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The Bengals’ defense is actually giving the team chances to win

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Though some of the numbers are ugly, Cincinnati’s defense has scraped together performances to keep contests close.

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When you’re an 0-11 team, it’s safe to assume that very few facets of your team are working well.

Because rookie head coach Zac Taylor comes from an offensive background, that side of the ball is bearing the brunt of the blame for the worst start in team history. Rightfully so, as the team has been woeful at scoring points and in executing anything resembling efficiency.

In 2018, the Bengals’ defense under Teryl Austin reached dubious, record-setting levels. In his nine games as Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator last year, Austin’s group allowed an average of 32 points per game (as opposed to 23.8 when Marvin Lewis took over the final seven games), along with the allowance of 454.6 yards per game (361 average per game under Lewis).

In stepped Lou Anarumo with Taylor this year, completing a coaching staff with very little NFL experience in the roles for which they were placed. And, even though he was green for the gig, the prevailing thought was that things couldn’t get much worse.

Unfortunately, at some points this year, that sentiment didn’t ring true. The wide score differentials seen in the contests versus the 49ers and Ravens were prime examples.

Familiar issues in failing to cover able backs and tight ends in the passing game are commonplace, while an inconsistent pass rush and run defense haven’t brought much of an improvement from 2018. Even so, the defense has actually given the team a chance to pull out a number of wins this year.

A look at the numbers

Overall ranking: 417.3 total yards per game average, 32nd in NFL

Pass defense: 250.9 yards per game average, 21st in NFL

Pass plays of 20-plus yards: 49, 29th in NFL

Pass plays of 40-plus yards: 9, tied for 26th in NFL

Sacks: 16, 31st in NFL

Rush defense: 166.4 yards per game, 32nd in NFL

Run plays of 20-plus yards: 20, 32nd in NFL

Run plays of 40-plus yards: 1, tied for 15th (with 11 other teams) in NFL

Turnovers: 10, 31st in NFL

Red zone scoring percentage: 42.5 percent, fourth-best in NFL

Third-down conversion percentage: 43.1 percent, 24th in NFL

Points allowed per game: 26.5, 27th in NFL

As you can see, all in all, it’s not very pretty. A handful of these facets are improved from the Austin era, but for the most part, it’s not much of an uptick across the board.

A couple of these areas point to how the team has kept things in reach, though. The red zone scoring percentage is the one that immediately jumps out as the big positive, while the passing defense and third down conversion allowance aren’t great, but also aren’t totally putrid.

Additionally, some numbers on offense have to be considered here. Whether it was Andy Dalton or Ryan Finley under center, the other side of the ball hasn’t necessarily lived up to its side of the bargain.

Check out some of these figures by Cincinnati’s offense, courtesy of Football Outsiders:

Touchdown per drive percentage: .125, 31st in NFL

Punts per drive percentage: .450, 25th in NFL

Three-and-outs per drive: .250, 6th-highest in NFL

Furthermore, the Bengals haven’t scored more than 23 points all season, have scored just 17 points in four games and totaled 33 points in Finley’s three starts.

Manageable point allowances

As mentioned above, Weeks 2 and Week 10 showcased a defense that allowed a combined 100 points to two of the best teams in the league. Three other games against the Steelers, Cardinals and Jaguars basically averaged 27 points allowed in each, pointing to an easy five losses to lay at the defense’s feet.

Still, the team has allowed 16 and 17 points the past two weeks (Raiders and Steelers), respectively, and just 21 points two other times. In those contests against the Bills and Seahawks, those allowances were on the opposition’s home turf. Moreover, the team has had six of its 11 losses decided by one possession this year.

Now, the contrarian would readily point out that the defense let up late points to contribute to those end results. One could also point to a Steelers offense that has been shed of almost all of its talent since last offseason and the inconsistent nature of Oakland’s offense.

They’d be correct, as a chicken-or-the-egg argument would ensue. For instance, two of the touchdowns scored by the Ravens in Week 10 were off of Finley turnovers. But, in that contest, the rookie quarterback was staring at 14-0 hole by the time the first quarter was almost over and a 21-3 deficit before the first Baltimore return for a score.

As it has gone throughout much of the year, the Bengals’ offense and defense have been totally out of sync. By that, we mean that when the offense finally scores points, the defense usually breaks and vice-versa.

Punt coverage assisting things

The special teams unit of the Cincinnati Bengals has been the strongest phase of the team. We’re primarily talking about Kevin Huber and the punt coverage team, which has pinned teams deep with frequency. This has greatly aided the defense limiting points in certain situations.

Huber is right around the top-10 in net average, punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line and total yardage, give or take. About 41 percent of all of Huber’s 52 punts have been inside the opposition’s 20-yard line, while he also leads the league with 24 fair catches.

The defense is holding strong, but the field position swings by Darrin Simmons’ unit definitely gets a nod as an unsung hero.

All in all, this isn’t meant to be a glowing endorsement for Anarumo and the defense’s overall performance this year. In his first full season as an NFL defensive coordinator, we’ve seen Anarumo make mind-boggling personnel decisions, while some of the big-name veterans are lacking in the major statistical areas.

In fact, when the offseason evaluations commence, taking a hard look at the future of who mans the defensive coordinator in 2020 and beyond should be on the table. However, despite some of the poor numbers, this defense has had the team in a lot of games this year.

Also discussed on the postgame reactions video:

  • We outline the flaws in Ryan Finley’s game, eventually paving the way for the team to go back to Andy Dalton.
  • Special teams remains the strongest unit on the team in 2019.
  • Joe Mixon’s effort level and ability to have solid outputs are almost squarely on him, as the offensive line isn’t paving lanes for him very often.

Our thanks to all of those who tuned in live for the postgame reactions and to those of you for downloading the program after the fact. Join us for our recordings, if you’re able, otherwise subscribe to our channels and leave a review!

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