In every one of his pre-draft visits with a defensive prospect, Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo showed the exact same moment from the Bengals’ Round 2 win in the playoffs over the Tennessee Titans.
On first and 10 with 2:43 left in the fourth quarter of a tie game, the Titans handed the ball off to All-Pro running back Derrick Henry. With the way the Titans designed the run, Henry had a one-on-one matchup in space with Bengals cornerback Chidobe Awuzie.
If Henry broke the tackle, then he would have had a 20-plus yard gain. But Awuzie perfectly read what was happening in front of him, sprinted into the play, knocked down Henry’s stiff arm and tackled him. The Titans picked up only three yards on the play, and the Bengals won the game.
This was the play that epitomizes everything the Bengals defense is about and everything they were looking for in the 2022 NFL Draft. The Bengals overall draft strategy this season was to add fast leaders to their defense.
More:2022 NFL Draft: Bengals draft Coastal Carolina edge Jeffrey Gunter in seventh round
More:Bengals draft North Dakota State offensive lineman Cordell Volson in fourth round
More:2022 NFL Draft: Bengals trade up to draft Toledo safety Tycen Anderson
“They love the process, they love the grind, they’re great teammates and they love to be coached,” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said of the Bengals 2022 draft class. “They understand how to take criticism and ultimately guys like that love winning. They know the things that come with it and what it takes to do it.”
In the draft this year, the Bengals prioritized speed, physicality, football IQ and presence. This is exactly what Awuzie showed on that play against the Titans, and these are the skills that the Bengals prioritized in the draft and will continue to prioritize going forward.
The Bengals drafted three defensive backs they believe fit that internal vision. On the first two days of the draft, the Bengals added safety Dax Hill and cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, who both ran a 4.38 40-yard dash. In the third round, the Bengals drafted defensive tackle Zach Carter, who had the third-fastest 40-yard dash time of any defensive tackle on the board for the Bengals at pick 95. In the fifth round, the Bengals drafted safety Tycen Anderson, who ran a 4.36 40-yard dash.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats’ athleticism grading scale, the Bengals prioritized athletic traits more than 27 of the other 31 NFL teams.
More:With Cam Taylor-Britt and Zach Carter, the Bengals build for the present and future
More:Bengals have ‘a vision’ for versatile safety Daxton Hill
“I just think that in today’s NFL, we’re going to play a bunch of great receivers,” Anarumo said. “Think about Miami’s speed on their perimeter, with Tyreek (Hill) and (Jalen) Waddle. And then the guys in our division — there’s speed everywhere, especially in the back end. Those guys are going to get out of position, some just by the nature of their jobs, and if they can’t get back into the play they’re going to struggle. So these guys do have to make that up in recovery speed. And that’s what we’re looking for.”
For the Bengals, these players’ intangibles can be just as important of a piece of the puzzle.
After the first round, Taylor stressed how Hill was one of the leaders on one of the best defenses in college football, and he said that Hill “really fits the personality we want in a locker room.” Taylor-Britt was a team captain, a three-time Nebraska Scholar-Athlete Honor Roll award recipient and he was a part of multiple leadership councils at Nebraska.
Carter was one of 14 players named to the 2021 SEC Football Community Service Team. Anderson was a three-time captain at Toledo, and he’s pursuing a Master’s degree in leadership.
Anarumo described how Awuzie, another former college captain, has those similar intangible qualities. Those are just as important when the rubber hits the road in the fourth quarter and you need to tackle a running back like Henry in the last few minutes of a game.
“We’ve put a premium on that, as you know, the last few years, and it’s worked well for us,” Anarumo said. “It’s an added benefit that comes along with a heck of an athlete.”
Zachary Carter, Florida Gators defensive lineman, through the years
The Bengals believe they acquired the same qualities in fourth-round offensive guard Cordell Volson, who was a two-time captain in college. He started college at North Dakota State weighing just 250 pounds and transformed his body to build an NFL frame. Volson said he took the most pride in his reputation as a worker in the weight room and as a player who competes through the end of the whistle.
According to Bengals offensive line coach Frank Pollack, those qualities are priorities when he’s evaluating an offensive lineman.
“This league is a son of a you-know-what, and to make it, you have to have some you-know-what in your neck,” Pollack said. “You have to have some grit, or you’re not going to make it. I’ve been in this a long time as a player — a horrible player (laughs) — and as a coach, and there are guys you’d see come and go that are so talented and have off-the-chart measurables and you ‘re like, ‘Man, how come that guy didn’t make it?’ Because he doesn’t have the other stuff. It’s critical. If you don’t have that, you have no chance.”
Edge rusher Jeffrey Gunter, the Bengals seventh round pick, said he went from a lightly recruited player at Coastal Carolina into an NFL Draft prospect because of his “effort and versatility.” After the Bengals wrapped up their draft, Taylor said Gunter’s energy can lead to another good fit in the locker room.
In 2020, the Bengals drafted former college captains Joe Burrow, Logan Wilson, Akeem Davis-Gaither, Khalid Kareem and Markus Bailey. Tee Higgins also was on track to be a captain at Clemson had he returned for another college season. Before the 2022 draft, Taylor described drafting former captains as a blueprint that worked for them in the past, and they followed it this weekend.
According to Anarumo, football IQ, leadership and playmaking ability all tie together. It takes all three of them to make a tackle like Awuzie’s play on Henry.
“We love guys that bring energy, because it’s a long season and that’s a hard thing to do,” Taylor said. “The more guys that can bring that, the better the team becomes.”
The Bengals are building one of the NFL’s more modern defenses and a unit that relies on speed and versatility. On early downs, Anarumo said his goal is to “outnumber teams” at the line of scrimmage, and that strategy requires athletes in the secondary who can cover a lot of ground. On passing downs, Anarumo said he plans to mix in six-or-seven defensive back formations that take advantage of the Bengals’ new depth and speed in the secondary.
The Bengals used the 2022 NFL Draft to make their defense faster, younger and more versatile. After using free agency to craft a starting defense in 2020 and 2021, the Bengals showed this weekend what qualities they value when they’re building for the long-term.
“We value smart players, and we feel like on our defense, we have the talent to compete for championships and the overall football intelligence,” Taylor said. “It’s a very smart group from top to bottom. We value that. We think that matters in terms of getting in line pre-snap and making the right adjustments post-snap … That gives you an added advantage, and we’ve got those guys from top-to-bottom.”