Bengals defense off to historic start despite youth

Five days before the season opener and five days after the Cincinnati Bengals finalized their 53-man roster with a heavy injection of youth, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther made it clear he planned to find playing time for every one of the kids.

The idea was to be better prepare the youngsters when the inevitable injuries occurred while also reducing the load on the starters in order to keep everyone fresh for the crucial games in December. And if that meant the group had to take some hits early in the season, so be it.

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Well, so much for growing pains.

The Bengals head into their bye week ranked in the top three in eight defensive categories, including first in yards allowed per play (4.2) and second in yards allowed per game (262.8), points allowed per game (16.6) and sacks (18).

“They’ve done a really good job,” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said, noting that there was a time Sunday when the team had three first-year players on the defensive line in Carl Lawson, Jordan Willis and Ryan Glasgow, one in the secondary in William Jackson and Nick Vigil, a second-year player and first-year starter, at linebacker.

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“That is huge that we’re getting such positive plays (out of young players),” Lewis added. “We aren’t missing a beat. The human – coach – nature is to throw Michael (Johnson) or Carlos (Dunlap) back in there, but then you see Jordan Willis make the plays he’s making or Glasgow make the plays. Obviously the plays Carl is making time and time again, Andrew Billings, is doing a great job inside, William (second-year cornerback William Jackson) in the secondary – they’re earning opportunity. We have to make sure the level doesn’t drop.”

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The 83 points the Bengals have allowed are their fewest through the first five games of a season since 2005 (61). And the 1,314 yards are the fewest through the first five games since 1976 (1,213).

Guenther joked that the way the youngsters are performing has contradicted one of the first things he learned in coaching.

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“My first year in coaching, (the) AD told me for every freshman you play, you’re going to lose one ballgame,” Guenther said. “It always stuck in my mind.

“But at this point in the NFL, the way contracts are constructed you have to get them out there and playing and if they can play you’ve got to go,” he added. “I felt good enough in the preseason. We played a lot of these guys early against good guys in the preseason that I spoke about in training camp that I think they kind of get it now.”

The 18 sacks the Bengals have recorded puts them on pace for 58, which would top the franchise record of 51 set in 2012. The key part of it is the Bengals have been getting to the quarterback without blitzing.

“I’ve got plenty of blitzes up there on that board ready to be fired, but when you can win with four guys and you can cover with seven, when you get to the good playoff teams that are good on offense that’s how you have to win,” Guenther said. “Very rarely do you see a playoff game and this team is blitzing the (crap) out of them and they’re winning.”

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Defensive tackle Geno Atkins leads the team with four sacks despite constant double teams, while Lawson is second with 3.5. Perhaps an even bigger surprise than Lawson, who the Bengals appear to have stolen in the fourth round, has been the play of Michael Johnson.

Sunday the nine-year veteran has his first two-sack game since 2014, with both of them coming when he moved inside to tackle, something the team began experimenting with in the spring due to the influx of young pass rushers like Lawson, Willis and Chris Smith, whom the team obtained in a trade with Jacksonville.

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“Once we saw (the young players) on the field in the spring and their abilities, we were just trying to figure out the best four to get out there in a rushing situation,” Guenther said. “Chris Smith is going inside some, Willis too. We’ve got some guys that we can roll through there that all can rush inside and outside so they have the ability to do both. Just trying to get our four best rushers in there.”

“I keep telling them, ‘I won’t blitz if you guys keep getting home and we’ll go from there,” Guenther added. “It’s not an ego thing where I have to call this blitz or that blitz or look cute doing this. It ain’t about that. It’s about winning.”

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