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The Bengals defense is getting turnovers, now it’s time to stop giving up so many points

Entering their Week 9 bye, the Bengals ranked last in the NFL in yards allowed, giving up an average of 447.8 per game. Yards, however, do not win or lose football games — points do.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Make no mistake, the Bengals’ defensive issues are not new. Their on-field performance has been falling off ever since former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer became the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. When another former defensive coordinator Paul Guenther found his way out of Cincinnati, Marvin Lewis emphasized the importance of getting more turnovers as he found the replacement in Teryl Austin.

When they entered their bye week last week, the Bengals were last in the NFL in yards allowed, giving up an average of 447.8 per game. Yards, however, do not win or lose football games — points do. Unfortunately, the Bengals have also given up 29.6 points per game, which was also near the bottom of the barrel compared to the rest of the league.

The Bengals have had a major problem with missed tackles and have given up big plays in the run game and the pass game, which has obviously contributed to this issue. Don’t forget that the goal for the defense was to get more turnovers and in that area they have succeeded.

The Bengals have given up some big plays in the pass game, but they have also made big plays of their own. The Bengals have an impressive 10 interceptions this season, with safeties Jessie Bates and Shawn Williams tied for the team lead with three-a-piece. The safeties are obviously at the forefront of the Bengals turnover strategy and both are aggressive ball-hawks particularly in Cover 1, Cover 2, and Cover 4.

The pass rush has helped the Bengals create more opportunities for turnovers as well. The defensive unit racked up an impressive 21 sacks through their first eight games, and 13 of them came from their two-best defensive lineman. Carlos Dunlap is currently on pace for 14 sacks this season and Geno Atkins is on pace for 12 sacks this season. The injury to Carl Lawson, who was second on the team in pressures, will certainly be felt. The Bengals will need to find someone to step up on the edge opposite Dunlap.

The Bengals have accomplished their goal by getting more interceptions, but they need to be smart about when to take chances. “Bend-but-don’t-break” needs to be a part of a turnover-centric defense’s strategy. The Bengals may be on pace for a historically bad year in yards allowed, but if they can keep teams out of the end zone, then who cares?

Austin’s unit should continue to jump on opportune passes, but they must make good reads, have help over the top when possible, and collapse on to the ball when they are wrong. The also need to improve in two very important phases: on third-down and in the red zone.

The Bengals rank in the bottom of the league in third-down defense, which is a misleading stat because it doesn’t break down third-and-short vs third-and-medium or third-and-long. Third-and-short is more about what a defense did on first and second down. On third-and-short, a smart defensive coordinator won’t sell out to make a stop and will instead live to fight another day. The worst thing that can happen on third-and-short is that a defense sells out to prevent the first down then the offense breaks a long touchdown.

Third-and-long is a completely different story. The Bengals must be able to get pressure and tighten up their pass defense in these situations. The defense knows that the opposing offense is going to pass in this situation the majority of the time; and it presents an opportunity to create turnovers. Again, defenders must be smart and understand the situation. Similarly, in the red zone, the Bengals must tighten up in the secondary, make tackles, and be cognizant of turnover opportunities. In short, these situations come down to playing sound defense.

The Bengals had a goal of creating more turnovers and are near the top of the league in that category with 13. Outside of the Dolphins game, they have not had many fumble recoveries, and they rank in the middle of the pack in both fumbles forced and fumbles recovered. It is not for lack of effort as there have been times when players have missed tackles because they were trying to strip the ball. That is not sound football though.

The Bengals need to do a better job of getting more defenders to the ball. The first player’s responsibility is to secure the tackle. This does not mean diving at the ball-carrier’s knees. The best way to force more fumbles is to secure the tackle, but keep the offensive player up so the next guy in can rip the ball out. The best example of this came from Clay Matthews as he ripped the ball out of Adrian Peterson’s hands on Monday Night Football in 2009.

Most defenses look to play sound defense and then try to create turnovers. The Bengals went the other way. They are creating turnovers which is what they set out to do. Now they need to get back to fundamentals and improve their tackling to prevent explosive plays and keep the other team out of the end zone.