The Cincinnati Bengals have been among the worst defenses in the league this season, but they’ve turned a corner the last two games without reward.
This week, they will find out just how much they’ve improved as the Bengals try to put together a complete game against an offense on the rise.
Cincinnati (0-11) hosts the New York Jets (4-7) on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, and the visitors bring with them a three-game winning streak in which they scored 34 points in each of those victories despite ranking 31st in average yards of offense this season. The Jets’ progress has yielded results the Bengals hope to achieve now that they seem to have figured some things out on defense.
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“I feel like we’re making good progress,” safety Jessie Bates said. “As much as our record doesn’t really show it, we’re still doing a lot of good things, and the way we keep fighting is the way we are going to continue build this organization. Right now, we’re building it from the ground up, and right now we’re at the ground because we’re 0-11, but like I said before, when this thing gets rolling and we start winning, it’s going to be very special.”
Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo believes the wins will come if the Bengals can keep putting up the kind of numbers they have in recent weeks. The Bengals allowed 460 yards of offense four weeks in a row going into the Week 9 bye but have since held three opponents under 380 yards. The last two opponents scored 16 and 17 points against them.
It’s still going to take a lot of work to climb out of the basement of the league in defensive stats, but Anarumo likes the direction the Bengals are headed.
“I think it starts with those guys up front being healthy and having all of them available to go,” Anarumo said. “They’ve been disruptive. I think (in Sunday’s loss to Pittsburgh it) was seven quarterback hurries, three sacks, a few TFLs, Carlos (Dunlap) tips the pass that gets intercepted. The more your front can be disruptive the more it gives everyone else a chance to make some plays.”
The Bengals have six sacks over the last two games after totaling just six during the eight previous outings. They had a season-high four sacks in the opener at Seattle but had been quiet in that area until recently. Dunlap accounted for 1.5 sacks in the last two games, Geno Atkins had 1.5, and Sam Hubbard, Andrew Billings and Carl Lawson each had one.
Bengals coach Zac Taylor said the opponent had a lot to do with the lack of a pass rush earlier in the season, as they were facing some elusive quarterbacks and strong running teams, but the defense has buckled down.
“Those are some challenges for us,” Taylor said. “There’s no excuse. We need to stop them. … You need to find ways to slow those teams down. Overall, they’ve regrouped. The leadership has done a nice job settling those guys down. ‘Hey, we need a little extra. Let’s make sure everyone is on top of their assignments.’ That’s not a thing that most teams that are in our situation do at this point in the year. A lot of them start booking their postseason flights, and our guys have done the opposite. They’ve really clamped down and said, ‘Let’s figure out how we can get this better and get it right.’ That’s really encouraging to see from the guys on our team.”
Cincinnati’s run defense has improved, too. They allowed 200 yards rushing in four of the first seven games but haven’t reached that level since then, which could be attributed at least in part to the return of Darqueze Dennard. The Jets average just 73.5 rushing yards per game, but they had their first 100-yard game two weeks ago in a win over the Redskins.
The Bengals rank fourth in the league in red zone defense, allowing touchdowns in those situations just 42.5 percent of the time. They’ve held teams without points in red zone possessions eight times, and that will be an important stat Sunday with Sam Darnold leading the Jets’ offense to some big numbers in recent weeks.
“We’re fourth in the league, and if your fourth in the league in anything that’s outstanding,” Anarumo said. “It’s like anything else they’ve got confidence that when they get down there the things that we’re doing and how they execute give them a chance to make plays. Even though they’re down there we’re got 4-5-6 things we’re hanging our hat on and they’ve executed them very well throughout the year consistently.”
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