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Thread: Bengals Young Defensive Leaders Can't Wait: 'Exactly What We Needed'

  1. #1

    Bengals Young Defensive Leaders Can't Wait: 'Exactly What We Needed'

    Bengals Young Defensive Leaders Can't Wait: 'Exactly What We Needed'

    Geoff HobsonSENIOR WRITER

    Frank Victories/AP Photos
    Jessie Bates III wasn't surprised by the free-agent moves.

    Safety Jessie Bates III and right end Sam Hubbard, the 2018 draft picks who have become centerpieces for the future of the Bengals defense, were hardly surprised when they watched their unit re-made in about a week's time last month.

    As the football world reeled while the Bengals shifted gears and committed about $120 million for five defensive starters in free agency, Bates and Hubbard had already huddled with coaches during their exit meetings following the season and left with the idea they were going to aggressively upgrade their side of the ball.

    The bad news is no one knows when they'll meet for the first time. The good news is they can't wait.

    "I knew we were going to get some guys just from what I had been told and I had no reason to think they weren't telling the truth," said Hubbard, the homegrown third-rounder off an 8.5-sack season. "I think they really showed that they are trying to win games and bring a winning culture and they followed up those words up with actions. And made some big moves.

    "It's exactly what we needed to improve on the defensive side of the ball. And we got it. It's time to go to work and put it on display. I'm just really excited. It's crazy times. Right now I'm preparing as hard as I can for it to come around. I think it's going to be awhile, but I'll continue like we're on track to start the season regularly."

    Bates, the second-rounder who has played all but one percent of the snaps since he arrived, lingered a bit with defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo after his exit meeting. The straight-shooting Anarumo told Bates privately what he needed to do to get better and he got the message.

    "I was one of the last guys to have a conversation with Coach Lou and we had a great conversation for about 20 minutes," Bates said. "I kind of knew we were going to get some help in here as far bringing in some new guys. They were preaching about getting younger and we did.

    "You heard around the league the Bengals don't reach out to players in free agency and spend a lot of money because that's always been their philosophy. They've always been comfortable with some of the guys in the locker room. I think now it kind of gives the players an eye opener. They're not going to keep a lot guys around if they're not getting the job done. Whether that's not getting a contract extension if not playing well in that first year, nobody's safe, I think that puts a little bit of fire under a lot of people and opened their eyes a little bit. At least to the guys that have been there for a while."

    The Bengals attacked a culture crisis that has been festering for a few years on that side of the ball. The once proud and hard-nosed defense that began the first four seasons of the previous decade with three top seven finishes in the NFL rankings comes into this season after a soft three years with four different play-callers.

    Since 2017 the Bengals have allowed the most total yards and most rushing yards, but this spate of signings has yielded a group of big, smart physical men coming play-off defenses.

    The moves project to five new Opening Day regulars: Texans nose tackle D.J. Reader (a Pro Football Pro Bowler in the first stretch of the season), Ravens middle linebacker Josh Bynes (a starter for a defense that finished fifth vs. the run), Vikings cornerback Trae Waynes (off a Mike Zimmer defense that had the third most interceptions), Saints safety Vonn Bell (whose defense finished fourth vs. the run) and Vikings slot cornerback Mackensie Alexander (who didn't miss a tackle on 142 run plays, according to PFF).

    The effort for chemistry was symbolized by Bell reaching out to Bates on his phone and Hubbard firing out a welcome text of his own to his old buddy from their days of hoisting the national championship trophy for Ohio State.

    "Vonn's an incredible player. Great character. Leadership. Competitor. I was really excited to hear that," Hubbard said. "He's super physical. He comes down and makes tackles on anybody. He's been doing that since I've known him. I think he's elevated his game to a whole new level the last four years in New Orleans. I just think he brings a physicality and mentality in the back end that's going to be awesome to have behind me."

    Bates enjoyed their first conversation.

    "I hear he's very smart, very well-rounded, which is step one in getting the right guys in the locker room," Bates said. "He introduced himself and we're excited to be working together."

