CINCINNATI — As the Bengals closed out a lopsided win over the Browns, their defensive line featured three rookies.
Third-round pick Jordan Willis and fourth-rounders Ryan Glasgow and Carl Lawson formed the front of what’s been one of the NFL’s stingiest defenses so far.
And it’s not just the line that looks unfamiliar. Cincinnati’s defense has been infused with young players this season. There have been few rookie mistakes in a unit that has been the bright spot in Cincinnati’s 1-3 start .
“I’ve always said if they’re the best player at their position — whether they’re a rookie or a 10th-year player — and they can help us win, they’re going to play,” coordinator Paul Guenther said. “So we had a lot of (young) guys playing.”
After four games, the Bengals rank third in the NFL in yards allowed. They’ve given up 16.8 points per game, third fewest in the league behind Buffalo (13.5) and Pittsburgh (14.8).
They host the Bills (3-1) on Sunday with a chance to make themselves relevant in the AFC North race heading into their bye week.
“We’re up for the challenge again,” safety George Iloka said Wednesday. “We like it, we relish it. That’s what you have to do if you want to be a top-rated defense.”
They slipped significantly in the first half of last year’s 6-9-1 season and decided to give their young players a bigger role this time around. They parted with linebacker Rey Maualuga, tackle Domata Peko and end Wallace Gilberry.
The Bengals opened the season with their youngest team during coach Marvin Lewis’ 15 seasons — 14 rookies or first-year players — and has watched them settle in quickly on defense. Lawson leads NFL rookies with 2½ sacks, all against Green Bay. Second-year linebacker Nick Vigil leads the team in tackles and had his first sack during a 31-7 win in Cleveland on Sunday.
Guenther has been adept at finding the right spots to use his young players as they continue learning the defense.
“Every guy on our defense that’s been active (for a game) has played some snaps,” Guenther said. “So it’s like those video games those guys play — you’ve got a bunch of weapons in your bag, so each week it might be a different weapon to knock that opponent down. I’m happy with where we’re at right now.”
They’ve had the advantage of facing only one high-powered offense — Green Bay — and the trend will continue Sunday against the Bills.
Buffalo has been one of the biggest surprises in the NFL so far in large part because of its defense.
The Bills’ offense ranks 29th in the league and hasn’t totaled 300 yards in any of the past three games.
The Ravens scored on a 48-yard catch-and-run play in the opener against the Bengals. Houston rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson scrambled 49 yards for a touchdown in the second game.
Rodgers completed a 72-yard pass in overtime to set up the winning kick. Those three big plays were the defense’s biggest blemishes so far.
“This past week, we really didn’t do that,” Vigil said. “We didn’t give up any big touchdowns.”
EIFERT STILL OUT: TE Tyler Eifert wasn’t on the practice fields Wednesday, an indication he’ll miss a third straight game with recurring back problems. He had surgery on his back last December and injured it during the second game of the season.
ROSS IMPROVED: First-round pick John Ross worked out on a side field, an improvement from last week. The receiver twisted his left knee in the final preseason game, sat out the opener, played in the second game, reinjured the knee and has missed the past two.
OTHERS LIMITED: DT Andrew Billings (shin) and TE C.J. Uzomah (knee) were among those held out. Limited were WR Brandon LaFell (knee), CB Adam “Pacman” Jones (hip), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (shoulder), TE Tyler Kroft (neck/knee) and backup QB AJ McCarron (Achilles).