CINCINNATI — The Bengals secondary will be of primary focus when training camp rolls around in late July.
Until then, the new faces in that group are doing everything they can to make sure they’re more than up for the challenge.
There’s no Jessie Bates or Vonn Bell. Chido Awuzie is moving closer to a return from his ACL rehab. Nick Scott is taking it easy with his right shoulder this offseason. Eli Apple is still a free agent and Tre Flowers is in Atlanta with Bates.
All of this means defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, who last September famously said he dreads starting rookies on his defense, will be relying on first and second-year players on the back end.
But the Bengals will rightly take it cautiously throughout camp before rushing him back from ACL reconstruction. His readiness for Week 1 is still wait-and-see but the optimism is there. For that reason, the Bengals had rookies DJ Turner II and Jordan Battle lining up with the first team defensive unit this week in 7-on-7 drills at OTAs.
Now some context. Nick Scott has been held out of OTA full practice because the team is letting his right shoulder heal from last season and get back to full strength in time for training camp. Scott said Tuesday that would not be an issue since he likely could’ve been cleared for next week’s mandatory mini-camp but again, like with Awuzie, there’s no reason to rush.
With Awuzie out, Turner was playing right corner, opposite Cam Taylor-Britt. Mike Hilton was in his customary spot as nickel corner while Hill and Battle assumed their spots at safety. Battle was filling in for Scott, who is being “smart” with his right shoulder in the offseason.
“I think we look really well, and that’s a testament to the coaches and the guys who’ve been in this building for a while,” Scott said. “Just kind of instilling that foundation and the new guys and it doesn’t make it hard for us to pick up what we’re trying to put down and start gelling with the guys. So, it’s been a lot of fun so far like I said, I’m itching to start doing those 7-on-7s and just stuff, but I gotta be smart.”
The real bottom line to all of this is that everyone in the defensive back group will be expected to be prepared and ready to fill a role at moment’s notice.
“I mean we really all roll together,” Jordan Battle said after Tuesday’s practice. “That’s the beauty. Just defense and everybody roll together. There’s really no head honcho. We all know they’re all head honchos. You go to anybody on anything, whether it’s a linebacker, whether it’s Logan (Wilson) or GP (Germaine Pratt), whether it’s Mike (Hilton) or Nick (Scott). They all treat you the same way as if you weren’t even a rookie.”
“Communication is the biggest thing that we preach every day in the DB room, try to communicate, how can we all be on the same page so it allows us to make plays. I saw some tip balls (Tuesday), and that came from communication before snap.”
The tip balls come from making the right breaks on the receivers running routes. It’s about timing. And that timing in the secondary has impressed Scott, who came from a ball-hawking Rams defense that beat Tom Brady in Tampa on the way to Super Bowl LVI against the Bengals.
“Guys are getting the opportunity to move fast and actually break off the ball and everything like that,” Scott said. “It’s always exciting. Everybody’s heart rate goes up a little bit more because we’re getting the opportunity to do part of what we love. I’ve been extremely happy and impressed with not only this team, but the young guys, including JB, especially with how fast he’s been able to pick things up and just look fluid.”
For every rookie, there’s a moment in their first OTA or minicamp or training camp practice where the light goes on. For Battle, someone who’s already seen so much in terms of defensive schemes inside Nick Saban’s Alabama program, he anticipates several enlightening moments in the next 2-3 months.
“It’s probably too early in, just Day 2 with helmets on. I’m pretty sure I’ll have many ‘aha’ moments as the days go by and every day has been exciting. Every day has been fun. You get to learn these guys. You get to move around with them. So, I just look forward to the future.”
“I’ve been super impressed with his ability to understand the playbook and pick up concepts and everything like that,” Scott said of Battle. “So, that’s a great sign. Obviously, you see his frame and how physical he can be, and moves well. So, I’m excited about him. I think he’s a guy that will be able to help this team in a lot of different ways whether that be special teams or defensively.
Battle is also learning the expectations of defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo.
“Oh, yeah, Coach Lou is cool. He stays on us. He wants us to be perfectionists, which is the standard here. Three yards is not good. Two yards is not good. We don’t want anybody to gain any yards. So, that’s been the level of preaching in the meeting rooms, when a guy catches a ball, like two yards, that’s a big play to us. You want to knock the ball off a guy and be in the right position at all times.”
Tyler Boyd, Jonah Williams and DJ Reader were three veterans not spotted at Tuesday’s OTA. Williams has not been seen at any of the offseason program activities, including workouts or optional practices. Boyd returned to practice last week, indicating that he missed being around his teammates. Reader has been a regular participant in workouts this offseason.
Second-year long snapper Cal Adomitis was again spotted with a boot on his left foot on Tuesday, with tight end Tanner Hudson handling long snapping duties. The injury to Adomitis is not considered serious enough to keep him out of training camp, when it starts in late July. Hudson snapped the ball to Drue Chrisman and Brad Robbins, both of whom successfully held for Evan McPherson, who connected on all six of his field goal attempts.
Both Higgins and Smith caught passes over the middle during 7-on-7 work Tuesday. Smith’s was a leaping grab of about 15 yards while Higgins caught his in stride. Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase worked with Trenton Irwin on the first team unit.
First round pick Myles Murphy and Jordan Battle were spotted on the kick return and coverage units on Tuesday. Both are expected to be significant contributors on Darrin Simmons’ units as both are fast, can shed blocks and finish tackles, all important qualities for special team contributors.