    Bates, who turned 23 last month, has his pulse on the youth. Bell turned 25 in the last month of the season, Reader won't turn 26 until July and Alexander doesn't turn 27 until the second half of the season.

    That's one of the reasons the Reader signing has them raising their eyebrows.

    "I know he's a great young player. I think they made him the highest-paid nose tackle and he definitely deserves it. I think it was a great addition," said Hubbard, picturing Reader next to Pro Bowl pass rushing tackle Geno Atkins. "That's a big presence. He'll help us all across the front when it comes to stopping the run and rushing the passer. A very physical, big guy."

    Maybe the most revealing stat over the last three seasons is that while the Bengals have faced the most rushing attempts, they have handled only the 20th most passes. They know they have to reverse that trend to open up the pass rush. If anybody knows that, it is Bates after he led the team in tackles as a rookie, edging out safety partner Shawn Williams. Last year, Williams won the title and Bates finished 11 tackles behind linebacker Nick Vigil in third.

    "The big thing is stopping the run," Bates said. "It's never good for your safeties leading the team in tackles both years I've been here. I think that's why they went out and got a really good defensive line guy. That will help a lot. And I think next is stopping the pass being aggressive, maybe even getting some fire under guys and making it a lot more competitive in the secondary."

    There are things to be worked out, of course.

    Butch Dill/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
    Sam Hubbard on his Buckeye teammate Von Bell: "I just think he brings a physicality and mentality in the back end that’s going to be awesome to have behind me.”

    Bates has always been the free safety here (he's got six picks in 32 games) and while Bell has done both, he's got a strong safety's game to complement Bates. Bates also believes they'll find a place for incumbent strong safety Shawn Williams, a respected and versatile sort who can help at linebacker and the secondary in certain packages with the credibility a locker-room leader.

    "He's been one of my best friends for two years and he's great for us on and off the field," Bates said.

    Both Bates and Hubbard began their offseasons in Florida but have returned to their homes, Hubbard in Cincinnati and Bates in Fort Wayne, Ind. Both are adhering to the sheltering guidelines of the pandemic and are mixing up social distancing with solitary workouts.

    But they're keeping in touch with teammates and coaches.

    "I think ownership and the personnel department did a great job giving key pieces that the coaching staff was asking for. We're all really happy," Hubbard said.

    When they're all together is another question. But they can't wait.

    "We needed a fresh culture. Needed to develop a winning culture. Adding guys like this with the right mindset, the competiveness, who do things the right way is the first step of many," Hubbard said. "I think we're on our way."

  2. #2
    Bengals Banking on Waynes To Help Transform Defense

    Geoff HobsonSENIOR WRITER

    Ric Tapia
    Trae Waynes brings hard-nosed play to the Bengals secondary.
    Minnesota Vikings cornerback Trae Waynes (26) tackles Carolina Panthers wide receiver Damiere Byrd (18) during an NFL regular season football game on Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017 in Charlotte. (Ric Tapia via AP)

    In this Give-Me-The-Ball day and age, the Bengals started the Zooming '20s by signing a guy that never wanted the thing.

    Former Vikings cornerback Trae Waynes, one of the highest paid in the Bengals' most lucrative free-agent class ever, remembers telling his middle school coach back in Kenosha, Wis., 'I'm not playing football if you put me on offense.'

    "I guess that's what it comes down to," Waynes says. "I'd rather hit than get hit."

    Which perfectly captures the crop of Bengals free agents the club officially unveiled Wednesday morning three weeks after they agreed with most of them. In another nod to the NFL in the Pandemic Era, head coach Zac Taylor is expected to comment on his new players later Wednesday in the Bengals' first-ever Zoom news conference.

    That's going to be a harbinger of the Bengals' virtual off-season program the club is planning to use in the first two phases of the OTAs that are pretty much confined to classroom work.

