The goal of any team in any sport is to get better throughout the season, and the Cincinnati Bengals defense has mastered the art.
Over the last five seasons, the Bengals have allowed fewer yards in the second half of the season than they did in the first. And in four of the last five they’ve surrendered fewer points on the back end of the schedule.
And while that certainly will be something the team will strive to do again in 2017, the Bengals are hoping to avoid the large discrepancy that has existed in the past by getting off to a better start and not leaving so much room improvement.
“I can’t really answer the question of why it’s happened that way,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said before pausing and offering a reason for a dramatic turnaround in 2016 in which the Bengals held opponents to 323 yards and 15.8 points per game over the final eight weeks, compared to 378.5 yards and 23.6 points in the first eight.
“Last year is hot on my mind because last year after the bye we came in and got a lot of things corrected,” Guenther said. “We met a lot more together and we played a lot better.”
Last week the bye came after Week 8, and served as a concrete divider between the first and second halves of the season. It wasn’t that way in years prior, but regardless of when the bye has come, the turnaround always seems to occur at midseason.
Admittedly, offensive production tends to slow as the weather worsens. But that’s not enough to explain the drastic turnarounds the Bengals defense has recorded the last few years.
In 2015, the team allowed 368.6 ypg and 20.3 ppg in their its seven contests and 319.2 ypg and 15.2 ppg after.
In 2014, the yardage shrunk from 394.9 to 323.8 after Week 8, while the points dipped from 23.4 to 19.6.
The lone anomaly came in 2013 – Mike Zimmer’s final year as coordinator – when the defense allowed 18 ppg in the first eight and 20.1 in the second eight even though the yardage dropped from 322.5 to 288.5.
And in 2012, the trend began with a massive improvement in both yardage (357.4 to 282) and points (27.3 to 12.8).
One of the things that could help the Bengals defense get off to a faster start in 2017 is faster players.
“I know we are a lot faster,” cornerback Adam Jones said. “If you look at the film from this OTAs and last OTAs, there’s a lot more speed on the field. And I’m not just talking about on the back end. I’m talking about up front, linebackers, everything. I think a lot of the guys know exactly where they’re supposed to be.
“I think we’ll be better (in 2017),” Jones added. “We had a lot of pieces that were just gluing to the puzzle midway through the season. I think we’ll be a lot better. We’ve got a lot of guys coming in that can rush. We’ve got a lot of guys coming in that can cover. We’ve got a couple of linebackers that through OTAs stuck out a lot. I think we’ll be better on defense.”
Defensive end Carlos Dunlap said the key to avoiding the type of slow start that leaves the door open for a dramatic turnaround is as simple as paying a little more attention to detail.
“One of the keys to us coming together last year is we had a meeting with Paully and really focused on the little things,” Dunlap said. “They’re little things, but they can be critical and they tend to get overlooked after you’ve been here for a few years. You feel like it’s just a natural thing that comes, but sometimes you have to focus in on it and refresh it.”
Among the team’s first five opponents this season, only Green Bay (eighth) ranked among the top 15 offenses in 2016. Baltimore was 17th, Houston 29th, Cleveland 30th and Buffalo 16th.
“Every year it’s a new bunch of guys, a new combination of guys in there, and every year is different,” Guenther said. “I don’t know what the answer is other than going out and playing the best we can starting in Week 1.”