For the past few years the Cincinnati Bengals have made a practice of bringing their rookies along slowly with limited, if any, playing time, especially on defense.
But that’s going to change in 2017, starting Sunday in the season opener against Baltimore.
Part of the explanation for why things are changing is because they have to, considering the next NFL snap taken by seven of the 23 players on defense will be their first. And for an eighth, cornerback KeiVarae Russell, it will be his second.
But the bigger reason so many young guys will play, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said, is they’re ready.
“I would anticipate every guy that is dressed for defense to be playing some sort of snaps in this ballgame,” Guenther said.
That list of players expected to make their debuts not only includes rookie linebackers Carl Lawson, Jordan Evans and Hardy Nickerson, rookie defensive linemen Jordan Willis and Ryan Glasgow, but also cornerback William Jackson and defensive tackle Andrew Billings, both of whom suffered season-ending injuries in training camp last year.
And then there’s defensive end Chris Smith and linebacker Kevin Minter, who will be making their Bengals debuts.
“We have good rotational guys. Carl is really a linebacker by trade, but he’s a third down rusher for us, Guenther said. “Chris (Smith), Jordan (Willis), we’ve got three new guys who really give us some speed.
“Last year we had a lot of the same type of guys,” Guenther added. “What I always like to do is, ‘this guy can do this good or this guy can do that good.’ That way it allows you when you see a mismatch here I can, ‘all right let’s put him on that guy.’”
And it’s not just the youngsters Guenther is working into his chess game. Veteran defensive end Michael Johnson had a lot of success in the preseason moving inside to tackle in nickel packages.
“That’s what you want in a coach or coordinator, to get people in position to utilize their strengths,” Johnson said. “Me and some of the guys were talking and this has been one of the most competitive camps that we’ve had since I’ve been here. That was good. Competition brings out the best in everybody. I’m looking forward to a great year from us all.”
Starting safety George Iloka said the influx of youth has created a new vibe on the team.
“There’s a lot of fresh legs, a lot of new blood, a lot of new excitement and a lot of energy,” he said.”I think that’s something we’ve needed around here for a while.
“And those guys can play,” he added. “They’re not just here because they’re young. They can legitimately play. So I’m excited, I know they’re excited and I’m just looking forward to playing.”
With 11-year veteran cornerback Adam Jones, 32, and six-year veteran linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who will turn 27 this month, suspended, an already young Bengals roster will be even more so Sunday for the opener.
The Bengals did know the Burfict suspension was coming, but they were prepared for the infusion of youngsters to be ready for Week 1.
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“They had an opportunity to be out there this preseason,” Lewis said. “We put them out there, we put them in the situations, and we got them in the games in the first quarter right away, knowing where we would be (with having a young roster).
“This is opening day, opening weekend,” Lewis said. “It’s an exciting time, but we’re prepared for that. With our guys, we’ve been talking about it, preparing for it. This is how it’s going to look. This is how it’s going to unfold. Sound. See. Smell. It’s all going to be like this. Now let’s go do it.”
Baltimore Ravens vs. Cincinnati Bengals
When: 1 p.m. Sunday
Where: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati
TV: Ch. 7, 12
Radio:1530-AM, 102.7-FM, 104.7-FM