How the Bengals' rebuilt defense is preparing to stop Titans running back Derrick Henry

CINCINNATI -- Of the many aspects that made the Cincinnati Bengals the NFL's worst team in 2019, one stood out the most.

The rush defense.

In a season that featured a league-low two wins, Cincinnati allowed more rushing yards than any team in the NFL. From that moment, the Bengals retooled the defense with a focus on stopping the run.

Two years later, that overhaul’s biggest test will come on Saturday, in the AFC divisional playoff game against the Tennessee Titans, when Cincinnati will be tasked with shutting down one of the most dedicated rushing attacks in the NFL, led by two-time rushing champ Derrick Henry.

The Bengals are ready.

“It might seem like a passing league, but it’s still a run-first league,” Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton said. “Everybody wants to get their offense going by running the football. We know as a defense, that sets the tone.”

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Titans led the NFL in rushing attempts (551) and designed run plays (46.1%). Henry, who is expected to see his first action since suffering a foot injury in Week 8, averaged 117.1 rushing yards per game before getting injured, the highest average in the league.

Cincinnati’s preparation this week accounted for Henry playing, with emphasis placed on what it will take to get the 6-3, 247-pound running back on the ground.

“You've got to want to tackle him just as much as he wants to run it,” said Bengals defensive tackle D.J. Reader. “He wants to get in that end zone, so you've really got to want to tackle him.”

Reader's arrival marked a change of course in Cincinnati’s rebuild as a franchise, not just on defense. Before he signed a four-year deal worth $53 million, the Bengals had never given that much money to an external free agent. In Reader, Cincinnati paid out the type of money usually reserved for pass-rushers.

“We feel like he really fits our system in what we wanted to do,” Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin said in 2020. “So specifically to the Cincinnati Bengals he had high value because of that. We were very excited to get him.”

Stopping the run was also front of mind when defensive end Sam Hubbard was signed to a four-year, $40 million extension last summer.

“I think you earn the right to rush the passer,” Hubbard said in July. “If you don’t stop the run, they’re never going to be able to sit back and throw the ball. It all starts with that.”

Cincinnati allowed 4.7 yards per rush attempt in 2019, which resulted in the defense facing the second-fewest pass attempts and the most rush attempts that season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

In 2021, Cincinnati ranked 13th in yards allowed per carry (4.28) and defended the fifth-fewest rush attempts (407) in the league.

Safety Jessie Bates III -- who, along with Hubbard, is one of two holdovers from 2019’s Week 1 starting defense -- attributed the improved rush defense to the new faces inside Cincinnati’s locker room.

In addition to Reader, Cincinnati signed Vonn Bell to be an in-the-box safety, drafted Logan Wilson to be a starting middle linebacker and built quality depth on the defensive line by trading for tackle B.J. Hill.

“Look at the roster and you can see we brought in guys in here for that reason and it’s not just the starters,” Bates said last week. “There are backup guys that have roles on this team and they embrace it.”

The depth provided by players such as Hill and fellow defensive tackle Josh Tupou will be paramount against Henry and the top-seeded Titans. Cincinnati lost a key piece of its defensive line when tackle Larry Ogunjobi went on injured reserve after suffering a right foot injury against the Las Vegas Raiders last week.

Stopping Henry and the Titans’ rushing attack will go a long way toward propelling Cincinnati to its first AFC Championship Game appearance since 1988.

Though it is a task few teams have done successfully, the Bengals are excited about the opportunity. In fact, they were built for it.

“It's a challenge we're gonna go out there and accept,” Reader said. “And we're going to go out there and do our thing.”