CINCINNATI — The Cincinnati Bengals had one of the worst defenses in the league last year, and it’s turning out to be even worse this season. That really should be of no surprise given that the makeup of the roster so closely resembles the cast from 2018.
Bengals coach Zac Taylor this week finally singled out a group of players that has long been considered the weakest part of that defense, and he backed up his call for the linebackers “to step up” with an even louder statement, whether he meant it that way or not.
The Bengals waived sixth-year linebacker Preston Brown on Tuesday, eight months after they re-signed him to a three-year, $16.5 million deal. Brown had been limited by ankle and knee injuries his first season with Cincinnati in 2018, and the Bengals were hoping when healthy he could be a leader in the middle of the defense. When that proved not to be the case, they made the decision to move on without him.
Making cuts at this point likely doesn’t make a huge dent in the results, but perhaps it shakes up the other players who might be losing motivation during an 0-9 season.
“We just need to keep mixing up that room,” Taylor said Wednesday. “Like I said on Monday, we need to keep challenging those guys and find someone to step up and be consistent and be a leader in that group. So far, the production just hasn’t been there. That was a decision we felt like we had to make.”
It took a winless first half of the season (and counting) for the Bengals to make any bold moves regarding player personnel. They benched veteran quarterback Andy Dalton during the bye week and gave rookie fourth-round draft pick Ryan Finley his debut Sunday in a 49-13 loss to Baltimore.
Rookie linebacker Germaine Pratt, a third-round pick who also came from North Carolina State, like Finley, started ahead of Brown against the Ravens and now looks to be the full-time guy at strongside linebacker. Backup linebacker Jordan Evans, a third-year player who has seen limited action this season, said the entire locker room should be on notice if not already.
“Obviously, they've got an issue with how guys have been performing, and it's just our job to go out there and continue to play better,” Evans said. “At this point, being 0-9, I feel like it's a call for everybody. Everybody needs to step up. Whether I'm playing three snaps or 11, if I can do anything just to help the team, be more of a leader, whether it's vocal or just in my play, I think he's calling us all out.
“I feel like (the message) was understood. It didn't need to be spoken on. They are new coaches and it's a New Dey, like they say, so it's time to go out there and make sure you're doing your part or you might be the next one.”
The offense at least has the excuse of missing two of its top three receivers, with A.J. Green yet to play and John Ross preparing for a return from injured reserve early next month. But the defense is mostly the same as the one that finished last in yards allowed per game last year (413.6), 30th in scoring defense (allowing 28.4 points per game) and 29th in run defense (137.8 yards per game).
Cincinnati signed journeyman cornerback B.W. Webb through free agency in March, but he was the lone new starter on defense before Pratt replaced Brown. The Bengals rank last in the NFL in total yards allowed per game (429.4) and rushing yards allowed (173.0), and they are tied for 28th in points allowed per game (28.8).
“I think we can still turn it around,” Evans said when asked if the struggles are just carrying over from last year. “If you look at the film, there's been good and bad, but the bad is outweighing the good right now, so we've just got to continue to grow and become better as a defense and develop an identity and just take one step at a time. Obviously, you hate to see where we're at now, but you've got to change eventually. You can't keep waiting. Hopefully we get that change this week.”
Webb said, at this point, some of it is just mental. A winless record starts to wear on players at some point.
“I would be lying if I said it didn't affect me,” Webb said. “It sucks. You work out year-round and do everything to get your body in order and you're 0-9. It sucks, but we've got to keep playing and can't take anything for granted. The season hasn't gone the way we wanted it to, but we just have to keep pushing.”
Taylor still maintains the staff is doing everything it can to evaluate how they are doing things and what else they could change to get better results.
Some of the issues with the roster could trace back to how late the defensive staff was put together. The Bengals had trouble finding a defensive coordinator before ultimately hiring Lou Anarumo just five days before the NFL Combine. Taylor insisted at the time that it wasn’t going to impact roster evaluations or preparations for the draft.
Now it seems the team is beginning to look toward next year’s draft and preparing to rebuild through its youth – hence the change at quarterback and the decision to cut a veteran to push another rookie into that spot.
Taylor hasn’t given up on getting some wins over the final seven games as the Bengals seek to build momentum for 2020. If players see the recent changes as any sort of message, it’s that they need to produce now.
“It could (make a statement),” Taylor said. “Where we’re at right now in the season, and some of the things that keep happening during games, we felt like we had to change it up. Whether that’s called ‘sending a message’ or not, I don’t care. We’re just trying to find a win and find some consistency there in the middle of our defense.”