CINCINNATI — Since Zac Taylor became the new Cincinnati Bengals head coach in February, much has been said about how the former Los Angeles Rams quarterbacks coach's experience developing offensive players could shape the team's future.
However, amid a sea of change within the entire coaching staff, the defense is the group that seems most impacted.
The Bengals operated under a defensive-minded Marvin Lewis for 16 years. Now, in addition to the turnover in coaches, some of the key defensive leaders are no longer on the team. (Most of the offense remained intact.) It’s a new playbook under defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, there’s new terminology, and the general consensus is “it just feels different” without veteran linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Vinny Rey or defensive end Michael Johnson.
“I've been in the same system for 10 years, so it's been an adjustment,” defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. “It's different … because having a defensive-minded head coach, that's one of the things as a defensive guy that you love because that's the emphasis, that's his baby, so to speak.
"We've got a lot of offensive weapons, and Zac seems excited and looking forward to it. I feel like that energy will be a positive push for our offense to get back to things we want to do and to utilize the weapons we have and light up the scoreboard like the fans want to see. But we have a lot of work to do on defense to get back on track, too.”
The Bengals will remain based out of a 4-3 defense, and the goal of playing fast, aggressive and smart doesn’t change. However, many players said it appears they will be more multiple and versatile depending on the opponent.
This is just the second week of voluntary offseason workouts, so the focus has been on learning the playbook and new terminology while the NFL limits teams to strength and conditioning work. Next week, players can get out on the field and start implementing what they’ve been working on.
“I like it,” linebacker Hardy Nickerson said. “It's a 4-3 scheme, but we do a lot of things out of it, so it's just learning it, getting it down on paper, so when we can start practicing we can play fast. From what we're installing, it looks fun on paper.”
Defensive end Sam Hubbard, who is coming off an impressive rookie season, said learning the new lingo will be the most important thing because of how vital communication is on defense.
Last year, that seemed to be where there was a disconnect in the switch from Paul Guenther to Teryl Austin, who ended up fired midseason when Lewis finally assumed direct control of the defense.
“One thing I really like we're doing this year is there isn't going to be any gray area,” Hubbard said. “Everything is going to be black and white and done the way coach Anarumo wants it. I like that because there's no hesitation. You can play as fast as humanly possible when you know what to do and when to do it. I think there is some good stuff going in and I like where the scheme is headed.”
Dunlap noticed that as well.
“I like the style, I like the energy of all the coaches,” he said. “They see things from a different perspective. They are going to call things differently. Coach Louie has been straightforward, straight to the point. He's been pretty clear about what he wants, and the coaches individually are echoing his same plan.”
Although players indicated that things weren’t always so clear last year, linebacker Nick Vigil said Austin wasn’t to blame for the Bengals’ struggles. Cincinnati gave up a league-worst 413.6 yards per game and the third most points at 28.4 per game.
He believes players need to do their part to make sure they understand the system, regardless of how simple or complex the language is and regardless of who is coaching.
“If you have a question, it's on you to ask because you can't go into a game not knowing what we're doing or how we're handling things,” Vigil said.
The Bengals’ slew of injuries last year made it so there were a lot of moving parts, which didn’t help. The linebackers especially seemed to be in and out of the training room, and opponents took advantage by targeting the middle of the defense.
Now that position group is even thinner with Burfict released in March and Rey unsigned in free agency, but those holes create room for new leaders to emerge.
“I think we've all got some responsibility, Preston, me, a couple of the older guys,” Vigil said. “…We'll look to guys like Shawn (Williams) and Carlos (Dunlap), guys on the D-line. We've got to have some guys step up and lead this year.”