Only 11 players are allowed on one side of the ball on a given snap. When the Cincinnati Bengals play defense, it feels like several more tiger-striped helmets are roaming the turf every play.
That’s not just a compliment to their ferocity, but an observation of their resiliency.
Injury regression became a talking point regarding the Bengals this past offseason, and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s unit has fallen victim to the inevitable. Chidobe Awuzie has been out since the middle of Week 8 with a torn ACL. Mike Hilton missed the game after Awuzie’s injury and has missed another one this month. Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt have each been sidelined for a week. DJ Reader and Josh Tupou missed a combined 11 games in the heart of the season with lower body injuries.
Just three of the defense’s 11 opening day starters have played all 15 games this year—Jessie Bates III, Vonn Bell, and B.J. Hill.
As with every team in December, many more are battling through pain. Look no further than Trey Hendrickson, who missed one game due to a fractured wrist and came back the next week on short rest. And then there’s his running mate Sam Hubbard, who strained his calf back in October and re-aggravated it two weeks ago, causing him to miss all of last Saturday’s game against the New England Patriots.
Game-planning with a limited Hendrickson is already difficult; doing so without Hubbard almost takes it out of the coaches’ hands entirely.
You can scheme pressure occasionally, but for a defense that picks and choses when to blitz so carefully, abandoning your principles so late in the year can lead to disaster. Hubbard’s improvement as a pass rusher in his fifth season has been such a welcomed bonus for Anarumo’s scheme, and defensive line coach Marion Hobby’s front four (sometimes five). Getting that production from someone else was going to be a tall task.
Cam Sample’s time to shine was upon him.
The first of three fourth-round picks from Cincinnati’s 2021 NFL Draft class, Sample has operated near the bottom of the depth chart for most of his first two seasons. That started to change early this year as he and Joseph Ossai were used at near equal rates to spell Hendrickson and Hubbard off the edge.
Ossai was pegged as the ideal third edge rusher due to his athleticism and billing as a top-70 pick, but Sample had a year’s worth of experience and development under his belt in comparison. That made for an equal playing field entering this season.
How equal? Through the first 13 games of the year, Sample and Ossai each rushed the passer exactly 141 times. Sample produced 11 pressures and one sack, while Ossai registered 12 and two, respectively.
The equal rotation ensued against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 15 before Hubbard’s calf injury resurfaced. Sample ended up with 40 snaps just in Hubbard’s spot at left defense end as Ossai and Jeff Gunter had to hold down the right edge for the previously injured Hendrickson.
Once Hubbard’s recovery timeline of 2-4 weeks was revealed, the plan became official. Sample would step up in Hubbard’s place as a full-time player for the first time in his young career. And that’s the underrated aspect of that position. Hubbard isn’t just a captain, he rarely comes off the field. In seven of his 14 full games, he played at least 90% of the defense’s snaps. That number jumps to 10 when you lower the threshold to 80%.
That rate of usage was expected of Sample, and he didn’t disappoint against the Patriots. He recorded three pressures, a sack, and two stops while playing 95% of the game. These plays in the video below show why he was trusted to go the distance.
It’s nothing short of remarkable how an entire unit maintains a high level in the face of attrition. Sample’s performance is one of many that indicates the Bengals’ defense is the closest thing to a hydra the NFL has. No matter how many heads you cut off, more will take its place.