When the Cincinnati Bengals drafted linebacker Logan Wilson in 2020, the coaching staff saw a former defensive back who had 10 interceptions in college. The Bengals viewed him as a player who could cover athletic tight ends in the middle of the field and tackle powerful running backs up the middle.
Before Wilson suffered a shoulder injury that will keep him out for at least this week, he filled that exact role the Bengals envisioned. He made more plays against tight ends than anyone on the roster while leading the team in tackles.
Wilson’s injury couldn’t have come at a worse time for the team. Between now and the end of the season, the Bengals will face as tough of a run of tight ends as is possible on their schedule.
Cincinnati Bengals:Logan Wilson will miss Bengals game against 49ers Sunday
On Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, the Bengals will play All-Pro tight end George Kittle. Next week against the Denver Broncos, the Bengals will have to stop tight end Noah Fant, a 2019 first round pick who leads the team in receptions.
"The issue you get with tight ends is often times... it's not always corners that cover that guy," Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said. "They just get the matchup with linebackers of safeties, but they present like a receiver."
After that, the Bengals face Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews of the Baltimore Ravens, three-time All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs and a Cleveland Browns team that has the best tight end trio in the league in two-time Pro Bowler Austin Hooper plus Harrison Bryant and David Njoku.
This season, opposing teams have targeted their top tight end 53 times against the Bengals. On a team-high 12 of those targets, the Bengals had Wilson defending the tight end. The second-year linebacker had up-and-down results in those matchups, but the Bengals defense will need to fill that potential season-changing role on the defense.
"When you get tight ends that are like that, it presents a unique challenge for you," Taylor said. "All hands are on deck on trying to limit that production."
Cincinnati Bengals:Logan Wilson expected to miss time with dislocated shoulder, per report
As long as Wilson is out, the Bengals have three strategies they can turn to.
In some matchups, they used Wilson (12 targets), safety Jessie Bates III (nine targets) or safety Vonn Bell (nine targets) in man defense. The best option among that group has been Bell in man coverage, especially against athletic tight ends looking to catch deep passes down the field.
Against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Bell perfectly tracked tight end Pat Freiermuth down the field and deflected the ball. Bell did the same thing against Andrews, and he covered a lot of ground in the middle of the field against the Los Angeles Chargers to help take away tight Jared Cook.
While he lost one of those one-on-one matchups against the Browns, Bell’s physicality has given him the advantage on plays down the field.
Bates has played good man-to-man coverage in the middle of the field, cutting off two comeback routes against the Detroit Lions and stopping two screen plays in the backfield during the season. He hasn’t been as good down the field. Since the bye, Bates has allowed a 25-yard reception and a 23-yard reception to the opposing team’s best tight end.
In other matchups, the Bengals have leaned on Bell, Bates and linebacker Germaine Pratt in zone coverage. It’s been the least effective approach against tight ends and led to seven different deep completions this season.
When the Bengals have faced great tight ends this season, including Andrews, Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson and Raiders tight end Darren Waller, they used an entirely different strategy. The Bengals have had one of their cornerbacks guard the tight end and treated that tight end like a receiver.
Bengals No. 1 cornerback Chidobe Awuzie has played well in every type of matchup this season. On each of the four times he has been targeted in one-on-one coverage against the opposing team’s No. 1 tight end, Awuzie made an impact play.
Awuzie is questionable this week. But if he’s available, he could draw on the experience he had following Waller, Hockenson and Andrews. In those three games, Awuzie made four standout plays chasing the tight out of bounds before the first down marker and stopping screens in the backfield.
There is one downside to playing man coverage with the cornerbacks. This year, opposing teams have motioned their tight ends in the slot for one-on-one matchups against Bengals slot cornerback Mike Hilton. Facing a 5-foot-9 cornerback, the tight ends have had the advantage.
There are other options, including giving more opportunities to cornerbacks Eli Apple or Tre Flowers or linebackers Germaine Pratt or Markus Bailey. But they’ve each only had a few snaps in this type of role all season.
Over the last four seasons, there hasn’t been an easy way to stop Kittle, who has averaged 78 yards per game. Last week, he had 181 receiving yards and two touchdowns. He’ll be one of the best players the Bengals face all season, and Kittle will be an even greater challenge for the Bengals without Wilson on the field.
"We've got all the respect in the world for (Kittle)," Taylor said. "He's got such speed and power that he really hurts you."
STEP UP: When Awuzie left Sunday’s game with a foot injury, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III made his debut with the team and played the remainder of the game.
Hargreaves had been a starter for the Houston Texans earlier this season, and the Bengals claimed him off waivers in November.
“He’s a confident guy, and he came in asking questions and trying to learn,” Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton said. “He has tried to put his imprint on this defense, and he stepped in and did his job well.”
CLEARED TO GO: On Wednesday, the Bengals cleared cornerback Trae Waynes (hamstring) and right guard D’Ante Smith to practice.
Waynes and Smith have a 21-day window to return to the 53-man roster, but they’re both eligible to play against the 49ers this week.