There are two big reasons why the Bengals’ safeties need to refocus on creating more interceptions. The first is the way the NFL rules are changing on defense. Safeties, who opt to try and dislodge the ball from receivers rather than make a play on the ball, are more likely to get flagged—especially with the new contact and targeting rules. The second reason is because the Bengals simply didn’t have that many interceptions last year. In 2017, the Bengals’ safeties only had three total interceptions with Clayton Fejedelem, George Iloka and Shawn Williams each having one apiece.
“The hope is all these guys continue to grow and take the next step as centerfielders,” Bengals safeties coach Robert Livingston told Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. “Regardless of how you got here. Drafted, college free agent, whatever. That you have a good spring, fly to the ball and make plays downfield. If you’re a free player, you go get the ball two yards outside of your number and go take it away from him.”
The Bengals as a whole only had 11 interceptions last season on their way to a minus-9 turnover ratio. The 11 interceptions tied for 10th-worst in the NFL. However, when you combine that with an NFL-worst three fumble recoveries you only have 14 turnovers on the season. The only team who had less was the Browns, who went 0-16 last year.
It shouldn’t be a surprise then that the Bengals’ new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and his staff have put such an emphasis on creating more turnovers. It was something he did very successfully in Detroit.
Last season the Lions had 19 interceptions and 13 fumble recoveries. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you consider how the Bengals finished the season at 7-9 and how many close games they had along the way, a few more turnovers created could have been the catalyst in deciding those contests that had close margins of victory.
“We’ve just got to get back to making plays on the ball,” Livingston said. “I think everyone in the room can do it. Everybody is going to be given the opportunity.”
People say that you can’t coach turnovers, but that just isn’t true. You see with teams who have a lot of turnovers created in a season that their coaches consistently run drills to help coach them. It also helps to have some fierce competition, which is exactly what the Bengals brought in during the offseason by drafting safety Jessie Bates III in bringing in undrafted guys like Tyrice Beverette and Trayvon Henderson.
“It’s a good group,” Livingston says. “The young guys are flying around, which is what you want. They might make a mistake, but they do it fast and they don’t do it twice. And I can’t say enough about the veterans. They’ve been great helping the young guys and you don’t always see that.”
The more players like Bates push for playing time the better starters like Iloka and WIlliams will have to be. Although the help that Iloka and Williams are providing is nothing new for Livingston. He has been on the coaching staff since 2015 and has seen a couple generations of secondaries in Cincinnati. The most memorable to him was one led by Reggie Nelson. He coached Nelson in 2015 when he had eight interceptions on the season.
“Reggie has a phenomenal story and he’s still writing the story,” Livingston says. “He was essentially gave up. When he got here he got a second life. I think that stayed with him a little bit. ‘I want to do what I can do to help somebody else because somebody helped me.’ My lasting impression of Reggie is his ability to work with anyone who asks for help.
“You hear about guys that want to leave a place better than they found it. I think Reggie is a guy that felt that way and actually did it. He showed up every day with a smile on his face. He loved the game, loved what he was doing.”
Of course, the Bengals would love to go back to the days when Nelson was making plays in the secondary. Since his eight interception season, the other Bengals’ safeties have combined for just nine picks. Not only should that change in 2018, but it has to if the Bengals want to return to the playoffs.