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Drafting and development struggles on defense evident in Bengals’ slow start

The veteran players in Cincinnati have certainly left more to be desired through eight weeks, but none of their successors have stepped up.

Washington Redskins v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Draft and develop. It’s a mantra which has helped the Bengals emerge from once being the laughingstock of the NFL into a team that should be taken seriously every season. In the Marvin Lewis era, the Bengals have drafted and developed some of the NFL’s best players, from Chad Johnson, Jonathan Joseph and Leon Hall to A.J. Green, Andy Dalton, Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Tyler Eifert. But as of late, the Bengals’ inability to do exactly what the foundation of the team has been built on has been a major problem, evidenced in Cincinnati’s 3-4-1 start.

2010 and 2011 marked the Bengals’ making the leap as a franchise, as the team drafted five of the best players on their current roster. Over that two-year span, the team selected Dunlap, Atkins, Green, Dalton and Clint Boling.

The team hit another home run in 2012 with the selections of Dre Kirkpatrick, Kevin Zeitler, Mohamed Sanu, Brandon Thompson, Marvin Jones and George Iloka.

But over the past three years, the Bengals haven’t been able to hit on players quite as frequently as they’d been doing so in the past. Cincinnati landed two superstars in Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard in 2013, but the other eight players the Bengals drafted that year have barely seen the field (though Margus Hunt has been seeing more time recently). Four drafted players from 2013 are already off the roster.

And in 2014, only Jeremy Hill’s selection stands out. Russell Bodine was a nice selection, as he’s come into his own in his third year starting and looks like a potential longtime Bengal. AJ McCarron was a steal, but he’s either a reliable backup quarterback or a trade chip at best. Darqueze Dennard hasn’t seen enough time to be labeled as anything but an unknown and Will Clarke has been proving more of what he’s capable of this season.

The 2015 and 2016 draft classes are too young to currently evaluate, but none of the players selected have stepped up in their limited opportunities to do so. Josh Shaw has been the best of the bunch, but he’s been pretty inconsistent (though promising). Behind him, there’s C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Kroft, both of whom look to be promising role players at the tight end position. Derron Smith has made some plays on special teams, but he’s still not ready for a significant role on defense. Jake Fisher has been a gadget player, while Cedric Ogbuehi has slowly started to put things together on the offensive line, though he’s still a major liability. These two classes could be promising, but the jury is still out on the players to step up and start performing.

You may have noticed, but none of the players I’ve mentioned play linebacker. Cincinnati finally drafted a true inside linebacker in Nick Vigil in the third round of the 2016 draft — a pick which initially angered tons of fans, though they have eventually come around to embrace him. The pick came as a complete surprise, not only because Vigil wasn’t high on many mock drafters’ draft boards but also because he’s a completely different type of player then the other linebackers currently employed by the Bengals.

Cincinnati’s struggles in drafting linebackers have been well-documented — only two of the six linebackers on the team’s current roster were drafted in the past seven years — but the selection of Vigil might’ve finally been an indicator of the Bengals’ adaptation to a pass-happy league. Only time will tell whether Cincinnati’s philosophy has changed or whether the selection of a slighter, quicker linebacker was an aberration in the team’s draft history.

But the fact of the matter remains: the Bengals — whether the fault be on Marvin Lewis, Duke Tobin or the entire front office as a whole — do not have the personnel needed to run the defensive scheme they currently run. Now before you go yelling “we need to switch to a 3-4,” let me explain.

Cincinnati’s defense is predicated on two-high safety coverages. It’s been this way for a while, as both Mike Zimmer and Paul Guenther have run similar schemes throughout their respective careers. Reggie Nelson and Iloka were a perfect pair for this, as both players were rangy enough to cover ground and prevent opponents from throwing deep passes. And I say were because Nelson is no longer the player he once was just a year ago, showing the team made the right move in signing Williams over him. While Nelson was listed as a free safety and Iloka as a strong safety, the two players essentially played the same position: both were capable of covering ground, both could make plays in the run game, both could lay the wood on a receiver coming across the middle of the field and both were able to avoid getting burned on a fairly consistent basis.

The changing of the guard from Nelson to Williams presents a slight drop-off, but not as large a drop-off as one would expect. Nelson’s eight 2015 interceptions stood out in the box score, but he had his struggles. Williams appears to be a similar player to Nelson — he does a good job bringing pressure when blitzing and makes some plays in run support, but he also gives up some deep passes. That will change as he gets more accustomed to the defense. The bottom line is that while Williams has been a drop-off from Nelson, he’s been far from the Bengals’ biggest defensive problem.

Cincinnati’s biggest defensive problem stems from the team’s draft philosophy of treating the linebacker position like two separate positions. To the Bengals, there are run-thumping linebackers and there are coverage ‘backers. That’s a major issue, as the team’s draft philosophy has actually made the Bengals’ defense more predictable.

Without athleticism at the position, it’s tough to employ double-A-gap blitz concepts — like Zimmer did for so long and Guenther has continued to do — because the linebackers need to be able to retreat into coverage. The Bengals’ interior linebackers don’t have the speed to do this. When Rey Maualuga is on the field, opposing quarterbacks know they’ll have a good chance of finding an open tight end or running back, whether in the flat or across the middle of the field.

And while Vincent Rey and Karlos Dansby are good at a lot of things, they aren’t performing at the level the Bengals need them to be at. Neither player is a difference-maker on defense at this point of their respective careers. Vontaze Burfict is a difference-maker, but his reputation presents a problem, as the linebacker will be flagged for any questionable plays, deserved or not.

To mitigate the Bengals’ woes at the linebacker position, Paul Guenther has resorted to a vanilla play-calling style, in which he plays more basic straight zone coverages and trusts his players to execute. And who can blame him, at this point? Guenther has one athletic linebacker on the roster in Vigil, who is a rookie making the transition from the Mountain West Conference to the NFL. The defensive coordinator doesn’t have the personnel to do what he likely wants to do, and his players aren’t executing on plays where the defensive coordinator has no choice but to hope they can execute. I could go on about the players’ individual problems, but I think you can get the picture.

There’s not much the Bengals can do to solve this problem in the near future. Taylor Mays could be an interesting free agent signing who could potentially lessen the problem, but he’s not a trustworthy player at this stage of his career. Marquis Flowers has been a headache at times (remember when he Tweeted it was “time to witness mass murder” against the Steelers last year?)

All the Bengals can do at this point is put the players in positions where they can make plays and hope they can execute. In the future, a free agent signing (Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower and Zach Brown could be expensive options in the upcoming offseason) or another draft pick (after all, Cincinnati is probably looking at 11 picks next April) could potentially become a longtime fixture on the roster. Hopefully, if the draft is the route, the defensive drafting turns into on-the-field results more quickly.