How the Bengals went against history to build a Super Bowl-worthy defense

Coordinator Lou Anarumo took players other teams didn’t want and turned them into the most adaptable, dangerous unit in the NFL.
Cincinnati Bengals safety Vonn Bell (24) returns an interception in the fourth quarter during...
Cincinnati Bengals safety Vonn Bell (24) returns an interception in the fourth quarter during the AFC Championship NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022 at Arrowhead Stadium.(Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer)
Published: Feb. 11, 2022 at 7:18 PM EST
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LOS ANGELES (Enquirer) –– Before the Cincinnati Bengals played the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 3, Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor had cornerback Mike Hilton address the team. On the night before the game, Hilton opened up about his previous experience playing for the Steelers.

Hilton told everyone about his journey from an undrafted free agent bouncing around practice squads to a starter on one of the best defenses in the NFL. In 2020, Hilton was the leading turnover creator on the Steelers roster.

But when Hilton hit free agency for the first time, the Steelers didn’t even offer him a contract. It was a relatable message for the entire defense.

“There’s a lot of guys on this team who have been passed on or moved from team to team and whatever, not good opportunities,” Bengals defensive tackle D.J. Reader said. “You know how many free agents we got -- the old team didn’t want them. So that’s where we come in and take the attitude with it.”

Among the Bengals 11 defensive starters, five players had their previous team move on from them. Two more starters couldn’t earn full-time starting roles before they hit free agency. The two linebackers entered the season in a wide-open competition for the starting spot.

The only remaining players from the Marvin Lewis era were defensive end Sam Hubbard and safety Jessie Bates, who remain two of the most important players on the defense. But since 2019, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo have turned around the rest of the defense with players who have finally reached their full potential in Cincinnati.

Here’s how they built the Bengals defense.

2020 free agency: Signing two culture shifters and franchise changers

After four years as a starter with the Houston Texans, Reader hit free agency and weighed offers from the Bengals and the Denver Broncos. When Reader was deciding, his agent asked him, “Do you want to bet on (Broncos quarterback) Drew Lock or Joe Burrow?”

Reader bet on Burrow and signed with Cincinnati.

Reader was the Bengals first major free agent addition, and Cincinnati made him the 10th highest paid defensive tackle in the NFL. In 2019, Taylor and Anarumo learned from losses against the San Francisco 49ers and the Cleveland Browns when the Bengals couldn’t stop the run. They decided to get one of the best run stoppers in the NFL.

In the Bengals second round win over the Tennessee Titans, Taylor said Reader was the team’s “Superman.” While Reader makes his biggest impact against the run, the Bengals versatile defensive line wouldn’t work without a nose tackle who can fill multiple gaps in the middle.

One week after the Bengals added Reader, they signed safety Vonn Bell, who had been a starter for the New Orleans Saints for the previous four seasons. Bell had built a reputation as one of the most versatile safeties in the NFL, but then the Saints made a surprising move.

Instead of re-signing Bell, the Saints made free agent safety Malcolm Jenkins one of the highest-paid safeties in the NFL. By the time the Saints made the move, most of the other NFL teams who needed a safety had added one.

Even though the Bengals already had starter Shawn Williams under contract, Anarumo viewed Bell as the perfect piece for his adaptable, versatile defense. Bell moves more than any other chess piece on the Bengals defense. He can play on the line of scrimmage against the run, blitz off the edge, line up in the middle of the field as a de facto linebacker and play 30 yards off the line of scrimmage as a single-high safety.

2021: Starting something completely new for Bengals defense

The conventional approach for the Bengals 2021 offseason would have started with re-signing No. 1 cornerback William Jackson and No. 1 edge rusher Carl Lawson. The Bengals went in the opposite direction, using free agency to fill five starting spots.

Nearly every other great Bengals team had been built through the NFL Draft. While the 2021 Bengals found linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt in that way, they made some of the most aggressive moves in team history to add to the defense in free agency.

Defensive end Trey Hendrickson was one of the most controversial signings of the offseason. While he had 13.5 sacks in 2020 with the New Orleans Saints, Hendrickson benefited from playing with one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. In New Orleans, Hendrickson was a rotational player who had accumulated most of his sacks on a play where a teammate created the initial pressure.

Then Hendrickson signed a contract with the Bengals that made him one of the 10 highest paid edge rushers in the NFL. He became a Pro Bowler who had one of the best single seasons as a pass rusher in franchise history. He finished the regular season with 14 sacks and added 2.5 more in the playoffs. When opposing teams game plan against the Bengals, it usually starts with a pass protection plan against Hendrickson.

The Bengals found their No. 1 cornerback in Chidobe Awuzie, who lost his starting spot with the Dallas Cowboys due to injuries last season. The Bengals signed him to a modest three-year contract and watched Awuzie develop into one of the most reliable cornerbacks in the AFC this season.

Hilton immediately brought a dynamic presence in the slot as a standout blitzer and one of the league’s best defenders in man defense against slot receivers. Cornerback Eli Apple entered the year as one of the NFL’s most inconsistent cornerbacks, but he had a strong relationship with Anarumo from their shared time with the New York Giants in 2018.

Bell, a close friend of Apple’s from Ohio State, also helped in recruiting Apple to Cincinnati. Anarumo valued Apple’s first round pedigree and his athletic skill set, and he said he wasn’t ready to “give up on” Apple’s career.

Apple was a starter for the entire season, and he made two of the biggest plays of the game in the Bengals second and third round playoff wins.

During the 2021 season: Finding help out of nowhere

The Bengals wouldn’t have made the Super Bowl without waiver claims and midseason additions who have made game-saving plays in the postseason.

Fewer than two weeks before the start of the season, the Giants told defensive tackle B.J. Hill that they planned to trade him without giving him a destination. The following day, he learned that the Bengals had traded backup center Billy Price for him.

Hill recorded two sacks in his debut with Cincinnati. He’s one of the most versatile defensive linemen on the roster, setting a strong edge against the run and pressuring the quarterback at defensive tackle. When defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi suffered a season-ending injury, Hill stepped right into the starting spot.

Waiver claim Tre Flowers became the Bengals tight end stopper. Linebacker Clay Johnston tackled Titans running back Derrick Henry on a failed two-point conversion attempt. In the AFC Championship Game against the Chiefs, the Bengals coaches trusted backup safety Mike Thomas to play a few snaps of single high coverage, which freed Bell and Bates to make plays in the middle of the field.

Defensive tackles Zach Kerr and Damion Square joined the Bengals in the postseason and became two of the team’s first defensive linemen off the bench.

Since 2019, Taylor and Anarumo set the tone that they were looking for players with high football IQ, versatility and athleticism. As a final product, the Bengals defense is a combination of players that the Bengals believed in more than any other franchise.

“It’s a great collaborative effort by a lot of people,” Anarumo said. “It’s a very subjective business when it comes to player evaluations. We were in line on all these guys and we were able to get the guys we wanted, and we felt like we added players who could do multiple things.”

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