    "We're going to make it like we're all sitting in the same room together," says defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo of meeting with the entire unit, "and then we'll break it out into their groups."

    Waynes is one of the headliners of a free-agent class that's groomed for a beleaguered defense sick of getting hit and not making hits during this past three-year stretch it has allowed the most total and rushing yards in the NFL.

    Six of the eight acquisitions play defense and five are projected to start Opening Day with Waynes lining up opposite fellow first-round pick William Jackson III and outside his former teammate and slot corner Mackensie Alexander, another of the class for which the Bengals reportedly committed nearly $150 million.

    Mark Reis/Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
    Trae Waynes (above) studied under former Bengals cornerback Terence Newman in Minnesota.

    All six defenders coming from teams that made the playoffs in 2019 (former Ravens middle linebacker Josh Bynes leading the way with seven career post-season games for three different teams) underscores the culture change head coach Zac Taylor knew he needed as last season unfolded.

    And, they can no longer say nearly all the Bengals have never played in a post-season victory because all six have. Four of them, Waynes, Bell, former Texans nose tackle D.J. Reader and backup Titans cornerback LeShaun Sims, have each played in two playoff wins, and Alexander has played in one. Bynes was a special teams maven during four tournament wins for 2012 Super Bowl champion Baltimore before playing linebacker in three other playoffs.

    "Huge," says Anarumo of the January experience. "One of the ways you change your culture to winning is to add guys that have demonstrated winning in this league. And we got younger at each position with guys that played in playoff games."

    Anarumo is banking on the culture wars translating to the trenches for a rush defense that has been torched in recent years. So it's no coincidence that all six additions were rated highly against the run or were on teams that finished in the top half of the league against the run. For instance, Bynes ran out of the middle of the Ravens' fifth-ranked rush defense.

    And the DBs, especially. Alexander didn't miss a tackle, according to, on a Vikings team that finished 13th vs. the run and boasted Waynes, a willing and speedy tackler worthy of a 4.3-second 40-yarder at his scouting combine. Bell was in the middle of a Saints defense ranked fourth against the rush.

    Anarumo, a seven-season NFL secondary coach, came into the offseason after his first year as a coordinator knowing he had to upgrade horrific tackling, particularly on the edges.

    "You've always had to tackle. Especially today with the stuff that ends up on the perimeter, including those short passes that end up in long runs," Anarumo says. "One area last year that was obviously where we need improvement was yards after contact. It was not good."

    Reader, with his reported four-year, $53 million deal leading all nose tackles, and Waynes, with $20 million of his $42 million coming in the first year of his three-year contract, are the faces of the rebuilding.

    And Waynes, the Wisconsin native who left but stayed in the Big Ten, is the symbol of the good-old fashioned Midwestern-AFC North football values at work in the culture change. It's an effort buoyed by Ohio State national champions Bell and right end Sam Hubbard and a pair of holdovers from the top ten Bengals defensive glory days, Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins and left end Carlos Dunlap.

    "I can't get out of the Midwest if I tried," Waynes says. "I was born and raised there, went to school there, got drafted there and I'm still there."

    It figures that Waynes is a product of coaches with deep roots in Cincinnati and the Bengals as well as tutored by a former Bengal. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, who led the Bengals defense to those four top ten rankings and four play-off berths in his six seasons as coordinator, drafted Waynes as a head coach with the 11th pick in the 2015 first round out of Michigan State.

    And it was in East Lansing where Cincinnati native Harlon Barnett (Princeton High School) consistently coached those top Spartan secondarys known for black-and-blue fundamentals.

    Waynes has put himself in the tier below the Pro Bowl, but has baffled observers with the kind of speed that always seems to put him in position but has yielded just seven interceptions in five seasons. During 2018 training camp, Zimmer talked about how close Waynes is, seemingly just a fingertip away.

    "He's a really good corner now," Zimmer told The St. Paul Pioneer Press during 2018 training camp. "To be elite, he's going to have to take the ball away and deny the ball.''

