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Bengals Mailbag: Scrambling for cover and portfolio diversification

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Our listeners have spoken and they want answers to tough questions, as well as new solutions to long-standing operational approaches.

Another week and another critical domino falls on the Bengals’ offensive line.

After losing their first-round pick and starting left tackle, Jonah Williams, veteran Clint Boling has decided to retire. It leaves a major vacancy on the line. What the Bengals will do at the position is unclear, but they appear to at least have confidence in the options.

In the wake of these two losses, questions abound from the Cincy Jungle and Orange and Black Insider faithful. Whether it’s in the possible changing of operational approaches, or in schemes being concocted to hide deficiencies, Who Dey Nation wants answers.

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Sticking with the offense from a macro perspective, OBI listener, Cam, texted us asking about the possibility of a 2020 offseason philosophical shift. He asks:

Do the Bengals learn their lesson from Jonah and finally quit relying solely on the draft?

Excellent question and it’s a point I’ve been harping on for years. Cincinnati has to be the most frustrating team in the spring months because of their unwillingness to go after outside additions.

There are conflicting opinions here, but I think everyone can find a form of a middle ground. Free agency should be used as a part of the offseason puzzle to build a winning team.

The NFL Draft is where the foundation of a team is built, but rounding out a roster occurs in March. Yes, part of this process is in the important practice of re-signing your own critical players, but adding outside talent is imperative in creating a contender.

Simply put, the Bengals don’t do this and rarely have in the Mike Brown era. This year, the Bengals grabbed just one starter in outside free agency with the mid-tiered John Miller, while grabbing other low-end depth chart players like B.W. Webb and Kerry Wynn.

John Jerry may become another starter with Boling’s retirement, but he fits the mold of what the Bengals have traditionally gone after in outside free agency. Namely, a past-their-prime veteran on a bargain bin contract.

To the Bengals’ credit, it isn’t like they’ve lied to us about their preferential approach. Sure, they’ve attempted to defend certain deals (Bobby Hart, anyone?), but they’ve made it widely-known that they want the cheap, young talent that is plentiful in April’s big event.

With that background setting the table, it’s hard to imagine a massive shift in offseason philosophies. This is especially the case with our not having a firm grasp on Zac Taylor’s desires on the subject.

If he is a bit more eager to go with forays in outside free agency, though, Taylor will have to earn. Much like how Marvin Lewis wrestled away power from the Brown family, Taylor will need to build equity with ownership to sway them from their comfort zone.

How will he achieve said equity? Through competitive wins and crushing losses.

If Taylor immediately comes in and has the Bengals even sniffing a playoff berth in year one, he’ll have gained the gravitas to approach ownership for more allocation of resources in year two. He could use the “well, if we would have signed a guy like ‘Player X’ in free agency, that 8-8 could have been a 9-7 with a Wild Card”.

The additional thing here on the periphery is in ownership’s monitoring of the fan base. Paul Brown Stadium has seen a hit at the box office since the 2015 Wild Card implosion and the team made reference to it when talking about the switch to Taylor this offseason.

If the sweeping coaching changes isn’t enough to shake the apathy from both the locker room and the fan base, some truly notable 2020 free agency signings could be the thing that moves the needle. It’s one of the ingredients leading to the love-fest the Cleveland Browns are receiving this offseason.

For now, no, we don’t see a change forthcoming. The Cincinnati Bengals and its decision-makers are obstinate in their stances, as well as being surprisingly-confident in its operational practices for a franchise that has had so little success.

Still, Lewis budged the team into modernity, so maybe Taylor and his youthful exuberance can give it another big shove. The win-loss column will play a role in that decision.

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In a voicemail from OBI listener, Ken, he wanted to know what the Bengals are going to do differently on defense this year. He noted that Cincinnati’s defense played more of a “soft, prevent defense” in 2018, largely causing many of the issues.

Despite the crazy amount of injuries last year, Lewis got the unit to play a little bit better down the stretch when he took over for Teryl Austin. Both guys are gone and it’s up to Lou Anarumo to get the group back to a semblance of respectability.

If you remember, Austin was a guy who craved the creation of turnovers. That’s why the team drafted play-makers like Jessie Bates III, Darius Phillips and Devontae Harris last year.

Unfortunately, his obsession with creating turnovers (a noble desire, to be sure) came at the sacrifice of handling the basics. Tackling was still quite poor, even from Vontaze Burfict, who was once known as one of the best on the team, while the unit often failed to get off the field on third down.

And, while employing Pro Bowl players like Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, the Bengals’ defense ranked No. 28 in the league with just 34 sacks. To boot, Cincinnati wasn’t even that great at creating turnovers, as evidenced by the zero combined interceptions by their trio of former first-round corners (Dre Kirkpatrick, William Jackson and Darqueze Dennard).

My thought is that Anarumo will be a bit more aggressive and diverse than Austin. The team will likely have more defensive backs on the field more often to mask the linebacker deficiencies, while a young trio of defensive ends in Carl Lawson, Sam Hubbard and Jordan Willis hopefully gives them more off of the edge.

For me though, if this defense is at or slightly-above average, that’s a big boost. And, there is an easy way for Anarumo to achieve this.

The basics.

Cincinnati has signed Preston Brown to two different contracts and added Germaine Pratt because they believe believe they are (or will be) two of the better tacklers in the NFL. These types of acquisitions go a long way in stopping drives by the opposition, as what were easy 3rd-and-2’s become 3rd-and-7’s because ball-carriers were dropped on first contact in the early downs.

Corralling interception opportunities when gimmes come their way is a must. As the offense attempts to play catch-up with the new scheme, flipping the field to give their counterparts short distances for point opportunities will be huge.

I feel that if you shore up the simple things, the other frustrating ancillaries will dissipate. For example, if you tackle well on first and second downs, those irritating third-and-short conversions to tight ends become less frequent because of increased distance needed to be gained in order to extend a drive.

It’s on the players too, though. Guys like Jackson, Kirkpatrick, Dennard and Willis all need to step up their games in 2019. Jackson played the best out of the group, but getting more out of these high picks is critical and it’s seeming like it will occur without Austin hitting the panic switch multiple times during the course of a game.

Schematically, I think you’ll see a lot of rotation on the defensive line for pass-rush looks, while employing a lot of defensive backs. I also think you’ll see Anarumo allow his corners to do what they do best, which is press-man coverage.

If you’re expecting a Mike Zimmer-type unit from 2012 to show up this year, you’re mistaken. But, if this unit can get to a level where they are top-half of the league in the more important statistical areas, I think you’ll see a much more fun Bengals team to watch in 2019.