Defense came rather easily to the 2018 Cincinnati Bearcats. It was the team’s success on that side of the ball that really elevated them from an improving team to one of the best in the American Athletic Conference. The Bearcats topped the league in a number of defensive categories, including total yards allowed (303.5 yards per game), total points allowed (17.2 per game) and third down rate (28.35 percent). The expectation is that they will continue to dominate on defense in 2019 and in doing so, continue to win games at an accelerated clip. However, as successful as they were a year ago, the Bearcats could be even better. Here’s how.
Cut Down on Penalties
This is really a team-wide initiative but the defense can be even more effective at stopping opponents by not giving them extra yardage for free. The Bearcats were called for an AAC-most 107 penalties last season, which accounted for 8.2 per game and cost them roughly 74 yards on average. The Bearcats only allowed a little more than 300 yards per game overall, but letting teams potentially gain three quarters of the field just because of errors that could potentially be avoided could have made things go a lot worse. By avoiding as many penalties this season, they can make sure things go a lot better.
Be More Opportunistic
Being good at creating turnovers isn’t necessarily something a team has complete control over. Good defenses can still fail to take the ball away frequently. The 2018 Bearcats are a pretty good example of that. They only forced 20 total turnovers last season despite the best efforts of all-conference safety James Wiggins (four interceptions) and the rest of the roster. That tied for a distant eighth in the conference and was largely due to a lack of fumble recoveries. The Bearcats obviously can’t plan on having more bounces go their way but if they can create a bit more panic from their opponents, that could lead to more errant passes and more mistakes with the ball. Capitalizing on those mistakes will be the key.
Create a Few More Negative Plays
One of the best ways to make other teams struggle and make bad decisions is by keeping the pressure up. The Bearcats took a giant step forward in that area last season but they could stand to go even further. Their improved pass rush and elite run defense came despite only totaling the eighth-most tackles for loss in the conference (82). Returning players like Bryan Wright (8.5), Michael Pitts (7.5) and Jarell White (7.0) should all ensure that the Bearcats don’t regress in this category, but improving in it will fall on the rest of the roster.
Get Breakout Years From Younger Players
Speaking of the rest of the roster, the Bearcats will not be the exact same defense as they were last year. With critical contributors like Cortez Broughton (team-high 17.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks), Marquise Copeland (7.5 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks), Kimoni Fitz (9.0 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks) and Malik Clements (team-high 68 tackles) all gone, the next wave of defensive stars need to step up. We’ve seen flashes from some, such as when cornerback Arquon Bush had two interceptions in the regular season finale against East Carolina last year. However, the Bearcats could also use some major contributions from players like Malik Vann and RJ Potts, especially as much of the roster turnover they will be dealing with affected the front seven.
Have a Healthy Perry Young
This is another area that the Bearcats can’t control entirely, but Young is potentially the best defender on the team and the fact that he missed five games last season certainly held them back a bit. Despite that missed time, Young still had 45 tackles and was a first-team all-conference selection. In the year before, he had 101 stops, including nine for loss. With a full slate of games to work with, he could really take the Bearcats to the next level.