Before the Bengals took the field Wednesday for their second practice of mandatory minicamp, cornerback William Jackson III joined the rest of his mates and talked up new defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. Then he made an offer.
“You get to see him today. Just go out there and see him,” said Jackson, who senses Anarumo is lining up behind him every play. “I don’t know how to explain last year. It feels like new players in here.
“Everything is black-and-white. There’s no gray. With Lou, he’s on my case 100 percent of the time,” Jackson said. “He’s harder on me than anyone who’s ever coached me.”
Check out some of the top images from day two of the Bengals mandatory minicamp from Paul Brown Stadium.
What’s hard is to believe this is pretty much the same outfit that finished dead last in near historic fashion when it came to the 2018 NFL defensive rankings. Never before had the Bengals allowed 6,618 yards. Never before had the records revealed a third-down percentage of 48.9 percent. Only twice in 51 seasons had they allowed 455 points. Never in the century had they generated just 32 turnovers for back-to-back seasons after scrounging for just 18 last season.
But these guys? On Wednesday?
After dismantling the offense in Tuesday’s team drills, they opened things Wednesday with two interceptions on the first six passes of 7-on-7 when starting safety Jessie Bates III roamed from the middle of the field to act like the receiver and picked off quarterback Andy Dalton’s deep flag route to wide receiver Josh Malone. Back-up safety Clayton Fejedelem followed it up by catching back-up quarterback Jeff Driskel’s overthrow of wide receiver Cody Core in the middle of the field.
Now with the wolves unleashed and the defense pushing the trash talk button into overdrive, Anthony Chesley, an undrafted cornerback from Coastal Carolina, smothered a short route to veteran wide receiver Alex Erickson to knock it down before cornerback Davontae Harris, last year’s fifth-rounder who missed most of the year with a knee problem, forced a drop while draped on undrafted rookie wide receiver Ventell Bryant over the middle.
And a suddenly swaggering defense kept howling at the offense. The offense, of course, pointed and screamed back and would eventually get their way at the end of practice in a team drill highlighted by Tyler Boyd’s A.J. Green-like magic toe tap for a touchdown. But the defensive intensity had clearly turned a potentially draggy school’s-almost-out-for-summer session into a spirited scrum worthy of a college dorm championship.
New head coach Zac Taylor wants tempo? On Wednesday, the defense that the pundits said is going to hinder his rehab project gave it to him and on Thursday it ends an offseason in which they were a surprisingly strong storyline.
Like Taylor’s offense, the defense is trying to be complex, but simple. Do different things that look the same and that has confounded the offense at times. Enough that Boyd has gone to Anarumo to discuss how a disguised coverage or two got him.
(Go back to Tuesday’s team drills and the first team working against Dalton. Jackson and Fejedelem basically inverted positions with Jackson patrolling the hash and Fejedelem undercutting a route and tipping a pass that Jackson picked.)
And Bates believes practicing against that offense is helping sharpen his guys against the elements that gave them so many problems last year, such as constant motion and multiple receiver formations.
“Last year we were just seeing that in games and we didn’t really focus on it,” Bates said. “I think we’re doing a good of outing details on that.”
On the other side, Boyd has been suitably impressed. He calls the defense “sound.”
“Basically, it’s all the same dudes,” said Boyd, a fourth-year wide receiver who admittedly is having problems finding the windows in the defense that were so open in practice last year. “But they’re teaching it so well over there, it seems like they’ve been playing together since before I even got here … They dominated (Tuesday) at the end of practice, so it’s great to see that. The defense is starting to win some days. We know we’ve got a high-powered offense, but it’s always good to see these guys bring the energy.”
These aren’t the same guys mauled by Patrick Mahomes, miffed by Baker Mayfield, bitten by Drew Brees and lanced by Lamar Jackson. Well, they are, but these guys look like they’re having fun playing fast. They’re breaking on the ball. They’re busting chops and not coverages. The coverage? Tight, not saggy. No one runs wide open. Bates couldn’t agree more that it looks different.
“When you get turnovers and make plays, that’s what makes it fun,” Bates said. “We’re playing harder in practice and that’s what happens.”
It’s early, of course. They aren’t in pads and they’re not defending the run. The linebackers are young. Three of the top defensive linemen aren’t playing in this camp in tackles Geno Atkins and Ryan Glasgow and edge rusher Carl Lawson. They’ll be there for training camp, when it all starts to matter.
But what mattered Wednesday is the indecisiveness and tentativeness that marked the defense last season looks to be exiled and Bates, the sophomore safety, knows why. The spring is a passing game, so you can tell a lot of things by the secondary. They’ve got talent and they’re in a comfortable second season working with the team of cornerbacks coach Daronte Jones and safeties coach Robert Livingston.
But there’s more, too.
“I think we’ve established some accountability in the room from top to bottom and that has shown on the field,” Bates said of the overall defense. “I feel really good about what we’ve done so far, but we have to keep building on it.”
The guy with the hammer is the 52-year-old Anarumo, an under-the radar career position coach with a solid reputation known pretty much only to those in the know. Players and coaches have high regard for his ability to coach the secondary, where his mentorship of guys like Brent Grimes, Xavien Howard and Landon Collins helped put them in the Pro Bowl.
When Taylor began his search for a coordinator Anarumo was on his list because he saw him do it as the interim for most of a season in Miami. When Anarumo got the call late after a few interviews, Taylor got ripped for the timing, but not the hire. This spring has been a memorandum of understanding why Taylor had him on the list.
“The genuine energy he actually gives off. He wants you to be great,” Jackson said. “He’s behind me 95 percent of the time and he’s telling me what I’m doing badly and what I’m doing great. When you’ve got a coach like that, you can’t help but love him. I’m going to listen to everything he says this year and I’m pretty sure my game is going to escalate.”
It’s been documented how Anarumo came in and simplified things to make them aggressive and not passive. And he’s done it with a no-nonsense-right-or-wrong teaching style that Carlos Dunlap says is reminiscent of Mike Zimmer, the Baron of Blunt himself. Fort Wayne’s Bates says Staten Island’s Anarumo has “that New York mentality. He gets on everybody the same.”
Jackson, an emerging Pro Bowler, is treated like Chesley. And loves it.
“He definitely has a little spark to him. We love him. We’re having fun,” Jackson said of that New York state of mind. “It’s not faking it. Everyone is on the same page. We definitely look like a new (defense). He lets us know exactly what he wants done and he’s teaching the way he wants it done. If you can’t get it done, you’re of the field.”
As for Anarumo, they’ve got one more practice and then he says he’s going back to New York for vacation and try to eat pizza every day. He’s certainly given his players a lot to chew on.
“I told them the first day, I’m not going to get on you just to get on you,” Anarumo said after Wednesday’s work. “I know what it’s supposed to look like. And so do the coaches. And I’m going to let them know what isn’t good and what is.”
So far, so good.