CINCINNATI — A quick survey of the team is all it takes to show the numbers don’t tell the full story about the Cincinnati Bengals‘ pass rush from last season.
The big number is the one that is always hotly debated — sacks. Last season, the Bengals ranked 29th in the NFL in sacks (30). Sure, players say they believe that number could have been higher. But overall, the pass rush felt disruptive for a defense that led the NFL in opposing completion percentage.
That didn’t stop Cincinnati from using its first-round pick in April’s draft on Clemson defensive end Myles Murphy, a sign that the Bengals wanted to bolster a group of edge rushers that already includes Pro Bowler Trey Hendrickson, veteran Sam Hubbard and the emerging Joseph Ossai.
Cincinnati’s pass rush doesn’t need to make a big leap forward in 2023. But adding Murphy potentially puts another playmaker on the edge who can help keep the Bengals in title contention.
After Tuesday’s voluntary offseason workout, Bengals coach Zac Taylor acknowledged drafting Murphy wasn’t just about adding depth.
“You can get to third-down situations and find packages where they’re all [playing],” Taylor said. “It’s not giving guys a break, necessarily. It’s getting as many on the field as you can. So I think it’s good to have as many guys that can affect the quarterback and play up front as possible.”
Bengals defensive tackle DJ Reader points to the big numbers when assessing how good the rush was last season. Cincinnati had a plus-six turnover margin and allowed the fifth-fewest touchdowns per drive. It also limited the Kansas City Chiefs‘ offense to 23 points in their AFC Championship Game loss. One game later, the Philadelphia Eagles, the team with the most sacks in the NFL, surrendered 38 points to the Chiefs in Super Bowl LVII.
Reader also noted timing is just as important as the results.
“Nobody’s going to remember those sacks in the first quarter,” Reader said. “I feel like we do a great job of having timely things happen for our team. We get sacks at timely times.
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“We force bad throws or we forced quarterbacks to make quick decisions at timely times by simulating or getting pressure to him.”
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, 41% of Cincinnati’s total quarterback pressures came on third and fourth downs.
Adding Murphy gives defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo another key resource as a pass-rusher in those high-leverage situations. It also serves as insurance against any potential injuries to the unit’s top defensive ends.
Cincinnati had to contend with major injuries to Hubbard and Hendrickson last season that hampered their overall production. Hendrickson, who was fourth in the NFL in pass rush win rate, finished the season with a broken left wrist. Hubbard battled a calf issue that interrupted his most effective year as an edge rusher.
Bringing consistent pressure with the front four will be a major factor for the Bengals’ continued success in defending the pass next season.
Cincinnati had the lowest expected completion percentage in the league, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, which showed how difficult the passing conditions for quarterbacks were against Anarumo’s defense.
This offseason, the Bengals lost starting safeties Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell to free agency. Second-year cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt will be a full-time starter after a breakout rookie season, and Dax Hill, last year’s first-round draft pick, will replace Bates. If the Bengals can bring consistent pressure without blitzing, it gives Cincinnati an extra player to use in pass coverage.
“We feel like with our front four, if they do their job, it makes it a lot easier for us,” said veteran inside cornerback Mike Hilton.
In a conference with so many great quarterbacks, such as Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen
“The more you add to that group, the more you affect the quarterback, the better you’ll be on defense,” Anarumo said at the scouting combine in March. “However we acquire it, it’s something I’ll always want.”