It is no secret that the Cincinnati Bengals don’t play rookies. Over Marvin Lewis’ time with the team, few rookies have played that much. That has changed this season though as Geoff Hobson of the Bengals site notes:
Since linebacker Vontaze Burfict played 886 downs for that sixth-ranked defense in 2012, no rookie defender has played 165 snaps. But two current first-year players, pass rusher Carl Lawson (160) and cornerback William Jackson (154) are going to pass that in the next game. Two other rookies, end Jordan Willis (127) and tackle Ryan Glasgow (108) will get there at the midway point.
A lot of these younger players started playing Week 3 against the Packers when the team was 0-2. It was clear that the Lewis and Paul Gunther knew that with the season on the line they couldn’t keep these younger players on the bench anymore.
The Bengals were rewarded with a great defensive effort as the team recorded six sacks against the Packers, 2.5 of which came from Lawson. Jackson also returned an interception for a touchdown in that game. While Aaron Rodgers eventually overcame the early deficit to defeat the Bengals, it was clear this youth movement was going to lead to results.
After five weeks the Bengals are on pace to allow the fewest yards (4,205) and points (265) in the Bengals’ history. The Bengals have also recorded six sacks in multiple games for the first time in five years. They have 18 sacks so far this season.
If they keep up this pace, they will end up with 58 sacks, which would also be a record for the Bengals. If they reach that, Lawson will probably be close to Carlos Dunlap’s rookie sack record of 9.5 sacks. Lawson currently has 3.5 so far this season.
While the young players have been a huge part of this turnaround, the Bengals’ veterans have been huge as well. Burfict has been all over the field since returning from his suspension, and George Iloka is still one of the most underrated safeties in the NFL.
Geno Atkins has also been having one of his best seasons so far with four sacks so far this season. According to Paul Gunther Atkins has also taken more of a mentor role with the team:
“The one thing about Geno this year is he has become a mentor. More so than any other year I’ve been around him,” Guenther said. “You all know him as a quiet guy, but I’ve seen him taking Glasgow, taking Lawson, taking Willis, the inside guys, Billings, and really talking to them about, ‘Hey, this kind of protection, this is how they’re doing things.’
“Any time you get that kind of feedback as a young player from a guy that has been around here is tremendous. They get tired of hearing me talk for a while. Anytime you can hear from a veteran player you respect, that’s big …. He has done a tremendous job this year of being a mentor.”
Guenther also talks about shifting towards playing young players, and how changes to contracts have forced the Bengals’ hand a little bit. Also how the preseason helped build his confidence in these young players:
“My first year in coaching (the) AD told me for every freshman you play, you’re going to lose one ballgame,” Guenther said with a laugh Monday, the former youngest head coach in America surrounded by the frosh. “It always stuck in my mind. At this point in the NFL the way contracts are constructed you have to get them out there and playing and if they can play you’ve got to go. I felt good enough in the preseason. We played a lot of these guys early against good guys in the preseason that I spoke about in training camp that I think they kind of get it now.”
Lewis also talks about his dilemma of playing young defenders:
“The human nature — or coach nature — is to throw Michael (DE Johnson) or Carlos (DE Dunlap) back in there,” Lewis said. “But then you see Jordan Willis make the plays he’s making or Glasgow make the plays. Obviously with the plays Carl is making time and time again, and with Andrew Billings doing a great job inside, and William in the secondary — they’re earning opportunity. We have to make sure the level doesn’t drop.
It is sad it took the Bengals having such a rough start for them to finally play their young players, but it seems to be fueling a turnaround for this year. The Bengals are on a two-game winning streak heading into the bye. They will play the Steelers who just had a meltdown against the Jaguars at home losing 30-9. Reaching 3-3 would be huge for this team, and inserting these young Bengal defenders would be a huge part of it.