How and why Cincinnati did a position makeover at safety

Geno Stone had one interception in his first 34 games, but he had seven last season, and the Falcons are hoping he can keep that up in 2024. Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire

CINCINNATI -- Even though he was elsewhere, Vonn Bell still kept tabs on his old club.

He was the Cincinnati Bengals starting free safety for three years and helped transform the team from the NFL's worst to AFC champions. And even though Bell left in 2023 to sign a contract with the Carolina Panthers, he said he watched every Bengals game from last season.

So when he came back to the Bengals after the Panthers released him in March, he immediately knew what went wrong for Cincinnati last season.

Explosive plays allowed in the passing game haunted the Bengals throughout 2023. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Cincinnati surrendered 65 completions of 20 or more yards, tied for the second-highest total in the league. By adding Bell and former Baltimore Ravens safety Geno Stone in free agency, the Bengals are hoping that will make major improvements to the secondary's performance.

"If it gets past us, strike up the band," Bell said in his re-introductory news conference on March 15. "You never want those, because explosive (plays) can lose a game."

Cincinnati thought it had a solid succession strategy when Bell and Jessie Bates III, the team's second-round pick in 2018, left in free agency after the 2022 season. The two players signed contracts with the Panthers and Atlanta Falcons, respectively, worth nearly $87 million, an expense too steep for the Bengals.

To replace that duo, Cincinnati turned to Dax Hill, the team's first-round pick in 2022, and Nick Scott, a veteran who spent five seasons with the Los Angeles Rams.

That strategy didn't work. After 10 games, Scott was benched in favor of rookie Jordan Battle, who lined up alongside Hill. But the team continued to allow explosive passing plays in a situation that came to a head in the Week 17 loss to Kansas City that eliminated the Bengals from playoff contention.

Late in the third quarter, with Cincinnati clinging to a one-point lead against the defending Super Bowl champions, Kansas City's Rashee Rice ran past Bengals cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt for a 67-yard completion that set up the go-ahead touchdown in a 25-17 win.

A few days after, Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, without malice but still as a matter of fact, said Hill was at fault for a blown assignment in zone coverage.

"He went the wrong way," Anarumo said in January.

Cincinnati's moves in free agency signaled that the Bengals had seen enough.

Scott was released with two years remaining on the contract he signed last year. The Bengals also signed Stone, who had seven interceptions with Baltimore last season, to a two-year deal worth $14 million. Bell came back, too, giving the Bengals a familiar face who is a veteran leader.

Both Stone and Bell referenced improving the communication issues that plagued Cincinnati's secondary last season. That was the first trait coach Zac Taylor referenced when introducing Stone at a news conference in March.

And improving that aspect in hopes of hemorrhaging the aerial damage was why the Bengals signed Stone.

"The main thing was to come in and be able to be a communicator, eliminate the big plays in the passing game and be a leader," Stone said. "That's what I plan on being."

With those additions, the Bengals could make decisions that lead to a new pair of starting safeties.

Stone was primarily a free safety in Baltimore, the position that Hill manned last season following Bates' departure. Bell was a strong safety in his first stint with Cincinnati. If he reassumes his old role, it will relegate Battle to the bench.

This scenario creates the most uncertainty surrounding Hill's future. Taylor said the Bengals still view the former first-round pick as a safety. But his exact role for 2024 remains to be seen.

"His development and his upside is huge," Anarumo said on Feb. 29 at the NFL combine. "Nobody is down on the guy at all. We just have to make sure that he's honed in and making sure that he's being able to do the things we're asking him to do -- wherever that may be."

Finding the right players to fix the areas that hurt Cincinnati will be paramount if the Bengals want to get back to the Super Bowl and have a shot at winning the franchise's first Lombardi Trophy.

"That's the final destination," Bell said. "That's where you want to be at."