The Cincinnati Bengals were hoping depth on the defensive line would make that a strength of the defense, but through five games, the unit hasn’t quite lived up to expectations.
Cincinnati has recorded two sacks since the season opener at Seattle, and only one team has been worse stopping the run. The two mostly likely are connected, and improvement in both areas will be key this week as the Bengals (0-5) travel to play Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens (3-2) on Sunday.
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The Bengals are facing a mobile quarterback for the second week in a row and hoping it goes better than it did against Arizona’s Kyler Murray. Jackson is among the league’s top 20 rushers this season, while averaging 61.7 yards on the ground, and is the top running quarterback.
“He’s a dual threat,” defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. “You’ve got to respect him throwing the ball and know what he can do running the ball. You’ve got to honor both of them and last week we didn’t do a good enough job against Kyler (Murray), so they’re going to try to exploit that too.”
In the Bengals’ Week 5 loss to the Cardinals, Murray rushed for 93 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries while completing 20 of 32 passes for 253 yards. He was sacked just once.
Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said they tried to use a spy – a player assigned to watch the quarterback from beyond the line of scrimmage in an attempt to stop him from running — at least six or seven times in that game, and that will be part of the plan this week, too.
The Bengals are hoping the experience of seeing Murray last week will help better prepare them for Jackson.
“They will be the fastest guy on the field, both guys,” Anarumo said. “… They are elite athletes so now they put so much stress on you. They’ll mix it up. Baltimore will have several personnel groupings that they use. They’re big and good at tight end and they use those guys. We’ll have to be prepared for that. A little bit like (Sunday). They don’t incorporate the 10 personnel stuff that we were anticipating seeing, but they are a little bit different in how they use their personnel.”
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Overall, Cincinnati has allowed 167.6 yards rushing per game, which ranks 31st in the league. The Bengals were pretty solid stopping Russell Wilson and the Seahawks in Week 1, limiting them to 72 yards rushing and sacking Wilson four times in a 21-20 loss on the road, but it’s been all downhill since then.
Dunlap said Cincinnati needs to get back to playing that kind of defense. The Bengals have allowed a franchise worst 2,059 yards through five games.
“Stop the run and then everything else works together,” Dunlap said. “The coverage and the rush works together. We have to get after them, but right now we’re not stopping the run very well, and we are not getting them in third-and-longs too frequently.”
Dunlap and Atkins, the team’s two sack leaders the past several years, each have just one sack. Atkins had six by this point last year, while Dunlap had four. The Bengals have just six total and are among the bottom of the league in that category.
When asked if the team is getting the production it needs from the defensive line, Anarumo wasn’t ready to point fingers.
“I think everybody needs to do better,” Anarumo said. “It’s not just one group. If it was one group I would say it. It’s a collective effort in the run game. When you’re playing eight-men fronts, everybody has a gap. And if one guy gets out of the gap, there are gonna be issues. That’s how it works. It’s one group this play (and) it’s another group the next play. There are certainly good plays within the game but there aren’t enough good ones and that’s where we are falling short right now as a defense.”
Regarding Atkins, Anarumo said he’s just as frustrated as everyone else, but again, he’s not the only one struggling to make plays.
“When it’s third and 4 and third and 5, the ball’s going to come out quick,” Anarumo said. “And these guys are not going to have as many opportunities. We’ve got to create the third and longer yardages for those situations to happen. That, generally speaking, is when these guys get their sacks.”
The Steelers managed to sack Jackson five times last week, so perhaps the opportunities will be there Sunday.
“You don’t have to be as passive on him, but obviously he’s going to make plays with his feet so we have to stop the run first and then you have a chance to get after the quarterback,” Dunlap said.
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