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Bengals' defensive emphasis this offseason is clear

3/28/2015

CINCINNATI -- While many outside of Paul Brown Stadium spent the early days of the offseason lamenting Andy Dalton's inconsistencies and placing the Cincinnati Bengals' struggles primarily at his feet, his coach, Marvin Lewis, looked elsewhere to identify issues.

To him, Dalton actually played fairly well in Cincinnati's 26-10 wild-card round loss at Indianapolis. Lewis' biggest beef in the defeat rested with his defense, a unit whose once-intimidating, bullish nature seemed absent that afternoon.

"Frankly," Lewis said at this week's owners meetings in Arizona, responding to a question about his 0-6 playoff record with the Bengals, "we haven't won a playoff game because we didn't play well enough on defense."

He didn't need to elaborate much beyond that.

It's because of the recent playoff woes that Lewis and others in positions of power around the franchise decided to focus more this offseason on building up the defense. Their emphasis on having a physical and intimidating unit again have been made clear through the moves the Bengals have made through free agency.

Of the 12 players the Bengals have either signed, re-signed or tendered this month, eight play defense. That's notable considering nine of the Bengals originally scheduled to hit free agency this year were offensive players.

Lewis cited the last two playoff games in particular -- contests in which Dalton averaged 235 yards passing and had a touchdown pass and two interceptions -- as reasons he views his defense in desperate need of a makeover. Lewis isn't absolving Dalton of any fault in the defeats. He just wants his defense to be held more accountable.

After all, during the wild-card round loss to San Diego following the 2013 season, Cincinnati held a three-point lead at halftime before allowing the Chargers to sprint by in the second half. True, problematic tweaks to the offensive game plan affected how well the Bengals moved the ball in the second half (and how they failed to score), but the defense still gave up 13 points and 196 yards in the final two quarters. The 196 yards were 61.6 percent of the yards the Chargers collected in the game.

In January, the Bengals trailed the Colts by a field goal at halftime before giving up another 13 unanswered second-half points. Sacked only once, Andrew Luck completed 31 passes for 376 yards. He was barely pressured.

Former Bengals running back Daniel Herron also emerged as one of Luck's weapons in that game. Cincinnati had trouble slowing him both as a runner and receiver. Of the Colts' 482 total yards, Herron had 141. As a unit, Indianapolis' running backs gained 114 yards and averaged 4.6.

It wasn't only in the playoffs when the Bengals had problems rushing quarterbacks and stopping the run. During the regular season, they had just 20 sacks, one of the worst single-season totals in franchise history. They also allowed eight teams to gain 100 or more yards against them on the ground.

This offseason's moves were the products of that.

Michael Johnson was signed to aid the pass rush. Pat Sims was brought back to boost the run defense. A.J. Hawk was snatched from free agency to give presence defending both from the second level. Taylor Mays and Terence Newman weren't re-signed, as the Bengals start trying to get some of their younger defensive backs more playing time.

Some of these moves also indicate how the Bengals want to recapture the physical spirit that had once been their defensive calling card. They've long believed that style of play wins the AFC North. Hawk and Sims are among the additions known to play with an edge.

"It's a physical division," Sims said Friday. "You can't come any other way."