There could be some similarities in the two defenses that take the field Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Cincinnati Bengals (5-8) host the Oakland Raiders (3-10) in their home finale, facing former defensive coordinator Paul Guenther for the first time since he left this offseason.
Marvin Lewis has taken some pages from the team’s old playbooks since he assumed Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator duties upon firing Teryl Austin in Week 10. Austin had replaced Guenther but was fired after the Bengals became the first team in NFL history to give up 500 yards in three straight games.
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Guenther spent 13 seasons in Cincinnati, including the last four as defensive coordinator as he guided a unit that ranked fifth in points allowed per game (20.1) over that time span. His defense ranked second and set a Bengals franchise record in 2015 (17.4) and ranked eighth in 2016 (19.7).
“They will probably be on their sideline saying, ‘We know what they are running,’ but there will be times we feel that way, we see them on defense and we’re like, ‘Oh, they are running this or that,’” Bengals linebacker Vinny Rey said. “But at the end of the day, it’s about the will and the will to execute.”
Neither defense has been executing particularly well this season. In fact, they are both among the worst in the league, but showing progress in recent weeks.
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Cincinnati ranks last in scoring defense (30.5 points per game) and Oakland ranks one spot ahead giving up 29.8 points per game. The Bengals also are last in yards allowed (421.9) and the Raiders are 28th (392.2).
However, the Bengals' numbers have improved since Lewis took over the defense. They were allowing 454.6 yards per game under Austin and have given up 348.5 yards per game under Lewis. Sunday's 26-21 loss to the Chargers was the defense's best performance all season.
Rey said it wasn’t possible to completely rip up Austin’s playbook midseason because of the number of new guys who hadn’t played under the previous system with Guenther, but it’s noticeable how similar some of the plays are to what the Bengals did in the past.
Seeing Guenther on the other sideline running some of the same stuff will be “weird,” Rey said.
“I don’t get to talk to him now but I was here with him my whole career until this year,” Rey said. “He was my position coach for a couple years and coordinator and an assistant special teams coach here, so it will be good to see him before the game. … I am happy for him and I wish him success, but not on Sunday.”
Bengals wide receiver John Ross is hoping the offense can benefit from the familiarity players have with Guenther’s defense after some of them practiced against it for so long when he was here.
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He also sees the similarities in what Cincinnati is doing now on defense.
“They do a lot of things we do here,” Ross said. “Paul was a DC here, so there are some similarities and that’s something good going in.”
Ross noted the Bengals can’t count on Guenther bringing the same plays he called with Cincinnati, but running back Joe Mixon believes the team’s knowledge of how he runs things should help.
“We know what he comes with, we know he likes to dial up the blitz, bringing Double-A’s and things like that, safety pressures, but we’ve got to be ready for whatever is thrown at us and try to take full advantage of what he gives us,” Mixon said.
Guenther’s defense took a big step forward last week when Oakland beat Pittsburgh 24-21 while limiting the Steelers to 340 yards, including just 40 rushing yards, and Lewis said it’s clear he is settling in there.
“Paul did a fine job here,” Lewis said. “Since he came here with us in ‘04, he hustled and did a lot of different things for us and did a good job at all of them. They’ve morphed around a little bit defensively this year and things they are doing but have kind of settled in and obviously he had a great experience coaching against Pittsburgh, so I thought he did a nice job of getting guys to understand and they played (the Steelers) well.”
The Raiders’ defensive coordinator isn’t the only familiar face returning to Paul Brown Stadium. Oakland has 10 former Bengals players on its roster, including four who are on injured reserve and most notably defensive tackle Frostee Rucker and linebacker Emmanuel Lamur.
Rucker was a third-round draft pick of the Bengals in 2006 and played six seasons in Cincinnati, and Lamur was a college free agent signee in 2012 and remained with the team through 2015.
“I know at least a half dozen of those guys,” Rey said. “It’s going to be like one big reunion before the game I guess.”
Raiders at Bengals, 1 p.m., WHIO-TV Ch. 7, Ch. 12, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7
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