Bengals’ defense better equipped to slow down 49ers run game

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo didn’t want to think back to the 2019 game against the San Francisco 49ers, but in doing so, he can see how far the run defense has come. The improvement in that area alone provides him some reassurance going into this week’s matchup.

In that 2019 game, the Bengals gave up 571 yards in a 41-17 loss 49ers in their second game under head coach Zac Taylor, Anarumo and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. The Bengals finished with the worst run defense in the league, and that was an area they worked to address the last two years.

Anarumo said the 49ers offense – which ranks seventh in the run game – still gives him cause for concern, but it’s clear the Bengals are better equipped to deal with it now. Cincinnati ranks fourth against the run, allowing just 92.5 yards per game.

“Leaps and bounds (different),” Anarumo said. “It’s something to look back and say, ‘Hey, here’s how far we’ve come.’ I think that we’re just a different group. Hopefully we’ll show that on Sunday.”

Cincinnati’s run defense improvement begins up front, most notably with nose tackle D.J. Reader. He was brought in last year specifically to plug up the interior line but only played five games before ending his 2020 season on injured reserve.

Reader ranks third in run defense grades from ProFootballFocus.com, behind Aaron Donald and Cam Heyward.

“He’s the cornerstone of it all, as you notice,” Anarumo said. “He’s gonna line up either on the center or shaded on a guard. He’s right in the middle, and he commands. When they single block him, he has a good day, and any of those dominant guys inside, you’re never going to see a whole bunch of stats. That’s not a stat position. But when you can’t move him, and he clogs up the middle and then does shed and get off blocks -- and DJs able to do that -- it just gives us that much more of an advantage, so yeah, he’ll be a key point along with the other guys helping us get this run game under control.”

San Francisco averages 125.9 rushing yards per game but had 178.3 rushing yards per during a recent three-game winning streak that preceded last week’s loss to Seattle. Elijah Mitchell leads the 49ers with 759 yards and five touchdowns and gets plenty of help from fullback Kyle Juszcyk clearing a path.

Reader hadn’t watched film of the 2019 game – he was with Houston at the time – but could guess what happened.

“I’m sure they ran the ball, right?” Reader said. “That’ll be something they do. They haven’t changed coordinators and do a good job scheming at the line of scrimmage. … They use everybody. Then use everybody blocking to the ball. They do a really good job with the fullback, all the tight ends. The receivers play really well off it. They get dirty and block. A lot of guys are blocking.”

Reader said his job this week will be to serve as a “picket fence” and not let guys split the tackles. He called it a big challenge, especially with new linebackers behind him counting on him to take some of the burden off them. Logan Wilson will be out with a shoulder injury and Markus Bailey also could be unavailable as he is working back from a stinger suffered in Sunday’s game.

The Bengals say they are confident in Joe Bachie and others stepping in, but the 49ers are a complicated offense. They run a lot of jet motions, and safety Vonn Bell called their scheme “eye candy.”

“It’s a lot of eye candy in your face so getting to move and replace them with guys left,” Bell said. “Really just playing with great keys and fundamentals and really just having fun playing and making everything simple so you play fast and that’s what we’re going to do this weekend just go out there and let it hang out.”

Tight end George Kittle will be Vonn’s biggest challenge, especially sliding over safeties on jet motion plays, and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is a “micromanager” capable of running the offense well, he said. Garoppolo gets players in good catch and run opportunities, and the receivers, tight ends and fullbacks use their strength to their advantage in breaking tackles.

The middle of the defense might be the biggest point of attack for the 49ers this week without Wilson in there. Asked how much Kyle Shanahan’s offense puts on linebackers, Anarumo said it’s no more pressure on them than the rest of the defense.

“Well, it stresses me,” Anarumo joked. “But no, in all seriousness, they’re not the only ones getting stressed. They do a great job with their run schemes. … Those are Baltimore-esque type numbers. It just puts stress on everybody. They’ll do fullback jet motions, wide jet motions. They’ll come in and try to really take out the ‘C’ gap defenders. To your question, the linebackers gotta be great with their reads, their eyes. But just like everybody else. Everybody’s got a full hand in helping us stop the run.”

SUNDAY’S GAME

49ers at Bengals, 4:25 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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