The Bengals linebackers were talking about it the other day. No Vontaze Burfict. No Vincent Rey. The only guy with more than five years and 50 games in the league is middle man Preston Brown. So Nick Vigil knows his time has come.
Don’t look now, but Vigil, a third-round pick in 2016, suddenly has played 38 games, started 21 and it could be more because he’s missed a combined 10 the past two seasons because of injury. But forget the games played. Look at the snaps he’s averaged per game at SAM backer. Last year it was 61 and in 2017 it was 69. No wonder the man looks like a captain out there, playing briskly and surely.
“We were saying it’s a new look. No Vontaze. No Vinny. No Rey from back when I was here early,” said Vigil of Rey Maualuga, a middle man from another era. “I’ve had a lot of reps over the past two years. So I’m pretty comfortable in there. I understand what offenses are trying to do a little more. I’m more aware of situational football.”
At 6-2, 240 pounds, Vigil is no little speed backer, but he runs well, is a staple on all three downs and showed his toughness when he came back for the last dead month last season after a knee sprain wiped out five games. But the last game in Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field was Vigil’s best as a pro and the Bengals are hoping it’s a precursor.
View the top images from Tuesday's Organized Team Activities as the Bengals get back to work.
The Steelers needed to win to make the postseason, but the Bengals shackled their high-octane offense holding them to one touchdown and three first-half points. s With Burfict and Brown shelved and Rey playing just nine snaps, the future was on display with Vigil making 17 tackles and safety Shawn Williams scoring the Bengals’ only TD on a pick-six.
Vigil and Williams were out there Monday leading the first look at new defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s scheme.
“It took a long time. We didn’t really gel all season, but for whatever reason we played really good in that game, which was good to see,” Vigil said. “That was the best game we played all year and we’re hoping to use that as kind of a spark. I think we’ve got a lot of really good players here. Last year we had a lot of injuries, but we’re getting those guys back. Guys that have played a lot of football. Young guys. We’ve got to put together a good season and stay healthy.”
Vigil says Anarumo has done a nice job “making it simple for us so we don’t have to think as much,” but new linebackers coach Tem Lukabu has been impressed with how Vigil has been using his head in getting people lined up and diagnosing what the offense is running. He’d like to help Vigil stay healthy, but it’s just not him. The Bengals defense is coming off two seasons they’ve played more snaps than any team in the league (2017) and third most last season. More health on defense? A big part of the answer just may be improving that third-down percentage, an alarming 45 percent the last two seasons combined.
Radio analyst Dave Lapham calls that “complementary,” football, which means the offense also has to convert its share of third downs. Right now, there’s no finger-pointing. If anything, the defense thinks the slew of plays the offense is running (about 100 on Monday), combined with the high volume of looks that the defense is being forced to play, should help.
“I like it. It’s fast. We’re seeing a lot of new stuff. That’s good,” Vigil said. “The big thing has been communicating. The more you communicate, the more everybody knows what’s going on.”
CHANGING OF THE GUARD: The Bengals keep saying they want to run the ball and they keep doing things to make you think they’re quite serious about it.
The first thing they did was accommodate new head coach Zac Taylor’s request to be re-united with Jim Turner, the offensive line coach that had been with him in three previous stops. Then they dipped into their rare waters of unrestricted free agency to sign powerful right guard John Miller, a glistening weight-room product with a work ethic to match. Then after eschewing defense in the first round of the draft and focusing on the offensive line with the selection of Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams, they pulled off their first trade ever that went back up into a round when they used a late fourth on monstrous Ohio State guard Michael Jordan, a 21-year-old still growing at 312 pounds.
They capped it off this week when Taylor unveiled a line featuring Williams at left tackle next to the incumbent left tackle at guard, Cordy Glenn, so big that even Miller, his old teammate in Buffalo, isn’t quite sure how big.
“I don’t know how tall he is. 6-5. 6-6. 340. Something like that,” Miller said this week. “Massive. Great feet. Swing him in, swing him out. I think he’ll be able to do both. Definitely you want to have that big, physical presence in the guard position, for sure.”
In the middle of it all is sophomore center Billy Price and his 10 NFL starts, but he’s sounding more and more like the veteran leader they wanted to groom when they drafted him in the first round last year. After the first practice of the spring earlier this week, Price thought back to the week of meetings leading up to last month’s voluntary veterans minicamp and what had just transpired. He liked the vibe and could sense tiny bubbles of chemistry creeping in. He likes the confidence in how they line up.
“What we did the first day is completely different,” Price said of the pace of the previous three weeks. “But there’s a new confidence that comes along with it. I’ve been practicing with this guy. I know how he moves. I know how he talks. I know how he likes certain things. So it makes it easy and vice versa. It’s all about developing that relationship for continuity and chemistry across the line.”
The addition of Williams, a guy that Price has praised for his maturity, hasn’t stunted what Price has going on inside.
“I’m talking about John. I’m talking about Cordy because we’ve been messing with Cordy playing inside and outside,” Price said. “Once the rookies got in, Jonah doesn’t really talk much but he really doesn’t have to. You’ve just got to let me know when somebody is coming off the outside.”
The last time the Bengals tried switching an established tackle to guard was when they brought back old friend Andre Smith the first time in 2017. That lasted about two weeks because Smith didn’t exactly embrace the idea. But everyone is saying Glenn is. Including Glenn and Taylor. It has Price thinking about how NFL offensive lines get to the top.
“You see great offensive lines like the Rams, the Saints, Pittsburgh, the Dallas Cowboys,” Price said. “It’s all about the chemistry, the continuity and that’s what we’re chasing for ourselves here. The biggest aspect is that confidence and chemistry. I have to know how he’s going to do his job and he has to be confident I’m the guy to get the job done.”
Turner has never made it a secret. He loves his linemen big. The bigger, the better. In the weeks leading up to the draft he had been heard to growl at his assistant, Ben Martin, “Benny, I don’t want anybody less than 350 pounds.” Kidding, of course. But it’s the thought that counts. Turner also loves them smart. Moving Glenn inside to now have a 340ish left guard opposite a 6-3, 315-pound boulder in Miller at right guard is Turner’s kind of tandem.
“Love it,” said Turner said of the size, but he could have been talking about the brainy Miller as he reflected on the takeaways of the first practice. Like the skill players, Miller loves the flexibility of Taylor’s offense.
“There are a lot of takeaways,” Miller said. “First day, everybody came out happy. Everybody flying around. I like the offense. I think we’ve got a chance to be pretty good. You can do so many different things out there out of the same look.”
And Miller has been on teams that run it. The Bills were ninth in the NFL last season and sixth in 2017 on the ground. But they finished 30th and 29th, offensively, respectively. He knows what’s missing.
“If you establish the run game, that will open up the play-action pass. It will open up the boots (bootlegs), the keepers, the screens,” Miller said. The receivers blocking down field, then you start to get those 10, 15-plus yard gains. We’re a long way from where we need to be in August and September. And even then we’ll be a long time from where we’re trying to get in January and February. A lot of work. One day at a time.”