Cincinnati Bengals' draft emphasis on versatility should keep defense running at championship level

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Stephen A. Smith argues with Dan Orlovsky about Bengals' place in the AFC North. (2:22)

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo had every reason to smile on the first night of the NFL draft.

After all, Anarumo's unit was one of the main reasons Bengals season-ticket holders posed for photos with the AFC championship trophy at the team’s draft party last Thursday. Cincinnati forced nine turnovers in the postseason and limited teams to 1.86 points per drive in their improbable run to the Super Bowl, which ended with a 23-20 loss to the Los Angeles Rams.

Cincinnati’s 2022 draft class gave Anarumo even more reasons to grin. Five of the team’s six picks were defensive players, including the top three selections. This year's draft gives Anarumo the pieces to keep opposing offenses on their toes in 2022 and beyond.

The Bengals’ draft strategy supports Anarumo’s belief that versatility is the best way to defend the high-powered offenses that have defined the NFL in recent years.

“The more they can do, the better,” Anarumo said of the team's defensive haul.

That phrase could double as the unofficial motto for the fourth-year coordinator’s defensive philosophy. Cincinnati’s first Super Bowl appearance in 33 years was achieved in large part because of Anarumo’s ability to adjust his game plan from week to week.

The two games Cincinnati played against the Kansas City Chiefs were examples of that flexibility. In the second half of the first contest, in Week 17, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes faced significantly more Cover 3 looks than man-to-man coverage with two deep safeties, according to ESPN Stats & Information. However, that game plan flipped when the Bengals played the Chiefs four weeks later in the AFC title game.

While the methods changed, the results were the same. In each game, a confused Kansas City offense failed to score a touchdown after halftime. Most telling about the approach, Anarumo achieved those splits using essentially the same personnel, with the top four defensive backs -- safety Jessie Bates III, safety Vonn Bell, and outside cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Eli Apple -- playing every snap.

Each of the defensive players the Bengals drafted last weekend showed the ability to line up at different spots during their college careers.

Cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, Cincinnati’s second-round pick out of Nebraska, did a number of different things in the Cornhusker secondary.

“He’s a good press corner, but he has also shown some flexibility in playing in deep zones and some safety stuff, but also as a corner,” Anarumo said. “So, he has done a little bit of everything, which is great.”

Just as importantly, this year’s draft class is eager to embrace the idea of playing multiple roles in the NFL. Daxton Hill, Cincinnati’s first-round pick, played safety and slot cornerback at Michigan. As a rookie, Hill could be featured in dime packages with six defensive backs and also could be asked to handle other duties in the Bengals backfield.

“I don’t really want to limit myself, because I know I can play other positions -- whatever that may be, whenever that may be,” Hill said after he was drafted. “I’m ready for the journey.”

Hill, Taylor-Britt and safety Tycen Anderson, the team’s fifth-round pick out of Toledo, all ran 40-yard dashes under 4.4 seconds during their pre-draft workouts. That speed will allow the Bengals to keep pace in a league brimming with dynamic -- and fast -- wide receivers .

But as valuable as all those traits are, having the ability to learn multiple roles and assignments is just as important. Bengals head coach Zac Taylor believes Cincinnati drafted an intelligent group that can handle the workload.

“We think that matters,” Taylor said. “It matters just getting to the line pre-snap and making the right adjustments post-snap. So when you’re combating that with the talent that’s on the other side of the ball, you’ve got guys that can play fast and confidently and communicate.”

Last year, Anarumo's unit was arguably the biggest surprise as the Bengals transformed from the NFL’s worst team in 2019 to being one possession away from winning the Super Bowl.

Cincinnati won’t sneak up on anyone this season. But this draft class could help their DC's ever-changing defense to continue playing at a championship level.

It’s the type of personnel and planning they will need if they want an even bigger trophy to display during next year’s draft.