<
>

Bengals' big investment in defense has yet to pay off

The dejection was apparent in Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle D.J. Reader's voice following a 35-30 loss to the Cleveland Browns on Thursday.

The feeling was understandable. Reader was frustrated in the Bengals' performance in Week 2, specifically with their inability to stop Cleveland's ground attack. The Browns took advantage of a depleted Bengals defensive line and put up a staggering 215 rushing yards behind running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

Reader, the team's big free-agent signing in the offseason, might be new to the Bengals, but a struggling run defense is an old problem for Cincinnati.

That's what makes Thursday's showing somewhat troubling. All the new pieces the Bengals added in the offseason haven't been enough so far to fix a major issue.

"If you're not this pissed off after a game you just lost and gave up [more than] 200 yards rushing, then that's not right," Reader said. "You gotta want to win. This hurts."

Reader was the Bengals' most expensive external acquisition in franchise history with a four-year deal worth $53 million. The Bengals hoped the former Houston Texan could help shore up a defense that allowed the most rushing yards in the NFL in 2019.

Even with Reader playing 97% of the snaps because of injuries to defensive tackles Geno Atkins and Mike Daniels, the Browns had zero problems on the ground. Cleveland (1-1) averaged 6.1 yards per rushing attempt. On their final drive, the Browns didn't throw the ball once and still marched down the field on a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that effectively sealed the Bengals' 0-2 start to the season.

"We didn't do a good enough job," Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. "Our [run] fits, some guys were out of gaps sometimes. And our tackling was very poor."

That last part of Taylor's comments might have been an understatement. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Browns gained 131 rushing yards after first contact. It's the most in an NFL game since ESPN began tracking contact in 2009.

That also was a problem last season. In 2019, the Bengals trailed only the Panthers in rushing yards allowed after contact.

Taylor cited the new additions when asked about any concerns about trends that continue to linger despite all of the offseason moves.

"We got a bunch of new guys in there inside and guys that just joined us," Taylor said. "We'll continue to evaluate it and see what our best options are there."

But after what happened on Thursday, the Bengals must quickly figure out why this unit is continuing to struggle. In a sign that the new linebackers need to be much better, safety Jessie Bates had a team-high 10 tackles. The other safety, Vonn Bell, had as many tackles (eight) as anyone else on the team.

Even with the lack of a preseason and little to no tackling during training camp, the Bengals didn't have any problems bringing the Los Angeles Chargers to the ground in Week 1, even in a loss. After Thursday's game, however, cornerback William Jackson said the defense was simply beating itself.

Reader joked that even if his 10-month-old son was the one carrying the ball, he needed to be stopped. It was one of the few light-hearted moments for a night that otherwise felt haunting for a unit that saw its old demons resurface.

For the Bengals to conjure up an exorcism, putting in a better effort is a good place to start.

"We have to want to do it," Reader said. "I think that is the biggest thing. We talk about it, but you have to be about it in this league. You can talk about a lot of things, but you have to go out there and be about them."