The Bengals’ first preseason game under Zac Taylor is almost upon us, and the biggest storyline is not the state of the offensive line, or the wide receiving corps, or even the order of the defensive backs.
It is the Bengals’ linebacking corps, which has struggled mightily in recent years. But there is hope on the horizon.
And not just with the arrival of Germaine Pratt. Believe it or not, Cincinnati boasts a pair of pretty good linebackers in their own rights in Preston Brown and Nick Vigil. The key is keeping this trio healthy.
After all, the defensive line and secondary have shown they have plenty of firepower that can go toe to toe with any offense. But the abysmal play of the linebackers often negated that in 2018. if they can step up this year, this defense can quickly go from a bottom-feeder to a top-10 unit.
With a little luck and a lot of optimism, let’s look at what we’ve got.
Don’t take my word for it. Doug Farrar of Touchdown Wire recently called Pratt one of his “most underrated players.” He saw in Pratt an athlete who can cover running backs and tight ends, is stout against the run and can rush the passer off the edge. His comparison of Pratt to Jamie Collins says it all.
Pratt finished his 2018 season at North Carolina State with 104 total tackles, including 54 solo tackles, 10 tackles for loss and six sacks. He forced two fumbles and contributed three pass deflections. Pratt finished his career with three interceptions, including one that he returned for a 73-yard touchdown.
Despite standing 6-2 and weighing in at 241 pounds, Pratt ran a 4.57 40-yard dash at the combine, put up 24 reps on the bench press and recorded a 32.5” vertical jump. He allowed a 45.4 passer rating when in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus. Even more impressive, Pratt missed only four tackles all year and his run-stop percentage of 13.4% was ninth-best of all linebackers in the country.
In fact, Pratt was so often in the middle of things during his four-year career at N.C. State that teammates, including former first-round pick Bradley Chubb of the Denver Broncos, took to calling him “Big Play Pratt.”
“He’s a tough, alpha type of guy,” said Cincinnati defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. “You get that feeling when you shake his hand; he looks like an NFL linebacker. He’s going to make a good impact for us.”
Pratt was a back-up safety for the Wolfpack during his freshman and sophomore season, and it is that experience that makes him particularly adept at coverage skills.
R. Cory Smith of Pack Pride said that “Pratt is field fast and quick to key, read and finish from various depths, boasting a strong batting average as a tackler. Although he needs to clean up some things in coverage, he has the functional skill and experience as a safety to stick with backs and tight ends.”
Just how good is Preston Brown?
Brown played only seven games for the Bengals last year before a knee injury landed him on injured reserve. But, in those seven games, Brown recorded 42 total tackles and two interceptions, and, according to Pro Football Focus, allowed a career-low 83.3 passer rating in coverage.
Brown came to the Bengals by way of the Buffalo Bills. In 2017, he showed just what kind of a linebacker he can be when he led the entire NFL in tackles with 144 – 83 solo and 61 assisted.
A third-round selection of the Bills in 2014, Brown earned an overall grade of 78.3 from Pro Football Focus. By comparison, Steelers’ Pro Bowl linebacker Ryan Shazier earned a grade of 78.4 in 2016.
In 2016, Football Outsiders tabbed Brown as the league leader in “defeats,” which, according to assistant editor Vincent Verhei, “are one way to account for defenders who make frequent appearances on highlight reels.”
A defender is credited with a defeat every time he makes a tackle for loss, any play that results in a turnover or any tackle or tipped pass that leads to a stop on third or fourth down.
Probably the thing that stood out the most about Brown, prior to his arrival in Cincinnati, was his durability. In 2017, Brown was on the field for 1,098 of 1,108 of Buffalo’s defensive snaps. Equally impressive was the fact that, according to Pro Football Focus, he missed only six tackles on the season.
Brown led Buffalo by playing 99.4 percent of snaps in 2016, 98.2 percent of snaps in 2015 and 93.8 percent of snaps in 2014. All told, Brown played in all 64 regular-season games since he entered the NFL and started every game except two during his first two months as a rookie.
“What I know about Preston is he works,” linebackers coach Tim Lukabu told Bengals.com. He’ll lead, he’s a leader by example and, to be frank, you don’t lead the league in tackles by accident. At the end of the day, we know what he’s good at and how he can help us.”
Through five games last year, Vigil, who was in his third year with the Bengals after being selected in the third-round of the 2016 draft, was on pace for a breakout season. Vigil was leading the team with 55 tackles, and his season-opening grade of 85.2 from Pro Football Focus was the highest of his career.
A knee injury sidelined Vigil for five games, but he eventually returned to finish the season the way he started it – with 12 tackles in the season finale against Pittsburgh.
At 6-2 and 240 pounds, Vigil has played in 38 games through those first three years. He started 21 and missed 10 the past two seasons because of injury. Vigil has the speed and flexibility to play all three downs, and showed his toughness against the Steelers last year.
In 2017, Vigil started 11 games before being lost for the year with an ankle injury. In that time, he was credited with 79 tackles, good for fourth on the team, and recorded one sack, one interception, and five passes deflected.
“I think we’ve all got some responsibility,” Vigil told WCPO’s Laurel Pfahler. “Preston, me, a couple of the older guys…We’ll look to guys like Shawn (Williams) and Carlos (Dunlap), guys on the D-line. We’ve got to have some guys step up and lead this year.”
If they do, and if they can all stay healthy, the Bengals’ biggest storyline may just prove to be a Cinderella story.