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Pass Rush And Youth Pressure Points For Re-Stocked Bengals Defense

Larry Ogunjobi can bring heat up the middle.
Larry Ogunjobi can bring heat up the middle.

When Vonn Bell tolled with that hit on Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in the last days of last season, the hope is he was ringing in a new era of defiant, daring defense. The kind that can protect Joe Burrow just as much as an offensive line.

After the Bengals signed four defensive starters in last week's first and most costly week of free agency, the defense had a younger, bigger play-making look to accompany the chimes. Working out in Miami, Bell thumbs-upped the moves that included his former Saints teammate Trey Hendrickson and fellow AFC North enforcer Mike Hilton, factors from two perennial playoff defenses. As well as the NFC East-tested Chidobe Awuzie.

And that was before Bell heard the Bengals had signed a workout partner, athletic defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi and his 14.5 career sacks that are the second most by an interior lineman from his 2017 draft class.

"When we get this thing moving the way it should, it's making those impact plays that get the team going," Bell said. "It's going to be an avalanche. It will be a free fall the right way."

The way it's falling now is that the Bengals have added pressure players to a defense that has had the fewest sacks in the league the past three seasons. Joining Ogunjobi's sack totals are Hendrickson's 13.5 that was second most in the league last year and Hilton's career 9.5 sacks, tied for the most by a cornerback since 2017.

And defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo keeps getting younger. In his first game running the Bengals defense, the average age of the starting lineup in the 2019 opener in Seattle was 26.8. Last season against the Chargers he had three 30-year-olds.

This year the projected Opening Day defense (assuming a nickel look) has one player over the age of 27, no one in their 30s and an average age of 26.1.

"I think it is huge. Like last year, we tried to get quality individuals and really good players coming from winning programs," Anarumo said. "I think we are very similar there again. And oh by the way, you're dealing with a bunch of 25, 26 and 27 year olds, which you can't put a price on that. It's tremendous. We're super excited about it."

Anarumo indicated that last year's third-rounder, Logan Wilson, is ready to take over at middle linebacker next to Germaine Pratt in the nickel defense. He'll be 25, still a year older than free safety Jessie Bates III, making his fourth Opening Day start and first as the Pro Football Focus reigning top graded safety. Wilson is also just a year younger than Bell, the man in this lineup with the most NFL games under his belt with 77. The only starter from the 2018 defense of Teryl Austin is Bates.

Younger, saltier, faster is the blueprint.

Anarumo tells you there are really six new starters in this free agency class. Nose tackle D.J. Reader, the richest Bengals' free agent until Hendrickson last year, played just five games before a season-ending quad injury. And Trae Waynes, whose three-year deal for $42 million was bigger than this year's top cornerback deal (the $40 million for old friend William Jackson in Washington), never got on the field with a shoulder injury.

"Any time we can get guys that are not only great football players but bring that juice every day into the building, it's an added thing you can't put a price tag on, "Anarumo said. "All the guys we signed, we feel like they play that way, you watch Mike Hilton play, you watch Trey Hendrickson play, Chido and on down the line, Larry, they bring something different each one of them, but at the end of the day they love the game and love to play."

So that would be about $200 million in committed money for those six. A salary cap number this year about $26 million for the four additions. Throw in right tackle Riley Reiff's cap hit of $4.7 million and the Bengals had to cut veterans Geno Atkins on defense and Bobby Hart on offense to get everybody in.

And the Bengals are looking at a payoff. Starting with the pressure. Starting with keeping the momentum of Hendrickson's break-out year and re-discovering the key to Ogunjobi's combined 11 sacks in 2018 and 2019 up the middle.

After getting 2.5 sacks when he moved over to nose tackle last season in Cleveland, Ogunjobi jumped at the chance to play the Bengals' three technique. Anarumo thinks he'll be dangerous next to Reader.

"A guy like D.J. who is going to command respect and now Larry and you put Trey on the outside and Sam (Hubbard). Hopefully you're going to get some one-on-ones there. He's got the ability and athleticism to win. He's proven that.

"Trey finished the season last year tied for second in the league in sacks, and Mike is one of the better blitzing DBs in the league. Pressure wise, you're looking at two guys who can affect it immediately. And Larry two years ago had 5.5 sacks from the inside position. We're looking for good production from him as well."

