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With Margus Hunt, it's almost like 'starting over again'

2/13/2015

CINCINNATI -- This time last year, Margus Hunt was making progress.

As he transitioned into his second season in the league, and only the sixth year he had spent playing football of any kind, the Estonian-born Cincinnati Bengals defensive end was beginning to understand exactly what his coaches wanted him to do.

But now, after a sophomore year in the NFL that was derailed by injury and mediocre play, it's almost as if he's back at square one.

"You're starting to really get it, and then boom, you have to shut it down for six weeks, and it's like starting over again," defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said.

During training camp last August -- many weeks before he missed four games because of a late-season ankle injury -- Hunt showed glimpses of good play. In limited action in the four preseason games, he had 10 tackles and four sacks. Three of his sacks came in a dominant performance in the preseason finale against the Colts.

While it was clear he wasn't ready to start, all the fundamental work and the technique teaching appeared to be paying off. Before the season ended, the expectation was that Hunt would be a key off-the-bench pass-rush weapon.

Early in the regular season, though, he didn't prove that very often. He averaged 21 snaps per game through the first six games but barely did anything. He had only two tackles, a batted pass and no sacks. Used off the edge and occasionally in the interior as part of a nickel defense pass rush, Hunt simply wasn't getting to quarterbacks as effectively as he had been in August.

His problem was shared by every other Bengals defensive lineman. Each struggled to finish his rushes.

"Getting there, it don't mean anything," Guenther said earlier this offseason. "We've got to finish the rushes. We've got to affect the quarterback one way or another. That's the bottom line. We have to affect the guy throwing the ball."

Pro Football Focus graded the Bengals as having the worst pass rush in the league in 2014. Cincinnati had just 20 sacks during the regular season. That was one of the four worst single-season sack totals in franchise history.

As a result of the largely ineffective pressure, Guenther's focus this offseason has been to come up with solutions for getting his players to better finish their pass rushes. That could come in the form of lineup tweaks, free-agency adds or draft additions. Some of it also will come by getting Hunt and another young end, 2014 third-round pick Will Clarke, to keep improving.

"I anticipate spending a lot of time with him and Will this offseason because we've got to get those guys going," Guenther said. "It isn't necessarily about scheme. You look at the teams that [played in the Super Bowl]. It isn't like they [were] trying to trick anybody with blitzes and all that stuff. It's your guys, my guys, one-on-one, and I've got to win on rush, I've got to win on coverage."

How do you win one-on-one in a rush?

"To me, it's about technique. It's about effort. It's about playing fast," Guenther said. "Those are the things that, if you don't do that, if you don't get lined up right, if you don't play great technique and you don't play fast with great effort, then you don't have a chance to start."

With his fully healed ankle, Hunt may have a difficult journey cracking the starting lineup. He has to approach the next few months as if he's starting all over again.