Getting back to basics key for struggling Bengals defense

Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Chidobe Awuzie (22) celebrates an interception with Mike Hilton (21) in the first half of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers in Cincinnati, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

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Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Chidobe Awuzie (22) celebrates an interception with Mike Hilton (21) in the first half of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers in Cincinnati, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

CINCINNATI -- Chidobe Awuzie looks at film of the last two Cincinnati Bengals games and sees a defense that wasn’t doing the things that helped establish an identity over the first seven weeks.

Now after a bye week to reset, the Bengals are looking to get back to the aggressive play that stood out early in the season.

The back end of the defense especially will need to be better swarming to the ball and tackling Sunday at Las Vegas to prevent the explosive plays that hurt Cincinnati in back-to-back losses before the break and that Raiders quarterback Derek Carr is able to create in the passing game.

“Starting the season, we were kind of establishing an identity, and the past two games, obviously, weren’t our best performances,” Awuzie said Thursday. “Some things that I’ve seen how we play, some stuff that we have solved already kind of came back to bite us, you know? But basically, the lesson was whatever we have solved, whatever we’re good at, let’s be good at that. Things that’s our weakness, we can always hone in on that. But if we figure something out or figure out how to play something, let’s ... play it that way every time.”

Carr leads the league in passes for 20 yards or more this season with 47 of them, but his best targets are attacking the middle of the field and extending plays after the catch. That makes Mike Hilton’s role especially big this week as slot receiver Hunter Renfrow leads the Raiders with 494 receiving yards on 52 catches.

Tight end Darren Waller also is essential to Carr’s passing game with 44 receptions for 494 yards.

“I’m a physical guy, but I’m also able to take away slot receivers and help our team get off the field,” Hilton said of how he hopes to help. “I feel like with the mentality I have it kinda just brings a lot of energy to this defense. A lot of guys call me the spark plug on defense for some reason and I embrace that role.”

Hilton called Renfrow “one of the better slot receivers in the game,” although he doesn’t always get the respect he deserves. His ability to sell a route and suddenly change, his quickness and great hands all make him a challenge to defend, especially on third down.

Carr gets credit for that too, though.

“Just playing against him, seeing what type of quarterback he is, throwing into tight windows, he’s not afraid to throw into tight windows,” Hilton said. “People don’t realize how athletic he is once he is outside the pocket. He mixes up getting outside the pocket. He can run and throw, so we’ve got to make sure we make him uncomfortable.”

The Bengals secondary has been at its best when Awuzie is traveling to cover the best receiver, but the team’s top cornerback couldn’t say if he is expecting to stay on any one guy. Awuzie said he would like a chance to cover Waller, who he considers a top three tight end.

The Raiders cut rookie wide receiver Henry Ruggs, who also might have been Awuzie’s assignment, after he was charged with four felonies following the fatal crash he caused while excessively speeding and over the legal drinking limit. Bryan Edwards, Zay Jones and newcomer DeSean Jackson also are targets for Carr.

“It’s going to be balanced,” Awuzie said. “(Derek Carr leads) the league in 20-plus yard throws. Maybe it’s after the catch or maybe it’s in the air but they find ways to get down there. The unfortunate situation for Henry Ruggs and the family involved, RIP to them, but, yeah, when he was on the field, he was a very deep threat, take off the defense and now you see they brought in DeSean Jackson. Zay Jones is very fast, Bryan Edwards is very fast, so they have the guys to do it. I think it’s gonna be one of those games that we go out there, show people who we are. This is about us and do our job, and we’ll get the game plan as the game plan goes, basically see what they want to do, because they have a lot of new pieces. They have Josh Jacobs back, so we’ll see.”

Hilton wants the Bengals defense to get back to a “firefighter” mentality, limiting the damage no matter what happens on offense or what position they are in on the field.

“The last two games our tackling has been horrible,” Hilton said. “We missed a lot of tackles, giving guys opportunities to run after the catch and make first downs and big plays. So, we feel like we tackle a lot better, we’ll be in position to win games. That’s something we’re going to take pride in this week because knowing we have an explosive offense to go against, it’s not going to get any easier so we have to up our tempo, up our mentality and get ready for Sunday.”


Bengals at Raiders, 4:05 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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