They also signed free agent Vonn Bell and cornerback Trae Waynes last offseason and selected emerging linebacker leader Logan Wilson in the third round of the 2020 draft. Then, the rebuild continued this offseason with additions like cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton and defensive linemen Trey Hendrickson and Larry Ogunjobi.
Cincinnati’s defense already has shown vast improvement from Lou Anarumo’s first two seasons as defensive coordinator. The Bengals rank eighth in points allowed (18.8 points per game) and seventh in total yards allowed (323.0 yards per game), including just 98.0 rushing yards per game, which ranks ninth.
The offense, despite some slow starts, has done enough to pull out two close wins at the end of games and put up 24 points on a traditionally stingy Steelers defense.
“We’ve got guys that are young and competitive and were bought into what we were doing,” Reader said. “Guys are smart, selfless players that are going to go out there and put it all on the line. You don’t have the big names that every other defense has and nobody really talks about (us) and that’s fine. We don’t care. It’s just that we’ve got guys that are going to grind. That’s what we’re building our team off of. Everybody holds each other accountable. … You mess up, you get yelled at. We correct it the next play and that’s the way we go about it. We always pick each other up and we’re going to tell you when you mess up. I love it. I love the accountability we have on this defense right now.”
It helps that the Bengals have what Reader described as complementary players. If one player lacks a certain trait, others make up for it. The understanding of the defense, also has been much better.
Even during OTAs, Reader could see that players had a better grasp of what they were supposed to be doing. Returning players looked more comfortable in the system, and new guys picked it up quickly with the help of a productive and fully-attended offseason workout program.
“We came into OTAs and I felt during that time everybody had a better understanding of what we had going on,” Reader said. “I think last year with the COVID year and being on Zoom, not being able to really do certain things you have a lot of new guys coming in it’s hard to make people comfortable. You get hit with the injury bug. So many things happen. This year, I think we came in with a clearer mind. Everybody on clear communication from coaches on down. It made things a lot more simple. We found out what we were good at, what we majored in, what we could do and what we couldn’t do. We did a good job of figuring those things out early because everybody is feeling a lot more comfortable in what we have going, what our job is, what our assignment is so we can play fast.”
While the offseason was productive, no one knew how it would translate to games. Cincinnati was 4-11-1 last year, following a two-win 2019 campaign, and the players already could see a difference among themselves during training camp in August but now it’s paying off in the standings.
Last year, six teams opened with at least three wins in their first four games, and all of them went on to make the playoffs. The Bengals haven’t made the postseason since the 2015 season and hope their fast start can carry over into the final 13 games.
“I think we’re legit, but we have to go out there and prove that every day,” Reader said. “We have to go out there every single practice, every day and prove that. We can say it all we want. It’s the first quarter of the season. All those things sound good. But we still have to take it one week at a time and prove it. This week we have a chance to prove it on Sunday. Next week we get another chance to prove it, so we’ve got to go out there this week, right now, get it done. (Tuesday) is an off day. Get back here Wednesday, get started, see what’s going on and get going and get ready for a contest on Sunday to prove that we are contenders.”
Packers at Bengals, 1 p.m., Fox, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7