According to Next Gen Stats, Hilton has the most blitzes of any slot corner since 2017 with 148, a stretch the Bengals have had just 37. Hilton is coming from a Steelers system that blitzed 40 percent of the time, third most in the league last year, according to Pro Football Reference. The Bengals were almost smack in the middle of the NFL at 31 percent.

But Anarumo says they'll do what Hilton does best and it's not going to take much to adjust.

"The way Mike pressures and the way he allows you to do certain things with him, we like to bring our edge guys, we like to bring our nickel and we like to bring our safeties," Anarumo said. "He'll fit right into what we have done. It's really not that big of a difference to be quite honest when it comes to that part of it. I was talking to him yesterday and he was all excited.

"He'll be doing similar things, providing pressure on the quarterback and TFLs like he did in Pittsburgh."

That's why Hilton is here.

"They are definitely going to use me like how I was used in Pittsburgh," Hilton said. "Of course, blitzing a lot and being in the backfield. But also manning the slots and rolling to safety some. They know I'm a versatile guy and they know my versatility can help."

The big concern is the same as last year, when the defense had six new Opening Day starters. This year, it's also going to be six with Waynes and Wilson. With no spring ball and a truncated training camp, that was tough to assimilate so quickly over an offseason.

If it is the same scenario and the spring is eliminated, Anarumo knows they've gone through it before. Plus, he feels quite comfortable with the football IQs they've acquired.

Although communication so much of an issue in the secondary, Anarumo doesn't sense a problem with three brand new cornerbacks. He does have his two safeties returning, Waynes has been in the playbook for a year and it's not the first rodeo for the cornerbacks.

"It will depend on if we have an offseason and training camp. That will make it a little more challenging, but I don't see it taking long," Anarumo said. "The nice thing is we have two safeties that are in place. They can kind of adjust to things. For Jessie, this will be his third year (in the system). For Vonn, it'll be his second. I think that can really help out."

One of the things that came out of Thursday night's now famous recruitment dinner for Reiff is the spark of chemistry between Hilton and Awuzie.

"Those guys I know already are on a text string. They are all talking already, so that's the good news. They have already reached out to each other. Those five guys need to be as thick as thieves. That's how that works," Anarumo said. "I had an hour conversation with Trey and Chidobe and Mike Hilton yesterday. Larry was going through his physical stuff. The way they talk football and the way they approached the game, it just injects a lot of enthusiasm. They are like, 'Hey, let's go out there now.' They are that type of guys."

Take a guy like Awuzie. He has started 42 games and earned a rep of right-place-right-time reliability. When he was hurt last season, the Cowboys were among the leaders in giving up balls of at least 40 yards. When he was healthy in 2019, they were among the leaders preventing the most long pass plays. In '18-19, PFF had him in the upper half of the league in coverage grades.

"I don't see too much as a big hurdle," Awuzie said of the communication. "I've already talked to Mike. Some of the guys from the secondary have reached out to me. It seems like all guys are focused on winning, focused on creating a good bond. A lot of us are veterans. Some places, you have a couple of younger players who are at different points in their career, who aren't focused on those type of little things. But I think on this team, it's a definite difference from other teams in terms of veterans in the secondary, players who have done it before. I think it'll happen over time. Hopefully, it'll happen quicker than most."

After talking to Awuzie and checking his phone, Hilton has no worries about everyone adjusting to the new book.

"It might take some time, but we exchanged contacts. As soon as we are able to get some film, we can all get a group message and just start going through stuff," Hilton said. "Just finding ways to learn each other and learn how to communicate. It might take time, but we will get it done.

"As soon as me and (Awuzie) got here, we connected automatically," Hilton said. "I've already received texts from Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates. Just knowing those guys and them reaching out, I feel like our secondary is going to come together. We definitely can be one of the better ones in the league."

Anarumo knows one thing for sure. They're better this Sunday than last Sunday.

"We want to be a defense people fear on Sundays," Anarumo said. "We want to be a fast playing, smart, tough defense. When the other team turns on the tape, that has to come through the tape for us. I think we're four more steps closer to that."