The Cincinnati Bengals defense has spent the last two seasons getting crushed by opposing running games. However, that’s a trend that could (or should) shift dramatically in 2021. If the potential of their investments is maximized, that’s huge news for this team. After all, the AFC North looks as run-heavy as ever given the stage of each division opponent’s roster. While it’ll be a combination of veterans rising up and young players coming to form, the pieces are in place. Now, it’s just a matter of discovering if they have the right combination of players to weaponize their defensive scheme.
Thanks To Busy Off-Season, Cincinnati Bengals Defense Might Impress Against the Run
After being the worst run stoppers in football over the last two seasons, there are new signs of life on the Cincinnati Bengals defense. Granted, it’ll be a matter of pieces clicking together, but that’s a job for defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. They’ve allowed 4,750 over the last 32 games, which is horrendous considering the talented players on their roster. It’s not that the Bengals have ignored the run-stopping portion of the game in recent seasons; injuries and inexperience just plagued their efforts.
Last off-season, they added one of the best run-stuffing nose tackles in football, D.J. Reader, to the mix. Then, after just five games, Reader suffered a torn quad and missed the remainder of the season. Now, Reader is just one example of a Bengals defense that hasn’t been able to stay healthy over the last two campaigns.
In the grand scheme, health will be the key for this group. Regardless, it’s a formidable group that other teams could fear. In the trenches, their defensive line looks as stout as ever. Pairing Reader with massive, rookie nose tackle Tyler Shelvin eats up space in the middle. Both Shelvin and Reader are hard to move, plus show the athleticism to shake a blocker for a quick tackle. On the edge, Sam Hubbard ranked atop the league in run-stop win rate in 2020 according to ESPN.
Plus, the team believes free agent acquisition Trey Hendrickson is a better run defender than he showed with the New Orleans Saints. With that said, Pro Football Focus didn’t measure that duo well on the run stop. Hubbard’s 69.1 run defense grade ranked 29th and Hendrickson’s 53.9 grade ranked 77th among their peers. Could pairing them change that factor? Only time will tell.
Returns from Injury and Opt-Outs Should Provide Major Relief
Last season, the Cincinnati Bengals defense never reached its full potential. The two biggest issues? Health and depth. Frankly, those are two aspects that go hand-in-hand. Trae Waynes and Reader, their highest-dollar investments during the 2020 off-season, played a combined five games. Further, Hubbard missed three games and played with an injury down the stretch.
Big-bodied defensive lineman Renell Wren missed the year with a torn quad suffered in camp. Run-stuffing defensive tackle Josh Tupou opted out of the season due to COVID concerns. This forced the Bengals to count on cuts from other teams for major snaps on the defensive line.
So, Christian Covington, Freedom Akinmoladun, Amani Bledsoe, Kahlil McKenzie, and Margus Hunt all played significant snaps on the defensive line. To make it simple: depending on street-free agents to stop Lamar Jackson, Nick Chubb, and other AFC North running games isn’t a plan. Seemingly, that’s a lesson the Bengals took into the 2021 off-season, which seemed to show improvements in the trenches. During the last few months, the Bengals have shown a clear focus in revamping their trenches.
Given their draft capital investments, including a trio of talented defensive ends, this should be a much more robust group in 2021. Not that a few injuries to starters won’t happen and hurt, but there’s a lot more room to fall. While an injury to someone like Larry Ogunjobi could really hurt the pass rush, the run stop can sustain.
Veterans on Cincinnati Bengals Defense Need to Step Up to Stop Run in 2021
Primarily, the Bengals are going to need Reader, Hendrickson, and Hubbard to be the game-changers in the run stop. Reader is due $43 million over the next three seasons. Hendrickson signed a 4-year, $60 million deal this spring, but that could be voided after the 2021 campaign depending on performance. Meanwhile, Hubbard is widely expected to get an extension ahead of the regular season. This trio eats up a lot of cash in the Bengals spending structure; they need to perform like it this season.
The team also needs a solid year out of veteran defensive lineman Mike Daniels. Across the board, there are proven veterans who can provide big snaps, a big change from the prior season.
While the defensive line is the first line of combat, the team needs major contributions from their experienced players. In the secondary, Vonn Bell, Mike Hilton, Jessie Bates III, and Germaine Pratt all need to have big years in the run-stop. The first two on that list, Bell and Hilton, are accomplished run defenders. Plus, Bell and Bates both ranked in the top-eight run-stopping safeties according to Pro Football Focus. Additionally, Ricardo Allen could wind up providing key support for the running game.
The biggest question mark? Pratt. The third-year player is now thrust into a leadership role with the team betting on development in their linebacker room. Simply put, his run defense grade of 29.3 last season was dreadful. It was also a significant regression from his 58.7 grade in 2019. Now, the Cincinnati Bengals defense could blame that issue on defensive line injuries a season ago. Regardless, if he can be a lot more like the rookie version of himself, it would be a major factor in the run stop.
Cincinnati Bengals Defense Is Due for a Big Year with Big Tests in the Run Stop Game
Make no doubt, the Cincinnati Bengals defense has a big year ahead. For many players on that side of the ball, it’s a make-or-break campaign. Certainly, the pieces are there for a significant turnaround in the run stop game. Regardless, they need to prove they’re the right players for the role. The AFC North brings a potent bunch of runners to the table; the Bengals defense must be able to quell those competitors.
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