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'Good' would be big improvement for Bengals' defense

CINCINNATI -- Lou Anarumo’s voice could be heard amid the chirping whistles and the sound of shoulder pads thudding against each other outside Paul Brown Stadium on Tuesday.

On the first day the Cincinnati Bengals wore pads this preseason, the defense enjoyed plenty of good moments against the offense. But Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator made sure he implored his defense to be better.

“It’s not that we weren’t making plays,” defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. “I feel like we had a great day. But, he wants us to take that next step. Not just be good. We want to be great.”

After last season, one could argue even “good” could be seen as a positive move for this year’s team. Anarumo will be tasked with making sure the Bengals field a defensive unit that is significantly better than it was last season.

The Bengals surrendered more yards per game (413.6) than anyone else in the NFL and had the league’s worst third-down percentage (48.9) in 2018. Those are only two statistics that underscored their struggles during a 6-10 season that led to coach Marvin Lewis’ firing.

Cincinnati’s lone major defensive addition this offseason was Anarumo, whose only time as a coordinator came in an interim stint in Miami during the final 12 games of 2015. After Cincinnati was linked to several notable names to fill the position, new coach Zac Taylor finally settled on the 52-year-old New Yorker. Both were interim coordinators for the Dolphins in 2015.

When Anarumo arrived following one season as the New York Giants’ defensive backs coach, he immediately preached accountability and flexibility to his new players. He wanted everyone to be familiar with each other’s responsibilities.

He also made the planning process more of a collaborative effort, according to safety Jessie Bates. The second-year player said if the players don’t like the scheme or the look, Anarumo is willing to adapt to something the team feels more comfortable with.

It’s a significant contrast to the way Cincinnati operated last season.

“A lot of stuff was just gray,” Bates said. “Like, it was just a lot of things we didn’t agree on and some players didn’t believe in it.

“This year, it’s kind of not only on the defensive coordinator but also on the players to come together and come in the middle to figure out and believe in it.”

Bates and the rest of the Bengals are essentially dealing with their third defensive coordinator in the last 12 months. Teryl Austin was fired after a Week 10 shellacking at the hands of New Orleans in which the team allowed 51 points. Lewis took over Austin’s responsibilities before the head coach was fired at the end of his 16th season.

This offseason, as the Bengals adapt to a new system and vocabulary, Bates said he feels more confident in the playbook. Anarumo believes that aspect is critical to the unit’s overall success.

“At the end of the day, I want them playing with more confidence,” Anarumo said. “I want them playing smarter. All the other football stuff you have to do — run to the ball fast, play hard, do all that. If you don’t play smart and you don’t play with confidence, you don’t have a chance.”

Anarumo knows the defense’s recent history “hasn’t been good,” but he said he remembers a time when the unit was among the better ones in the NFL.

Behind the likes of Bates, Dunlap and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins, Cincinnati hopes Anarumo can make the defense formidable again.

Anarumo stopped showing footage from last season once training camp started, Dunlap said. Now it’s all about reviewing tape from the Bengals’ first week of practice and making the step that everyone around the franchise is hoping for.

“We’re not dwelling on our past,” Dunlap said. “We’re focused on our future. And our future right now could be as bright as we want it to be.”