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New Veterans on Bengals Defense Setting A High Bar After Two Preseason Games

Mike Hilton (21) comes up with a fumble recovery.
Mike Hilton (21) comes up with a fumble recovery.

The Bengals defense has run 124 snaps in the first two preseason games. The first team defense has taken 20 of them and given the opposition exactly no points while generating two sacks, a turnover and Friday night's fourth-and-one stop in the 17-13 loss at FedExField that is the signature play of the defensive overhaul that began in the spring of 2020.

Now head coach Zac Taylor has to decide if he's seen enough with one preseason game left in eight days and Mike Zimmer's Vikings looming in a Sept. 12 opener at Paul Brown Stadium.

"Zero points you know that's the one that matters," Taylor said after the defense kept his team in it. "Two games in a row, zero points, that's all that I really care about."

On the second series of the game Washington was on the Bengals 23 looking at that fourth-and-one and old friend Ryan Fitzpatrick could get no magic when he handed off to running back Antonio Gibson into the middle of the line. Teaming on the stop were two of their bigger free-agent signings of the past two offseasons, defensive tackles Larry Ogunjobi and D.J. Reader with middle linebacker Logan Wilson, their first defensive player drafted in the 2020s, coming over the top to clean up.

"These games count but they don't count in terms of the regular-season standings," said Wilson on his economical night of a forced fumble and three tackles. "But, they do give us a good starting point to gauge where we can potentially get to. Obviously, we still have a lot of work to do and a lot will go into that process."

The starting point compared to last season is almost supersonic for a team that had the fewest sacks in the NFL during 2020 and has allowed the most rushing yards in the previous three seasons.

"I think we just have guys that can put us in a position to win games," Wilson said. "We have another year in this system and guys have found their own confidence in what they are doing and being asked to do."

Quite clearly one of them is Ogunjobi, who played all 14 first-team snaps in his Bengals debut. After being unable to block him in the four seasons he played in Cleveland, the Bengals grabbed him in free agency back in March and they still can't block him in training camp. Since he missed nearly the first two weeks of camp with a hamstring issue, he's been immense.

"It doesn't matter," Ogunjobi said of the juice flowing from a preseason stand or one in the regular season. "Mano a mano. Making a big stop gets the team fired up. We just want to build off the momentum."

On Friday, the Bengals proved resilient following big-play lapses. After not allowing a pass longer than 18 yards in Saturday's preseason opener, they gave up 28 on Friday's first play when Fitzpatrick basically shoveled a throw to wide open tight end Logan Thomas in space. (Wilson indicated Thomas came on the field late and caused a mixup.) But later in the drive a blitz by strong safety Vonn Bell resulted in a Fitzpatrick incompletion to set up a punt.

Then on the first play of the second series Gibson blew through the middle of a nine-yard gain after an opener they didn't allow a run longer than seven yards. But cornerback Chidobe Awuzie ran step-for-step with ace wide receiver Terry McLaurin down the left sideline to cause an incompletion on a go route and on third down rookie free agent rusher Darius Hodge racked up his sixth quarterback pressure of the season to set up the successful fourth-and-one.

After Wilson ended the third and last series pulling a first down pass out of wide receiver Cam Sims' grasp, the play went for slot cornerback Mike Hilton's fumble recovery at the Washington 35 instead of an 11-yard gain and set up the Bengals' only score of the first half on rookie Evan McPherson's 37-yard field goal.

"I'm just trying to fly around and make plays," Wilson said. "I think we just have a mentality of one play at a time. I had a head coach tell me this a long time ago. You can't ever let one play beat you twice. It's true, if you harp on a play where you miss a tackle and you start missing more tackles. It all goes back to that previous play. You just can't let that happen and you have to have a next play mentality and that's kind of what we have on our defense."

What they also have on defense is a new kind of young veteran in Ogunjobi that they've added in the past two seasons. Guys like Reader, Hilton, Awuzie, cornerback Trae Waynes and edge Trey Hendrickson have all played in postseason games and have been around players that have clearly let them know it's OK to lead.

"We'll look at the tape, make corrections. We all know it's the preseason and it's time to knock off the rust," Ogunjobi said. "But at the same time we've brought ourselves a certain standard we want to bring to Cincinnati this year. It's good, but it can be better and will be better.

"The biggest thing as a vet, which is crazy to say, is you want to make sure you hold the other guys up. This is a big moment for them. A lot of people take it for granted. To be able to see them play and critique them and tell them what they're doing well and what they need to work on is really important. That can really help them improve their game. I think the guys behind us are doing a tremendous job."

And it's just not the vets, even though the vets have been impressed with the way fourth-round pick Cam Sample has gone up and down the line like a vet. Sample had another good night playing both on the edge and tackle and appeared to escape a serious injury when he left with a shoulder issue early in the fourth quarter after making four tackles during 42 snaps.

They have to be breathing much easier after checking out Sample. They went into the game already missing two other edge players in rookie Joseph Ossai (wrist) and Khalid Kareem (shoulder).

"Just a little more for (Sample in) the game plan (in) this game, but he's a versatile guy that when we drafted him we thought he can play multiple roles for us and saw that in the first game. That's something that will continue down the line," Taylor said. "You can see we don't have a lot of depth over there at defensive end right now, so it's good though, it's good work for him. Unfortunate that he has what appears to be a minor injury."

View some of the top images from the Bengals' second preseason game of 2021 facing the Washington Football Team.