CINCINNATI — The Cincinnati Bengals defense made its presence known in the playoffs last year by creating several timely turnovers that was crucial to the team’s run to the Super Bowl.
Takeaways have continued to be a hallmark of this year’s defense, and the Bengals will be counting on more big plays as they begin what they hope turns out to be another deep playoff run.
Cincinnati forced nine turnovers in four playoff games last season and has recorded nine takeaways in the last three games, including four against Baltimore last week in the regular-season finale. The Bengals host the Ravens for a second straight week in an AFC Wild Card matchup Sunday night at Paycor Stadium.
“I think we’re playing solid,” nose tackle DJ Reader said. “Still got another level to go. We’re getting hot at the right time. Guys are feeling confident but we got to keep going up, keep elevating, knowing that this is a one-game season right now. … We know the recipe to do it. We just got to go out there and do it. And we got a lot of guys that are still hungry and competitive, and I think that they understand how important it is.”
Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has preached aggressiveness since he arrived, and the defensive staff has placed an emphasis on trying to strip the ball loose on every play in practice. The Bengals work on punching at the ball and having great hands in pass coverage too.
Cincinnati has 28 takeaways this season in 16 games, compared to 21 in 17 games last season. Trey Hendrickson leads with three forced fumbles, Vonn Bell adds two, and B.J. Hill has three fumble recoveries, while Reader and Joseph Ossai have two recoveries, including one for a touchdown Sunday in the finale. Bell and Jessie Bates each have four interceptions, and Germaine Pratt adds two.
“They’re all greedy,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “They’re all hunting the ball on every single play. I know that they know that we left several turnovers out there as well. We had a lot of opportunities, and we’ve got to maximize those. Be greedy. Whatever we’ve got, keep straining for more, and they do that. They got their hands on a lot of balls. So again, just a lot of opportunities that come our way, and we have to maximize them all. I was proud of the way that the guys found the ball when it came to them. We scored our first defensive touchdown of the year. We needed that. Proud of those guys for that.”
The four turnovers last week against Baltimore were against Anthony Brown, a rookie third-string quarterback.
It still seems unlikely Lamar Jackson will be playing Sunday, but backup Tyler Huntley was throwing Thursday, according to Baltimore media, and it does seem possible he will at least be available. Whether it’s Huntley or Brown or even Jackson, the Bengals want to take advantage of every opportunity they can to help the offense, which faces a Ravens defense Cincinnati only managed to average 22 points against in two regular-season meetings.
Reader said the goal every week is to go plus-two in turnover margin, because most of the time, that is enough to win a game. The Bengals have had six games with multiple takeaways on defense, and in three of their losses they were at a minus or even in turnover margin. They are at plus-6 in turnover margin during their eight-game winning streak.
“Once they (players) see this stuff really works and we can get the ball off people and we’re sprinting to the ball, and now I’m going to be the one that rips it out or I’m going to be to get the tipped interception, I just think they really focus on it even more,” Anarumo said. “And as coaches and everybody in the league is preaching takeaways and strip attempts and all that, and we’re no different. But the guys believe it and it’s documented now, so that they’re confident that if they catch a ball and make a play, we still got a chance to get it out.”
The Ravens will have more of their weapons available on offense this week after resting starters like tight end Mark Andrews and running back J.K. Dobbins, so the turnovers could be more difficult to come by, but Bell said it doesn’t matter who is on the field Sunday.
Bell believes Cincinnati is capable of creating turnovers against anyone because this is a group of defensive players that trust one another and communicate well. The Bengals specifically recruited players that just have a knack for the ball, too, and that could make a difference Sunday.
“That’s our mindset on this defense is just being greedy and wanting to make every play and really just making the splash plays we want to make for each other,” Bell said. “It just helps build momentum within the game making a splash play because it just puts the offense in good field position to make plays and score points. With this week and past, we gotta score six. That was big. And, so, we just gotta keep on building momentum week in and week out and keep proving to one another why we belong here and why we’re one of the best to play. And that’s the mentality on the defense for sure.”
Ravens at Bengals, 8:15 p.m., NBC, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7
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