Bengals defense aims to keep picking offenses apart

Pittsburgh Steelers’ Markus Wheaton (11) is tackled by Cincinnati Bengals’ Shawn Williams (36) and George Iloka (43) during the first half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Frank Victores)
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Pittsburgh Steelers’ Markus Wheaton (11) is tackled by Cincinnati Bengals’ Shawn Williams (36) and George Iloka (43) during the first half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Frank Victores)

It was late October last year, and seemingly everything was going right for the Cincinnati Bengals, who were 6-0 for the first time in 27 years.

But while the players were relaxing on their bye week, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther was cutting up game film, piecing together a reel not of highlights, but of all the missed opportunities — specifically missed interceptions — the Bengals had in the first six games.

“I put on the film and told them, ‘If we catch these, we’re leading the league,’ ” Guenther said.

A defense that had intercepted 20 passes to tie for fifth in the league in 2013 and 20 more to rank third in 2014 had five through the first six games of 2015.

“I don’t usually press on them like that,” Guenther said of his film project. “I tell them to never try to force it or run out of your area to try to gamble on making a play. The point was to let the players know if you’re in the right place and you’re using the right technique and your eyes are right, the balls will come. And once they come, they come in bunches.”

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In their first game after the viewing, the Bengals intercepted Ben Roethlisberger three times on the way to posting a season total of 21 that ranked third in the league and was the most by a Cincinnati defense since the 2005 team had 31.

One of those three interceptions against Roethlisberger arguably was the play of the year for the defense. Shawn Williams’ diving pick in the fourth quarter set up the game-winning touchdown in 16-10 victory.

It came after pressure from defensive tackle Pat Sims flushed Roethlisberger from the pocket before a second wave of heat was applied by Sims, Michael Johnson and Domata Peko, resulting in an ill-advised throw.

“When the guys up front are getting pressure and the guys on the back end can make plays and you’ve got coaches putting you in the right position, that’s what happens,” said Williams, who takes over for Reggie Nelson as the starting free safety this year.

Nelson led the Bengals with eight interceptions last year before signing a free-agent deal with Oakland, but Williams said matching that total isn’t a concern.

“Reggie was really good at playing the ball down the middle of the field, but everybody’s game is different,” Williams said. “I can’t make myself be Reggie Nelson. I’ve got to be the guy that I am. I feel like I can do it all, whether it’s the physical part, playing the ball or coverage.”

Between Williams, Nelson and George Iloka, Bengals safeties accounted for 11 of the 21 interceptions a year ago. And through the first two preseason games, safeties Derron Smith, Floyd Raven and Jimmy Wilson have accounted for all three of the team’s picks.

“If coverage is tight, there’s often times deflections or overthrows where the safeties have opportunities to go make plays on,” defensive backs coach Kevin Coyle said. “It’s really got to be a combination of the rush and the coverage working together to get a lot of interceptions. I think that’s been a big part of it here with the success we’ve had.”

In addition to the 21 picks last season being their most in more than a decade, the Bengals have at least 20 interceptions in three consecutive seasons for the first time since 1978-80.

Seven of the 21 last year led to points, while 10 prevented scores, coming inside the Bengals’ 35-yard line. Cincinnati had at least one interception in 10 of its 12 victories last season.

“You can’t focus on getting them because most of the time they come from playing good team ball, but when you get one, it’s such a momentum swing,” cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said. “You see it on the offensive guys’ faces, that disappointment. The energy just changes in a huge way. The game can shift one that one play.”