A new postseason veteran in nose tackle D.J. Reader and one of the Bengals' young established stars in free safety Jessie Bates III never thought the season would start like this.
Not at 0-2 and without big plays on Joe Burrow's offense and the run defense embattled again after allowing another 200-yard day despite massive off-season upgrades. So guys like Reader and Bates are encouraged by this week's intensity that included a pretty blunt team meeting that included coaches.
"We're really focused on just having a good week of practice," Reader said. "Just talking as a team. Getting it straight. Figuring out exactly what we want to be as a total team and how we want to end the year."
Last Thursday, Reader talked about culture change. This Thursday it was evident something is bubbling in the room.
As evidenced in media Zoomers following the Cleveland game, the trio of new defensive leaders, Reader, strong safety Vonn Bell and middle linebacker Josh Bynes, didn't shy away from how the defense has to turn it around after lacking mentality and physicality on the Lakefront. Two guys who here last year, Bates and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, sense the difference.
"I just think last year, it seemed like we couldn't find a solution for it. And we know how it feels to not play well all the way up to the bye weekend and being 0 and 8," Bates said. "And that feeling of going into work every day is not fun at all. I think the urgency to fix it and find the solution this year is a lot more urgent than it was last year. Like I said and told you guys, we have to find our identity, not just as a defense but as a full team, and play a complete game."
That, apparently, was all on the table for discussion. There may be social distancing at Paul Brown Stadium, but it sounds like it wasn't a very sociable week on either side of the ball as the Bengals try to get it right before there is a replay of last season.
"I feel like there were conversations as a team that were pretty eye-opening for a lot of guys," Bates said. "It hasn't only came from Lou.
"I think that some people will respond well from it. I feel like the talk that we had after that game wasn't pretty. If we don't figure it out, some people won't be here."
In his conference call with the media after Thursday's practice, it sounded like Anarumo couldn't hold back a smile.
"There's only 11 of them out there on defense and if you're not doing what you're supposed to do or not approaching things the right way, then it shows and the guys did a great job," Anarumo said. "That's a part of team growing. Trust me. The coaches get on guys all the time. It's like everything else. Peer pressure. Once your peers get on you. Think about how that went as a kid. It's no different. We're on them constantly and they did an outstanding job of stepping up."
And Anarumo noticed there is more peer pressure this year than last year.
"I think the guys that we brought in and some of the guys that were here have really made their presence felt in that regard," Anarumo said.
But still, the defense knows after all the talk, it has to put its foot in the ground in Philadelphia Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) and stop Eagles running back Miles Sanders with his 4.8 yards per carry running behind massive tackles, an elite center and the most lethal two tight-end set in the NFL.
"Our job is to get the ball back for the offense," Reader said. "That's it. Makes stops."
That's why Anarumo has been on a tear.
"We've made some mistakes that it looked like almost like a preseason game 2. But that's now where we're at," Anarumo said. "The physicality level, it starts with that. A1A. That has to be better. And then also guys making sure we're fitting and approaching things the right way. And then tackling guys. We had probably one of our best tackling games against the Chargers and we did not do as well against (Nick) Chubb and (Kareem) Hunt (of the Browns)."
You can put Bates in that same stand-up category as the new trio. He knows he missed a slew of tackles in Cleveland Thursday (four, according to profootballfocus.com) and he'll tell you, "I've got to play better."
Of course, there were 15 other missed tackles, according to PFF.
"Not even just me, just overall as a team we need to be consistent in everything we do. I feel like the first game, the offense struggled and our defense played really well," Bates said. "And then in the second game our offense is moving the ball at will and our defense just can't get a stop even though we were down like five points with five minutes to go. We had an opportunity to stop them and our offense was scoring at will. I just think we've got to be consistent, man. Along with me, I feel like I missed a lot of tackles Thursday night. And last week, Week 1, I feel like I played really well. I've got to be consistent. We've got build on that."
A big problem is that Thursday night they didn't have defensive tackles Geno Atkins (shoulder) and Mike Daniels (groin) and it looks like they won't have them Sunday after they didn't work this Wednesday and Thursday.
"I'm going to church now," Anarumo said. "We'll see. I hope so."
But that's been a tough go. There are four tackles they had penciled in to play behind Reader and Atkins that are out, three for the year, and they're down to a solid back-up journeyman in Christian Covington they are thrilled they got in a trade.
"If you lose four guys at one position, it's going to be interesting to say the least," Anarumo said. "And really, you go back to Ryan Glasgow and Renell Wren getting hurt and then Geno gets hurt and Mike Daniels gets hurt. And, oh by the way, we lost Christian for a number of series in the game at Cleveland. But again, injuries are a part of this thing. I'm not trying to make excuses. You asked where we're at, and it affects it. But nobody cares. We have to do better. That's all that matters."
But his players certainly care in what appears to be an unsociable week.
"I think the coaches did a good job of being able to let us have the weekend off. Refresh our bodies and our minds and come in here and try to flip this thing around," Bates said. "We're 0-2 right now and we're facing some adversity as a team. We're going to see who can respond and who can be the solution to this."