Youth may serve young Bengals defense well vs. Panthers

The youth of the Cincinnati Bengals defense might actually be a benefit this week when they are faced with the task of stopping an offense unlike most NFL teams.

Cincinnati (2-0) travels to play the Carolina Panthers (1-1) on Sunday, and Carolina brings an offense that looks more like what a lot of the young guys faced recently in college – a lot of spread with read options and utilizing skill players in different ways.

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Four of the Bengals’ six linebackers are either first-, second- or third-year players, all of the backup defensive linemen and five of nine defensive backs are rookies or second-year players.

“It’s not foreign to them,” Bengals defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said of his young players being prepared for this type of offense. “They’re used to it, they’ve seen it. The biggest thing is making sure they know what our plan is and executing our plan. I think it does help for those guys.”

That doesn’t mean the defense won’t be challenged, especially when it comes to stopping Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Newton is Carolina’s all-time passing leader but also has more rushing touchdowns than any other quarterback in NFL history.

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At 6-foot-5, 255 pounds, he isn’t easy to bring down, whether he’s in the pocket or on the run. Newton leads the team with 100 yards rushing through two games to go along with 496 yards passing.

“The key is to stay disciplined,” Austin said. “You have to know where your fits are when you have the quarterback runs, because they have passes off it and runs off the quarterback runs. You have to be careful of your assignment first and if you can do extra do extra, but you don’t do extra first.

“He’s a different guy. There aren’t many times this year you’re going to see a guy that’s 6-5, weighs about 255 and runs like he does. It’s tough, it’s unique and you’re only going to see it once a year.”

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The new rules protecting quarterbacks this year also adds another element to the task of bringing down Newton.

Cincinnati already learned a lesson in the season opener against Indianapolis when Shawn Williams was ejected for unnecessary roughness on a helmet-to-helmet hit at the end of a run by Andrew Luck and Carlos Dunlap charged with roughing the passer twice.

Newton is even bigger than Luck and more dynamic in his ability to run and pass.

“He’s hard to bring down when you get your hands on him,” linebacker Nick Vigil said. “He can break tackles, he can break tackles in the pocket. He’s a playmaker so he’s someone we have to stop.

“He’s a quarterback so they are still going to protect him so you have to be careful when you’re hitting him just like any other quarterback, but when he’s a runner you have to be physical with him because he will run you over. He’s bigger than most guys in this locker room, so you have to bring it.”

The “body weight rule” that canceled out one of Dunlap’s sacks on Luck in the opener was enacted this season in response to a play from 2017 when Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr hauled down a scrambling Aaron Rodgers in Week 6 and snapped his collarbone with the full weight of his 255-pound frame.

Austin still wants his defense playing aggressive but staying within the rules.

“That’s the one that’s a little bit harder because you don’t practice that with our quarterback,” Austin said. “What you’ve got to be able to do is when we make contact with the guy be able to take him down and move him to the side or move ourselves to the side. It’s an unnatural move when you are trying to tackle a big guy. We just have to work at it because those are the rules.”

Vigil said figuring out how to stop Newton is just one part of the puzzle because the Panthers are like “a three-headed monster” on offense.

Running back Christian McCaffrey, the eighth overall pick in the 2017 draft, is a capable rusher as well but had 14 catches for 102 yards last week against Atlanta and is used in a lot of different ways. Needless to say, the Panthers won’t just becoming at Cincinnati between the tackles.

“It’s kind of like going back to college,” linebacker Preston Brown said. “Playing in the Big East, it’s kind of like West Virginia, people like that, people flying all around. They try to give C.J. Anderson some runs but I don’t know how they are going to do because he dropped a couple passes, he had a pass intercepted because it went off his hands so we don’t know how much he’s going to play. It’s probably going to be a lot of McCaffrey, empty, running option routes, angle routes, out routes. They are doing so much stuff we have to be ready for. It’s going to take a team effort.”


Bengals at Panthers, 1 p.m., WHIO-TV Ch. 7, Ch. 12, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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