Self-evaluation is a critical step preceding self-improvement. In the case for the Cincinnati Bengals, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo knows last year’s performance was unacceptable, and before he and the organization sign off on bringing in new talent, figuring out what to do different with the players already here is step No. 1.
Anarumo highlighted two members of his defensive unit in this regard: eight-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins and two-time game starter cornerback Darius Phillips. For Atkins, it’s recognizing he’s no spring chicken and being more diligent about his snaps when the weather turns cold.
“I’ve been around guys getting older and by the end of the year they’re just worn down. We have to be smarter with Geno’s rotation,” Anarumo told Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. “We were hamstrung a little bit with depth, but we’ll get him a few less reps. I think you’ll see a better Geno this next year.”
Hamstrung with depth isn’t an exaggeration. By the end of the season, Ryan Glasgow and Renell Wren were on the Reserved Injured list, leaving just Atkins, Andrew Billings and Josh Tupou left in the rotation. Atkins ended up getting consistent days off from practice to conserve the gas in his tank, but keeping a healthy rotation to keep him fresh is imperative for Anarumo’s second year in Cincinnati.
”He shows up for work every day. You almost have to protect him from himself,” Anarumo said.
So, it’s safe to say Atkins isn’t likely to top his career-high 816 snaps from 2019. For Phillips, it isn’t a matter of whether or not he sees more than his 109 snaps from last year, it’s a matter of if he’s out there for 60 snaps a game as a starter. That may come down to the unknown fate of Dre Kirkpatrick, but Anarumo’s surely in Phillips’ corner.
“Teaching ball skills, that’s a God-given ability,” Anarumo said. “You can get (players) to knock it down, which is a good thing, but there are two parts. Tracking it and catching it. Some guys can catch it, but they get lost when it’s in the air. To say you have a guy with hands like feet and turn him into an interceptor, it’s not happening. The best guys, you can see them throwing and catching. It’s not hard to see.
“You can have four interceptions in 1,000 snaps and that’s a heck of a year. (Phillips) even had one in the preseason, so he can find the ball.”
Finding the ball is a rare trait for cornerbacks in Cincinnati nowadays. Phillips’ four interceptions last year were the most from a Bengals cornerback since Leon Hall picked off four passes in 2010 when Atkins was a rookie. Though it’d be severely welcomed, Phillips doesn’t need to exceed that mark this upcoming season for him to be a successful starter. His ball skills are too impressive to hide on the bench for much longer.
Anarumo will spearhead the effort to turnaround this defense for the better, but he knows what assets he already possesses. It’s just a matter of getting them in positions to succeed.