CINCINNATI — The Cincinnati Bengals know they might give up some yards to top offenses like the one they will face Sunday in the divisional round of the playoffs, but their wild-card win over Baltimore was a testament to why that isn’t a great concern.
Cincinnati held the Ravens to one touchdown in four trips to the red zone and allowed no scores on two of them. That’s become another mark of this Bengals defense and an area that will be of particular importance going up against quarterback Josh Allen and the explosive Buffalo Bills offense.
Second-seeded Buffalo features the second-most productive offense in the league, averaging 28.4 points and 397.6 yards per game. Cincinnati, the third seed in the AFC, has limited opponents to 20.1 points per game and just 26 touchdowns on 50 red-zone trips (52 percent) this season while facing one of the toughest schedules.
“It’s what we pride ourselves on,” Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said. “I’m expecting us to go back over our red-zone package and make a couple adjustments there just cause they saw some of the things we did and then we have some things we think can help us there.”
After Baltimore recovered a fumble to set up at the Bengals’ 44-yard line in the second quarter, the defense buckled down in the red zone, limiting the Ravens to a field goal after they reached the 4-.
The next time Baltimore got inside the 20, Cincinnati came up with not only a stop at the goal line but Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt forced Tyler Huntley to fumble, and Sam Hubbard recovered for his record-setting 98-yard return for a touchdown and the game-winning score. The Ravens made it as far as the Cincinnati 17 on the final drive but a holding call backed them up and Huntley’s heave to the end zone as time expired fell incomplete.
Free safety Jessie Bates credits the team’s success in red-zone defense to the attention to detail placed in that area throughout the week. For the defensive backs, that starts on Tuesdays when they have a player-led meeting on the team’s off day to begin studying the opposing offense.
Then, on Thursday, linebackers coach James Bettcher makes a detailed red-zone presentation for the whole defense, and on Saturdays, Bates and strong safety Vonn Bell take turns leading breakdowns for the secondary. The defensive backs coach lead that meeting, Bates said, and running backs coach Justin Hill, who specializes in ball security, helps as well.
The goal is always to at least hold opponents to a field goal, but turnovers are the emphasis.
“They can’t run past you down there but things do speed up, I always say,” Bates said. “Me and Vonn, on Saturdays, we have our certain parts of the game that we break down. … Like I said, that’s why we’re so good at it — because we have conversations. … I always tell people (to) slow your feet down, speed up your mind because things just aren’t going to run past you. You gotta speed up your mind and process where we are on the field and what exact call that we’re in. Like I said, it’s just a smart team, and we’re going to continue to get better down there.”
Veterans in the room each have different situations they bring up for discussion. The players pick a couple plays to review on film, and the defensive backs discuss all the scenarios of their responsibilities, ways of handling the situation and potential issues that could occur.
Bates said Bettcher’s meeting on Thursday is long with a lot of tape, but the detail and all the conversation that follows is important for preparing players for every situation. When Hill presents to emphasize ball security for the offense and strips on defense, he tends to put on “throwback tapes,” according to Bates, and he shows examples of Joe Mixon carrying the ball or Hayden Hurst splitting two defenders, as well as some bad examples from around the league to show what the Bengals are doing well and how they can get better.
It more often than not pays off in the games.
“I think when we get down there, we talk about the situation,” Bates said. “We talk about the routes that they like to run and all that stuff. It’s just a really smart team, really well-connected team that we’re asking the right questions in the red zone, making sure we’ll seeing stuff through the same lens.”
Bengals coach Zac Taylor said the defense “does a great job of not giving an inch” and always making it difficult on the opponent to score. He credits the players for going the extra mile in terms of preparation.
“The players take initiatives,” Taylor said. “It’s just part of their process of some of the players things they do on top of what the coaches ask them to do. They are always in there as a unit watching film as a unit extra without the coaches in the room. Vonn and Jessie lead that. We got a lot of leadership there that provides that. I don’t sit in on those meetings. Those are players meetings. You trust at the point now, you just trust the right things are being said and done and you want the players to take that initiative. You want to have your schematic thoughts and identity as a team, but the players have to bring it all to life. And we got players that bring it all to life, so it’s awesome to have.”
Bengals at Bills, 3 p.m., Ch. 7, 12; 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7