Rookie duo of Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson expected to give Bengals defense a big boost

CINCINNATI -- In the aftermath of the NFL draft, the Bengals' new weapons -- wide receiver John Ross and running back Joe Mixon -- got the bulk of the attention from media and fans.

That’s understandable. They were the team's No. 1 and No. 2 picks.

But when the Bengals start playing real football Friday night, albeit exhibition, er, preseason football, it's worth watching what picks No 3. and No. 4 -- Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson, respectively -- do against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7:30 p.m. kickoff at Paul Brown Stadium).

The Bengals defense can clearly use a boost. They ranked eighth in scoring defense at 19.7 after finishing second in the NFL at 17.4 in 2015.

“Our goal is always to be the top scoring defense in the league,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “It’s not about rushing yards. All those things will fit if you hold a team to less points than (the offense needs) to be scoring.”

Lawson, the third-round pick, has been terrific in camp, particularly rushing the passer.

“The difficult thing about Carl is that he’s a million miles an hour,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “He needs to understand how we have to continually practice here. He’s going to get unleashed. It’s a hard thing. He’s trying to be impressive. Well, he’s impressed me enough.”

Willis, the third-round pick, will also make his debut. Willis, a defensive end from Kansas State, is one of the players the Bengals brought in to add athleticism to the defense.

Jordan Willis’ impressive performance at the NFL Combine convinced the Bengals to draft him in the third round. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

He’s 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, but he ran a 4.53 40 and leapt 39 inches at the NFL Combine, both second-best among defensive ends.

Lawson, at 6-2, 260 pounds, benched pressed 225 pounds 35 times at the combine, tied for the top overall mark. Lawson is making the transition from a down lineman at Auburn to linebacker.

The learning curve is steep for he and Willis.

“He’ll continue to grow,” Lewis said. “He’s making a bit of a transition to playing on his feet in the base defenses. Making that transition and understanding the passing game is the biggest growth of playing linebacker. He’s doing a great job. It’s funny, he and Jordan Willis are conscientious in the same way. They don’t ever want to be wrong. I keep telling them, ‘Give me a little of (Carlos) Dunlap. A little Carlos. Just a pinch, and you’ll be fine.’’’

Dunlap, the veteran defensive end, isn’t afraid to take a risk. That works on defense.

“You have to be reckless to play this game on defense effectively,” Lewis said. “You have to have a little bit of that, because on defense, if you think you’re going to coach this game based on numbers, you’re going to get your butt beat.”

How successful the Bengals are on defense will rest largely on Willis and Lawson.

“We’re heavier at some spots than we have been in the past,” Guenther said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re making the right decision at the end of the day.”

Willis and Lawson will likely see plenty of time Friday.

“We’ve got new guys,” Guenther said. “We don’t want to wait until the fourth preseason game to put them in there early against good players and try to evaluate the guys.”

Vincent Rey, the veteran backup linebacker, has been impressed with the young guys.

“They’re catching on quick,” Rey said. “They’re playing fast and with intensity. They’ve been awesome."

But the question is how they'll do in real game situations. That starts Friday. 

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