At the start of Cincinnati Bengals training camp, as the Bengals began fitting together the pieces of their new trio of starting cornerbacks, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo stressed that depth at cornerback is more important than having one premier player at that position.
If you can get a cornerback that can stand out as a number one corner, he said, that’s great. But in the modern NFL, there are more three-wide-receiver sets and more of an emphasis on the passing game. As a result, Anarumo’s defense relies on four or five cornerbacks and two safeties to play at a high level over the course of the game.
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The Bengals backed up that philosophy in the offseason. William Jackson III, the best cover cornerback on the team, left in free agency for the Washington Football Team. Instead of replacing him with another true No. 1 cover cornerback, the Bengals added depth.
In the first game of the season on Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, Anarumo hopes that approach pays off against a team with one of the best wide receiver duos in the NFL.
"I think every week there are going to be guys who are challenges,” Anarumo said. “That's the league that we're in these days. You've got to have guys that can cover.”
Last season, Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen had 925 receiving yards and averaged 12.5 yards per catch. He’s considered one of the craftiest wide receivers in the league, using his quickness at the line of scrimmage to create big plays and touchdown opportunities. Thielen ranked third in the NFL last year with 14 receiving touchdowns, and Anarumo joked that “all he does is score touchdowns.”
Opposite Thielen, the Vikings have Justin Jefferson. A former teammate of Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, Jefferson had one of the best seasons ever by a rookie wide receiver in 2020. He ranked fourth in the NFL with 1,400 receiving yards, and Jefferson was one of the best down the field receiving threats in the NFL.
On Sunday, the Bengals new-look cornerback group will immediately be tested.
“You’ve got to be prepared and confident,” Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton said. “I’m pretty sure they’re confident in the 1-on-1s against us. We’re going to do the same.”
When the Bengals match up against the Vikings wide receiver, Cincinnati won’t have its highest paid cornerback. Trae Waynes, possibly the Bengals best starting outside corner, will miss the game with a hamstring injury. As a result, Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton and Eli Apple will be responsible for stopping Thielen and Jefferson.
Apple is replacing Waynes, and he has significantly more experience than the cornerbacks the Bengals brought off the bench in 2020. Instead of relying on LeShaun Sims or Winton Rose, the Bengals can start Apple, a former first round pick who has started 48 NFL games.
“The guy is a former 10th pick in the draft, so he is big, strong, athletic and can run,” Anarumo said. “When he’s on his game and playing right he’s a good football player. I like Eli and know he is going to go out there and do a good job for us on Sunday.”
Because the Bengals added Awuzie, Hilton, Apple, Ricardo Allen, Jalen Davis and Nick McCloud, they have more variety and more experience in the defensive backfield.
Anarumo said he has told the cornerbacks they’ll “have their hands full,” but the Bengals secondary has been tested all camp. Since July, the coaching staff has stressed the importance of the Bengals defensive backs matching up in one-on-one coverage every day with Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase.
The Vikings might have one of the only wide receiving duos in the NFL stronger than the Bengals. But Hilton said the Bengals’ secondary’s experience in training camp helped them make up for their lack of playing time together.
“We just learned how confident we are,” Hilton said. “We know going against these guys every day, we’re going to be tested … We’re always in position to make plays on them and we feel like if we’re in the right position every time, we’ll make those plays on Sundays. We’re a confident group.”
GOOD SHAPE: Aside from Waynes, every other Bengals player was a full participant in Wednesday’s practice and is expected to play on Sunday.
The Bengals will be close to fully healthy for the start of the season, which means the Bengals coaching staff will be able to tailor its inactive list to the game plan against the Vikings.
“We have a pretty good feeling of where that's going to be,” Taylor said. “It's not too complex going into Week 1 with really just Trae Waynes the only injured guy. As the season goes (on) it usually gets a lot more complex."
HIGH PRAISE: Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer coached Bengals offensive tackle Riley Reiff for four seasons when Reiff played for the Vikings.
Zimmer, the Bengals former defensive coordinator, trusts Reiff so much that he has told Reiff he could have the house codes and the gate codes to Zimmer’s ranch in the Cincinnati area.
“Riley is one of my favorite guys of all time,” Zimmer said. “Tough, tough competitive guy. Doesn’t say very much, but when he does he means it. I made him a captain when he was here just because of his attitude.”