led the way with four misses. Germaine Pratt, off a career-high 12 tackles, had three. A total of 12 players had least one miss.

The missing defensive tackles on Thursday didn't help. Reader had has had a revolving door next to him because of injuries.

With perennial Pro Bowler Geno Atkins (shoulder) and former Pro Bowler Mike Daniels (groin) out, Reader had to play all but two snaps. Christian Covington, Reader's former Texans teammate who has been here two weeks after arriving via a trade, played nearly 60 percent of the snaps. Andrew Brown, an end, is listed as a nose tackle on the stat sheet with 11 snaps. In his second NFL game after getting here as camp got underway, Amani Bledsoe played 41 percent of the snaps. In his third NFL game and season debut following a practice squad promotion, Freedom Akinmoladun had a fourth-down goal-line stop among his 16 snaps.

"Fully confident in all those guys doing their job and I've got to do my job. It's not tough," Reader said. "It's just knowing how to do your job and doing it, getting it done. You as a reporter, you've got to come on there and ask tough questions. My job is to stop the run. Our job is to stop the run, so that's what we've got to do. I know it's what's got to come up and what's got to get done, no matter what. Whoever's (in) there. We can put my son there, anybody. Whoever's there has got to get stopped. There's no excuse for it."

It's hard to gauge the impact. Certainly it looked like the Browns offensive line had a good day getting to the second level. On Chubb's 22-yard run that set the tone for the second half, defensive end Sam Hubbard missed him coming from the right, Pratt couldn't get off a block and Bates missed him.

On the two killing runs, just after the Bengals had crawled back to 28-23 with 5:55 left, there were the same issues with blockers getting to the next level. On Chubb's 26-yarder, Bynes got swallowed by right guard Wyatt Teller and rookie linebacker Logan Wilson got erased by tight end Austin Hooper going in motion before Bates missed him. On the next snap, Hunt bolted for 33 yards behind pulling left guard Joel Bitonio tying up Bynes, fullback Andy Janovich came out of the "I," to pick off Wilson and Bates missed him as went to the next gear.

 But as the new trio will tell you, a lot of this stuff goes beyond the physical.

"I'll be damned if this happens every game. I'm not with this feeling. I know Vonn and a lot of guys aren't with this feeling," Bynes said. "I know this whole locker room is not with this feeling. Guys last night are tired of losing and tired of being in this kind of situation when we are that close and we can't finish those games. Regardless of all the crazy stuff that happened in the game and all the bad things that happened these last two games, we still were able to come out with a victory at one point in time.

"We've got to get to that mentality where we got to be tired of this. We have to go out there and find a way to win. Beat that guy across from your face one play each and every time and just make that one turnover, make this one play, make this one catch, make this one throw, make this one run, one tackle or whatever it takes to get this victory. Definitely need the first one of the year to get us going in the right direction."

Bell is wearing the coaches' helmet on the field and has earned a rep among his teammates already as a constant communicator. He doesn't see mis-alignments or confusion.

"Everything was fine. You have to win your down and go to the next play and do it again and do it again and do it again. It's all about one play at a time and everything will take care of itself," Bell said. "I've been there before where we lost two games early on. It's all about coming in with a mindset of getting better of finding that one percent. Be better than you were yesterday. It's always that mindset and everybody just has to push forward and be on board with it.

"It's all about how you take action with that, too. How are you making the team better? Everybody is supposed to have that same goal everyday coming into the office and being better than you were yesterday. How can I make the team better? How can we push forward? That's what the mindset always should be. That's what guys have to get in the locker room and that's what we'll push for every day."

Bynes has played the bulk of his career with the Ravens and was called off the street last season to steady a run defense that helped take them to the postseason. Since he came into the league in 2011, the Ravens have allowed four 200-yarders. He's looking to bring that same kind of mentality here and offers last season's example of the 49ers gouging them for 174 yards on the ground and the Ravens holding on to win, 20-17.

"It's just knowing how to finish. Regardless of what circumstances happen, you still have to finish the game," Bynes said. "Regardless of what's going on in the game, what happens in the game, at the end of the day, the other guys get paid, too. It's not like those guys are a team of all free agents or something like that. They all make money and they're all hell of a players. That's why they're in this league. They're going to make plays. It's about us making that one more play than they do."

They've got a week to get it squared away and the new defensive leaders have taken a stand.

"It's the mindset. It's a different mindset coming into this," Bell said.