    For Zimmer to call you "a good corner," do you know how really good you must be? Good enough to get the big money, as well as bring a boatload of intangibles Anarumo wants to graft onto his unit.

    "He's gritty, he's tough, he can run like the wind. He's got length. A quality player," Anarumo says. "No doubt about it. He comes from all that stuff. He comes from good pedigree."

    Waynes, "the little brother," of college teammate Darqueze Dennard, the Bengals' 2014 first-round corner, grew up tackling everyone in his family. The fact he could catch them is impressive, given that Ron Waynes, a long jumper who went to the 1984 Olympic trials, and Erin Waynes, a distance runner, met as track athletes at Kansas State.

    "To say the least," says Trae Waynes of the hard-nosed styles of Barnett and Zimmer. "At Michigan State we had tackling drills every day from what I remember. We were always hitting each other or a bag or something …

    "Playing the defense we did we kind of had to, the way we schemed everything up," says Wayne of tackling for Zimmer. "We were doing tackling drills quite frequently. If it's something you didn't like it, you were going to like it."

    If Waynes has copied anybody's game, it may come from Barnett, a fourth-round pick in 1990 of, naturally, the Midwest Cleveland Browns of the old AFC Central after his run at Michigan State led to his 99 NFL games in seven seasons.

    "Myself," says Waynes when asked what NFL corner he emulates. "I try to be what Coach B. taught. Complete corner. Not somebody that can just run and cover, but someone who can tackle as well. That's the kind of player he was coming out of college. He was a hitter, too, who played with passion."

    When he got to Minnesota in 2015, Terence Newman had just arrived off three seasons in Cincinnati and was still able to start 16 games at corner at age 37 while Waynes was breaking in with just one start. But another of Waynes' qualities is brains ("You have to be smart to play in that defense because of all the things they throw at you"), so instead of griping he learned.

    "T. New was a huge help. He was one of the biggest helps who was another coach to me," Waynes says. "We would go in Tuesdays on our days off. Just study film me and him. We'd go over the next week's opponent. He would teach me how to take notes, how to stay in the game. He would help me during the game. A lot of it comes from him."

    Waynes believes the Bengals scheme is still pretty similar enough to what Zimmer ran here and is running in Minnesota that he doesn't see much of a learning curve. Although he's extremely close to Dennard (on word of the agreement he texted Waynes all his contacts and talked up the city), Waynes didn't know what to expect from them in free agency.

    "That probably helps, too," says Waynes of the draw of the financial terms. "It just seemed like the right fit. They're running a defense that I'm very familiar with, so the learning part wouldn't be too much different. I believe what they're saying. It sounds like they're making all the right moves to make us a very competitive team.

    "I never followed too much free agency and what teams really did and how they do it. From what I keep hearing it seems like they were really aggressive this year."

    Bruce Kluckhohn/Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
    Trae Waynes is Midwest all the way.

    Although Waynes is a big hitter, he's not a big talker. He prefers defense, not the ball, remember? He's not going to be entertaining media scrums around his locker, but he's also got a good guy rep. Hard not to like a guy who adopts wayward dogs, has supported the Humane Society and puts the names of animal shelters on his shoes during "My Cause My Cleats," games.

    He's currently at his off-season home in the northwest corner of Montana and is speaking while enjoying a picturesque view of Flathead Lake backed up by breathtaking mountains.

    "It's a good place to get away," says Waynes, who likes to hunt and fish in classic Big Ten style. "There aren't many people in the state, so it makes it a lot easier (to shelter). That's another reason I wanted to come out here. Just to be safer."

    Waynes is joined by his wife Kyra (they repeated history and met at Michigan State) and two little daughters with four-year-old Layla running the anchor leg of his daily runs up two hills in the backyard.

    "If you ask her, she's 15," Waynes says. "She's a mini-me. Wants to do everything I do. I got yelled at the other day because I didn't let her win racing up the hill."

    The Bengals are hoping their guys are watching Layla's dad once the offseason moves out of the mountains.


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