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Cincinnati’s defensive unit might be just good enough

Jessie Bates will lead what hopes to be a much-improved Cincy D.

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NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals
Jessie Bates
Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Question: How good will the Cincinnati Bengals’ defense be this year?

Answer: Not bad.

At least, that would seem to be the opinion of Pro Football Focus, which recently completed its ratings for each of the defensive position groups.

Cincinnati placed a defender among the top of most of the position groups, with linebacker being the only exception.

Leading the way was All-Pro safety Jessie Bates, III, who was recently tabbed as one of the top 25 players under 25 years of age.

According to PFF, Bates recorded the highest overall grade among safeties in 2020 with a 90.1, one of only two players to break 90.0. The fourth-year pro managed 12 pass breakups along with three interceptions. Despite the impressive resume, Bates came in a disappointing No. 8 among the league’s top 32 safeties.

Also getting some props was new slot cornerback Mike Hilton, who came over from the Steelers during the offseason. Since 2017, Hilton has 41 quarterback pressures from his cornerback positions, 13 more than any other cornerback in the league. His coverage grade is also among the best in the NFL. PFF tabbed Hilton at No. 4 among the 10 best slot cornerbacks.

After missing all of 2020 with a pectoral injury, Trae Waynes came in at No. 31 among the top 32 cornerbacks entering the 2021 season. Waynes has been one of the best run defenders in the NFL since entering the league in 2015, but has not been nearly as effective against the pass.

The man that Waynes is replacing, William Jackson, III, finished at No. 9.

Trey Hendrickson came to the Bengals in the offseason fresh off a 13.5-sack season that was second only to Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt, who finished with 15 sacks. Combine that with 49 quarterback pressures and the resulting 90.0 pass-rushing grade made him one of the top edge rushers in all of football.

Still in all, Hendrickson was ranked only No. 29, while the man he replaced, Carl Lawson, came in at No. 18.

Finally, defensive tackle D.J. Reader, who played in only four full games in his first season with the Bengals before being sidelined by a quad injury, earned an 85.4 grade from PFF in 2019 and is expected to anchor the Cincinnati middle in 2021. Injury concerns, however, dropped him down to No. 21 in PFF’s list of the top 32 interior defenders.

So, from the looks of things, whether or not the Bengals are successful on defense in 2021 might hinge on how well, or how poorly, Cincinnati’s stable of young linebackers perform.

Logan Wilson earned an unimpressive 54.7 overall grade from PFF in his rookie campaign, while third-year man Germaine Pratt finished at 41.5. If these two can improve, and other young backers like Akeem Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey can find their footing, this defensive unit might just be able to hold its own. Combine that with an explosive offense, and holding its own just might be enough.