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Bengals embracing “starting from square one” as new coordinators take over

As players roll in for their offseason training program, it is the first time they have been met with this much change since most of their rookie seasons.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

It is no secret the Bengals have been doing a lot of the same things for years now. The team’s last major change on defense came when they hired a fiery defensive coordinator from Atlanta in Mike Zimmer. Even when Zimmer finally got his shot as being a head coach, the defense didn’t change that much when Paul Guenther took control. In fact is was pretty much the same defense with slightly changed philosophies.

The Bengals endured the same thing on the offensive side of the ball. Although their last change up was far more recent with Jay Gruden joining the team in 2011, the offensive coordinator position has been more of a revolving door of faces. After Gruden left in 2014, he was quickly replaced from within by Hue Jackson. Then after Jackson left in 2016, Ken Zampese was promoted in a similar fashion. Zampese only lasted a season and two games though before being fired. Then Bill Lazor was able to take his spin on the playbook that had been revised countless times before.

All of that is out the window now. Even with Lazor returning, he is starting from scratch rather than adding another addition to the Gruden playbook. Additionally, with Guenther leaving for Oakland, he took his Zimmer ideals with him. Teryl Austin will be replacing that as he comes over from Detroit and takes the defensive reigns.

This has led to some real excitement among the player who spoke with enthusiasm about what’s to come this season in Cincinnati. It is almost like someone woke this team up from an almost decade long slumber. One of the common themes was embracing the change.

“This is a complete change,” Dalton said via Katherine Terrell of ESPN. “What we were doing before was basically Jay [Gruden’s] offense with the adaptation of Hue [Jackson], he put his stuff on it, then [Ken Zampese] took over and he did his thing. Now we’re starting from square one. This is all new.”

This is what fans have been begging for since the 2016 season. It was apparent that this team needed a fresh voice, as well as some new philosophies. It was even more apparent during the 2017 season as the team struggled through the year until rumors of Marvin Lewis being let go at the end of the season caused the team to finish the year with two wins over playoff hopeful teams.

New concepts aren’t the only thing getting players excited on offense, though. There are a few new positional coaches, too, and A.J. Green can’t wait to get out on the field in front of his new receivers coach.

“Anytime you get a fresh start with new coaches, everybody is interested in impressing their new coach,” Green said via Geoff Hobson of “I’m blessed to have had Urbs for the first seven years and they haven’t really changed offenses. It will be a challenge. I’m ready for that.”

James Urban left to become the quarterbacks coach in Baltimore, which allowed the team to replace him with new wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell who has 25 years of experience coaching. The idea of having an even more engaged and motivated Green just doesn’t seem fair for opposing defenses.

A major change offensively is how the Bengals will be calling their routes. Instead of using phrases for routes, the team will use numbers. The most common example, which Hobson also used in his article, the “go route”, or streak as some may also know it, will be called the nine route. Brandon LaFell is already familiar with this system from his time in Carolina with the Panthers.

“I don’t think it’s too hard to pick up on. As long as you know where to line up the numbers will come to you,” LaFell said. “We’re still looking to get into it. We’ll do that in the next few days. You get to the point where you learn the numbers and you don’t think protection because that was for the linemen. You have to think it’s for me. We still have code words for no huddle and the two-minute drill. I think it will be different, but they should be able to pick it up on the fly and make guys play faster.”

It is a little thing, but it is another example of how far Lazor is willing to get away from the Gruden foundation that has grown stale in Cincinnati.

On the defensive side of the ball, linebacker Vincent Rey will have to embrace change for the first time as a Bengal in hopes of fighting for his spot on the depth chart.

“A lot terminology is different. I’m going to have to learn to adapt,” Rey told Hobson. “I’ve been in the same system for eight years. A lot of things are staying the same and some other things are changing and to me that’s a lot of changes because we’ve had the same defense … We’re going to be more multiple. We’re going to be doing more things … Change is always good. I’m ready for it.”

Rey is now on an even playing field with newer competition at the position in young guys like Jordan Evans and newcomer Preston Brown. The Zimmer defense isn’t drilled into their minds as much as it is with Rey, but with Vontaze Burfict’s four game suspension, Rey’s roster spot is practically secured.

The emphasis on creating turnovers is huge though. It was a major reason the Bengals struggled to win games last year. The only team to have fewer turnovers was the Browns. Austin did a great job last year as the Lions’ defensive coordinator not only preaching turnovers, but by also practicing creating them with some of the drills he ran. The Lions had a +10 turnover ratio in 2017 compared to the Bengals -9. His defense should also help highlight the array of talent on the defensive side of the ball.

The biggest non-coordinator change though was the Bengals bringing in Frank Pollack to replace Paul Alexander, who was the offensive line coach for over 20 years. Pollack already has some of the younger linemen excited.

“Frank has a different mentality. He’s intense. He keeps you awake,” Alex Redmond told Hobson a few days ago.

“He’s a tough guy. He emphasized toughness,” Christian Westerman added. “He talked about things like that, that all offensive linemen enjoy and he was a player. That was a good vibe.”

These are guys who could be relied upon next season, pending how the draft goes. Plus the fact that they seem so engaged already is a great sign of how they could develop under Pollack’s tutelage.

It is more than offensive linemen excited about Pollack’s insertion into the coaching staff. Joe Mixon has even voiced his excitement about some changes up front.

“It looks good when you see Ezekiel Elliott run for 20 and 30 every play. That‘s what we like to see,” Mixon said. “It’s similar stuff. It’s the linemen getting after it every play being aggressive.”

It is easy to see why Mixon is excited for some change after he only averaged 3.5 yards per carry while only reaching the century mark once during his rookie year. Although being the lead back from day one will also help his numbers. Without having to defer to Jeremy Hill, he will receive more touches at opportune times.

The longest tenured lineman for the Bengals summed up the changes with the offensive line perfectly.

“We haven’t been good enough and you look around and there are people from different places and hopefully that’s bringing in a different result,” Clint Boling told Hobson. “Absolutely you welcome it. Whether its scheme or personnel it’s evident things are different by the changes that have been made.”

There have already been numerous changes, and the draft is right around the corner to add a few more wrinkles. It was clear after 2017 that something had to change, and the Bengals have proven a tiger can change its stripes.