So far, so good for Bengals’ revamped pash rush

CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals emphasized the need to improve their pass rush this offseason, and so far, that investment seems to be paying off with more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

They face their biggest test to date when they travel to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers (1-1) on Sunday in their AFC North opener. Ben Roethlisberger, although reported to be dealing with a left pectoral injury, always has been a challenge for defenses to bring down – especially the Bengals, who are 8-24 against him and have sacked him just 53 times in 32 meetings with just one in a pair of matchups last year.

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Cincinnati (1-1) didn’t sack many quarterbacks in 2020, though. The Bengals ranked last in the league with 17 last season, but they already have six sacks through two games in 2021. That ranks them tied for fifth.

“It’s just guys that work hard and do the things we’re coached to do led by Coach (Marion) Hobby,” defensive end Trey Hendrickson said. “He’s a great D-line coach, and playing with Sam (Hubbard), D.J. (Reader) and Larry (Ogunjobi) has been a pleasure and the guys that are filling in those roles like Cam (Sample), Wyatt (Ray), Josh (Tupou) and B.J. (Hill). They’re not letting off the gas when the next group comes on the field.”

Hendrickson was one of the new pieces added this offseason, joining as a free agent after making a big jump in production last year with the Saints when he recorded 13.5 sacks – nine more than the previous year.

The Saints’ 2017 third-round draft pick was brought in to replace departed free agent Carl Lawson, who when healthy consistently brought pressure to opposing quarterbacks but lacked the finishing product in getting sacks.

“I think it all stems from opportunity, and no one prepared me better for that opportunity than my wife,” Hendrickson said, noting his wife was a talented figure skater and fencing state champion and now is a pro at studying for her doctorate in pharmacy. “I can just remember studying film and breaking it down with her. She’s been a huge help in my life and as a football player and the way my off the field life has gone. Opportunity is something special. We look forward to getting after the quarterback next week.”

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Hendrickson has four quarterback hits and recorded his first 1.5 sacks of the season Sunday in a loss at Chicago, combining with fellow starting defensive end Sam Hubbard on one of them.

Hubbard said last week that he and Hendrickson complement each other well, and Hendrickson seems to agree.

“I think we’re both quick off the edge and can threaten a lot of teams with the vertical rush,” Hendrickson said. “I do think what makes it work so well is that we know our responsibilities really well and are both smart football players and we know when to take a shot and when not too and we both came free and split that one.”

The most noticeable improvement on the Bengals’ defensive line comes in the interior pass rush, however.

Backup defensive tackle B.J. Hill had two sacks in the opener against Minnesota, offseason addition Larry Ogunjobi has one sack and another one that was negated by an Eli Apple penalty Sunday. Nose tackle D.J. Reader recorded a sack as well and has been a big factor in a solid run defense as well, being noticed by ProFootballFocus.com along with Josh Tupou as the team’s top two performers through two games.

“They’re playing violently,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “They’re playing aggressive. They’re playing detailed. They’re not giving up anything easy. Even the throws that are out in space, the short throws underneath, I mean you see four guys rallying to get the ball carrier. That part has been really encouraging, really impressive. We’re going to need that going forward. It’s good for everybody on our team to see that.

The defense as a whole seems to have taken steps forward this year, and much of that credit has gone to the defensive line setting the tone. On Sunday, the Bengals’ defense gave up just one touchdown, as the Bears got their only other touchdown on an interception return.

Asked if the Bengals now have a defensive line comparable to the other great ones in the AFC North, Taylor said it’s too early to tell.

“I think the season’s still young,” Taylor said. “Obviously we have a lot of faith in those guys because of their approach and the work ethic and how detailed they are in what we’re asking them to do. So, early on that’s encouraging, but I think a lot of stories have been written after two games over the course of the history of the NFL, and it’s a long season. We just have to focus on being consistent. We lost, so nothing we did was good enough (Sunday). Yes, there were some good performances and some good drives, but we lost. At the end of the day, we want to allow zero points, however it shakes out, and we’ve got to play better on offense.”

SUNDAY’S GAME

Bengals at Steelers, 1 p.m., CBS, 1530, 102.7, 104.7