A lopsided loss to Cleveland sucked the energy out of fans at Paul Brown Stadium four weeks ago, and the Cincinnati Bengals seemed to be trending in the wrong direction, particularly on defense.
Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie said the defense was struggling with its identity and needed a mental reset as opponents had exposed some flaws and were taking advantage.
In the two games since the bye week, Cincinnati forced five turnovers and allowed just 23 points combined, and the Bengals got their swagger back in front of the home crowd Sunday with a 41-7 win over the Steelers. Now, they look to keep that going this week when they host the L.A. Chargers.
“I think we started very strong in the season, and then like somewhere in the middle of it, we kind of got a little confused of who we wanted to be, you know?” Awuzie said. “And now I think it’s really apparent who we are. We are a fast, attacking defense. We’re smart. We’re communicating and preparing very well. The one thing I think that’s gone up is that we don’t want to give up any explosive plays. We realized that explosive plays equal points.
“Obviously, everybody wants turnovers and stuff like that, but when you really go down to the statistics of the game, any possession that an offensive player gets an explosive play, most of the time it equals points. Eliminating those explosives and making a team drive against you, 80 yards, 75 yards, however long the field is, it’s very difficult. That’s something that we definitely emphasize.”
The Bengals showed flashes of who they could be defensively in the first half of the season but two disappointing losses going into the bye week could have set off a downward spiral. Typically, Cincinnati has not done well coming out of byes. Instead, the Bengals went on the road and collected a 32-13 win in Las Vegas.
Awuzie said the bye week was the key to stopping the bleeding after giving up more than 500 yards to the Jets in Week 8 and then surrendering 41 points to the Browns the following week. In both games, the opponent picked apart the middle of the defense with screens, underneath passes and in the case of the Browns, an explosive running game from Nick Chubb.
“I feel like the bye came at a perfect time, playing that many games in a row,” Awuzie said. “Again, a new team, trying to figure a lot of things out, to give us time to slow down a little bit, to figure where we were weak at, where we were strong at. I feel like a lot of guys got healthier during that week, and I think we’re just starting to see the second half of the season who we can be and who we are. I think we’re developing our identity right now. It’s not who are we? Are we this, are we that? We know how to win these games if we do X, Y, Z. We really just simplified everything.”
The Bengals have used the past two offseasons to rebuild the defense, this year focusing on improving the pass rush and adding depth in the secondary. The addition of defensive end Trey Hendrickson and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi has made a noticeable difference, especially with Hendrickson’s 10.5 sacks and three forced fumbles proving him to be an upgrade from Carl Lawson’s production. Ogunjobi adds 3.5 sacks, and Sam Hubbard has benefited as well with 7.0 sacks.
That pressure up front has helped the rebuilt secondary make more plays as well, though it didn’t start to show until the past two games. Awuzie said it was a matter of getting a completely new group of cornerbacks on the same page. Eli Apple had struggled early on as Trae Waynes’ replacement but now has interceptions in two straight games and had better coverage on his receivers overall. Awuzie has been solid but felt like he could have done more as he was settling into the defense, and Mike Hilton had his career-best performance Sunday, according to ProFootbalLFocus.com grades, in a game he recorded his first pick-six.
“Obviously got to give credit to the D line and the linebackers doing their jobs and applying pressure so that quarterbacks are uncomfortable,” Awuzie said. “Running backs, you know, they had a great back last weekend (Najee Harris) and we were able to stop him as well. And I think we’re just playing really complementary football, offensive, defense and also from the frontlines to the backline. It was a great example of what we can do.”
Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said those two losses before the bye don’t paint the picture of the whole.
The Bengals have become a top 10 defense this year, ranking sixth in points allowed (20.5 points per game), third in passing touchdowns allowed (14) and fifth in run defense (93.7 yards per game), among other highlights. The win against Pittsburgh on Sunday was the culmination of all the things they had been working on and hoping to be with the defense and offense playing complementary football.
“I just think we’ve played 11 games now and as the season goes on you get more cohesive as a group and guys are feeling good about themselves,” Anarumo said. “We are feeding off the energy of the team. The offense set the tone going up the field and scoring right away. The way we were running the ball, it just felt great on the sideline with the guys. Just a team playing off each other, to be honest.”
Chargers at Bengals, 1 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7
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