Vonn Bell told you all you needed to know Thursday when he popped up in a Zoom news conference wearing a black ball cap emblazoned with the words "No Bull," during his first public appearance as a Bengal.
Bell, their new strong safety the Bengals plucked in free agency, is known at times to beat his alarm clock he usually sets for 4 a.m. He has brought this rather serious approach to Paul Brown Stadium via a collegiate national title at Ohio State and five post-season starts for the Saints by the time he was 25, which he turned in the last month of last season.
"Straight business," Bell said in reference to the hat.
That tenacious mindset matches his tackling, two of the reasons he's here in the Bengals' bid to shore up the battered ego of a defense that has allowed the most rushing yards in the NFL over the past three seasons. The stat stems from many things, particularly shoddy tackling in the back end. But Bell brings nice numbers from profootballfocus.com.
Last year he finished ninth in run-stop percentage among safeties with at least 200 run snaps, finishing ahead of the NFL's gold standard at the position these days, Jamal Adams, not to mention any Bengals safety. The year before that in the PFF rankings he was first in run-stop percentage for safeties with at least 200 run snaps.
"Man, you've got to work at it every day. It's about angles. It's about willingness," Bell said about the art of the takedown. "It's about pursuit. That's the biggest thing. Open-field tackling because the game is so spread out now. These guys spreading you out getting guys in one-on-one tackles, you've got to be great at that. Eliminate explosives and getting off the field on third down. That can be key in big-time games and big-time situations. "
The problem is, the Bengals won't have any pre-season games to practice tackling live. Head coach Zac Taylor pledges three or four scrimmages to replace the live stuff while defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo says he has already started preaching on tackling the right way even though the pads don't come out until Aug. 17.
"I told the players this, first off tackling is primarily about timing and angles," Anarumo said earlier this week. "The physical part of it you'll get work on, but if you don't have the proper angle and the proper timing then you don't even have a chance to physically get the guy on the ground. We can do all that stuff without pads on. Once we get pads on we'll emphasize the physical part of it. Like every year we'll work on it every day with even more emphasis this year."
It sounds like Bell has been listening, but he clearly already knows what fundamentals are needed to get a guy on the ground.
"Coach Lou and all the defensive staff, we're practicing front tackles, square shoulders, wrap and roll. You've got to practice it every other day," Bell said. "Working the technique, really putting it to the ground on your boots and when you get to those angles, having real good pad level and getting low. Having the eye progression at the nearest hip. Really about focusing in and perfecting your craft every day. That's one of the keys to things, tackling and getting off the field and making plays on the ball. That's the key to defense. That's the key to success."
See why they signed him? ...
Go back to late March when Bell put his name on the dotted line. It was a free agency period like no other. There was no tours of five or so teams. No splashy dinners with the coaches and maybe some of their players to be wooed. No trips through the neighborhoods to get a feel for the town. No press conference fit for a king when the answer was yes.
None of that. The pandemic forced teams to abandon their buildings in March and for the free agents to scrap travel. But in the second week of free agency when the Bengals offered Bell three years for $18 million they had a deal. Even though about the only thing he knew about the place was the PBS sideline, because that's where he spent his recruiting trip when Ohio State staged its spring game here that year.
Well, he did play with fellow Buckeye Sam Hubbard, Mr. 'Nati who seems to know everybody.
"I just knew a couple of guys on defense. We just did our research. My agency. We just went down the whole 32 teams," Bell said. "We just were calling every day and it was just a weird time with COVID-19 and all of that and not being able to see face to face.
"I was reaching out to guys like Sam and Buckeyes we knew and he was like, 'You need to come here.' Guys were reaching out around the league and I was like, man, I'm not on a team and it felt different. I feel like God made a new opportunity and a new chapter in my life and I'm glad to be here."
Bell also liked Taylor's pitch about the kind of players he sought. That played well for a guy wearing a "No Bull," hat.
"He wants a ferocious team. He wants guys who are hungry and guys that come to work every day and challenge and compete," Bell said. "That's the main things in this game. That's what you have to do every day in practice, and it carries on off the field, too, because you're competing with yourself, taking care of your body and the playbook and guys showing leadership in the locker room."
Everyone _ players and staff _ is getting used to the daily protocols to keep the stadium Covid clean. Veteran tight end C.J. Uzomah says so far so good.
"They're doing the best they can keeping us safe. I don't think we've had any positives (tests) so far," Uzomah said. "It's different. No question. In the weight room you're constantly wiping down the bars. I think they're taking as many precautions as they can."
You won't see Bell very far away from any disinfectant.
"Just wearing your mask, keeping your distance. I'm always constant. I've got hand sanitizer in my locker, hand sanitizer in my back pack," Bell said. "I always have the little wipes and all that. Constantly washing my hands. Just trying to keep my distance. But we're in a contact sport, so it's going to be kind of hard doing that. At the end of the day you have to pray about before you walk out there on the field and before you wake up. Ask God to cover us and just keep on going. The man upstairs is going to take care of us and just try to be as clean as possible."
As for Bell, opting out wasn't an option. But he admitted for many guys it couldn't have been an easy call.
"That's a hard decision, man. That's a hard decision. If LeBron's not opting out I can't opt out. He's out there playing," Bell said. "You've got to love this game. I just love being out there with the guys and the staff. Just going out and playing the game that I love.
"Some people have newborns. Some people have families. Some people have loved ones with underlying health conditions. It's a different scenario with everybody in the locker room and their personal lives, so you really can't touch on that topic."