The Cincinnati Bengals played to their strength on defense when they went heavy up front and kept just four linebackers on the 53-man roster to begin the regular season.
That implies there could be some 5-2 schemes and a lot of nickel defense under new coordinator Lou Anarumo, but the linebacker play could be more important Sunday in the opener as the Bengals face a strong running team at Seattle.
The Seahawks led the league last year with 160.0 yards rushing per game and sometimes bring in an extra lineman to boost the protection. It’s a challenge the Bengals are embracing.
“It’s going to be fun,” linebacker Preston Brown said. “I hope they run the ball. It’s supposed to rain a little bit maybe, so hopefully they get No. 74, (George) Fant, in the game, who is an extra tackle/tight end and averaged 12 points at Western Kentucky as a basketball guy. We have to find ways to get them off the field and make tackles on really good running backs.”
Chris Carson led the Seahawks with 1,151 yards and nine touchdowns, but Russell Wilson also will keep the Bengals on their toes as an athletic quarterback who will test the secondary and try to extend plays on the ground.
Brown said he was a little surprised the Bengals went with just four linebackers, especially considering their first opponent. They cut Hardy Nickerson, who would have been the fifth linebacker, on Sunday to pick up another running back.
“It was surprising, but they know what they are doing upstairs and luckily I was one of the four,” Brown said with a laugh. “It’s a little different only having four. Usually teams have five or six, but we’re going with four and that’s what we’ve got to roll with.
“We had a strong defensive line all preseason, so they went out and showed they deserved to be on the 53, just like Jake (Dolegala) at quarterback. We couldn’t afford to let them go to waivers, so we have a lot of guys like that on defense and they decided to keep a lot of D-linemen.”
Anarumo said most offenses today feature so many receivers getting downfield that it made more sense to go light on linebackers. The Bengals kept 11 defensive linemen, instead of the usual 10, and have nine defensive backs.
Brown, Nick Vigil and Jordan Evans are the projected starters at linebacker with rookie third-round draft pick Germaine Pratt backing them up. Clayton Fejedelem could fill in as an extra linebacker, and the Bengals have two solid nickel corners in B.W. Webb and Darqueze Dennard, who opens the season on the reserve/physically unable to perform list.
“Today’s football seven out of 10 snaps you are in some kind of five or six defensive backs personnel groupings anyway,” Anarumo said. “We’re a little stronger up front and we feel like that’s what we’ve decided to go with. It’s 4-3 on first/second down with three linebackers and every other down from there it’s one to two.”
Anarumo said he wanted to see how the roster shaped up before finalizing the direction his defense was headed but he’s had an idea all along.
The big guys up front will just have to carry a bigger load this week.
“We feel like that was a very strong position for us upfront and those guys can play a lot of different roles depending on the team we play against,” head coach Zac Taylor said. “We can pull from that depth at any point and time. I feel good about the four linebackers we have. I understand that it’s a little untraditional in terms of that approach. But we feel it’s the right approach for us Week 1.”
As good as Seattle’s running game has been, the offensive line is considered one of the weak points of the team. That could bode well for Cincinnati’s defensive line, which is expected to be the strongest aspect of the defense. Carl Lawson could be one of the most explosive players in that group and he’s slated to come in behind Sam Hubbard, though Anarumo insists Lawson can be a three-down guy and not just a pass rusher.
Veteran defensive end Carlos Dunlap said the depth of that unit gives the team added confidence going into big games like Sunday at Seattle.
“I feel like we are the strongest group,” he said. “We go into games feeling like we have to set the tone no matter what’s going on. No matter what they are doing, we like to set the tone.”