Bengals’ rookie in line for first NFL start

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

CINCINNATI — The Cincinnati Bengals will get a boost with Sam Hubbard’s return from an ankle injury that sidelined him the past two games, but defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo also is looking at another change to try to improve two areas of struggle for his defense.

Rookie safety Jordan Battle could be getting his first NFL start Sunday against Pittsburgh after he replaced veteran Nick Scott 11 snaps into the 34-20 loss against Baltimore on Nov. 16. Scott never went back in after that, and Battle played a season-high 57 snaps and recorded a team-high 11 tackles.

Anarumo said this week Battle would be getting more opportunities.

“I think Jordan will get some more,” Anarumo said. “He’s earned some more, obviously, with 11 tackles. So let’s start with that. Nick will still have a role. Jordan will take a little bit bigger role.”

Anarumo put to bed any suggestion that Scott’s removal from the game stemmed from him causing the Bengals to be penalized for having 12 men on the field. Anarumo put the blame on himself for Scott being the extra man on the field in that situation, saying he “got the grouping out there a little bit late.”

When the swap with Battle occurred, Anarumo decided to stick with “the hot hand” and keep him in because he had earned more opportunities with his tackling. That was what stood out most to Anarumo, and it’s no secret poor tackling has been a point of consternation with his defense.

Battle, the team’s third-round pick out of Alabama this year, won’t be able to fix those issues on his own, but he clearly provides a lift.

“First and foremost, 11 tackles showed up,” Anarumo said of what he saw from Battle against Baltimore. “Gus Edwards is a sturdy running back, and (Battle) was able to get him on the ground in 1-on-1 situations. So, let’s just start with that. Let’s start with getting a guy on the ground. It’s tackling A, 1A.”

Baltimore still rushed for 157 yards, and in the game before that, Houston rushed for 188 yards, something that Hubbard might have been able to make a difference in as well. Hubbard, considered one of the league’s best run defenders off the edge, returned to practice this week and is expected to start Sunday.

With Hubbard back in the mix and Battle getting more opportunities, Anarumo can only hope the tackling will look better. He called it “terrible” the last two games, and the Bengals can’t afford to keep making the same mistakes Sunday as they need an AFC North win to stay in the playoff hunt.

Some of the struggles earlier this season could easily be chalked up to a young secondary, featuring five first- and second-year players, but by Game 11, youth can’t be an excuse for recurring issues.

Battle is the latest of a young crop of recent draft picks to start getting more opportunities in the Bengals’ defense. Rookie cornerback DJ Turner, the team’s second-round pick out of Michigan, has started six straight games in place of Chidobe Awuzie, who is still working back to top form almost 13 months after his 2022 ACL tear. Cam Taylor-Britt and Dax Hill are just second-year players with starting jobs.

“The repeat mistakes are the ones you don’t want,” he said. “We don’t want any, but certainly, if you correct something, you want them to say, ‘OK, that one’s away.’ Now if you’re youth allows you to make another one, let’s make it something different. The explosive plays are what we have to stop, and that comes back to everybody just doing their job, whether it be a run or a pass.”

The Bengals rank 31st in rushing yards allowed per game (138.3) and they are among the worst in explosive plays allowed in both the run and pass. The Steelers have struggled offensively this season but still could put Cincinnati’s run defense to the test.

Pittsburgh’s running game has been its strong suit on offense with Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren combining to help the Steelers average 110.1 rushing yards per game, and that likely remains the focal point going into Sunday, even with a change in offensive coordinator.

“We know Najee is a tough guy to take down, has quads, has good legs, wants to speed through contact so we know we have to wrap up,” Battle said. “Getting tackles, second guy in rip out the ball. Try to create turnovers and try to get off the field early.”


Steelers at Bengals, 1 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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