If defense is what wins championships in the NFL then the Cincinnati Bengals should be perennial champions. Unfortunately, what the 2012 season showed the Bengals organization is that there are two sides to every story and the 2012 AFC divisional playoffs happened to be a tragedy for the offense. With most of the defense intact, the Bengals made some offseason moves to bolster an already solid unit.
With a defense that ranked sixth-worst in plays that were 20 yards or more, it was not without warrant that the Bengals fortified their linebacker squad with ex-Steeler James Harrison, as well as added depth at safety with Georgia’s Shawn Williams. However, a big area of concern for the Bengals was their secondary, and the fact that the team passed on highly-rated safety D.J Swearinger in the second round for DE Margus Hunt says two things: the team has a lot of faith in Reggie Nelson and third-round pick Shawn Williams, and the team is planning on a future without Michael Johnson or Carlos Dunlop.
Many scouts have Margus Hunt as one of the best steals in the draft at the 53 pick overall. At 6-foot-8 and 280 pounds, Hunt, a junior track and field world champion in discos and shot put while at his home town in Estonia, is a raw physical talent. While his short four-year football career was played entirely at SMU, Hunt has tremendous potential to be an effective pass rusher as well as a field goal block specialist. He blocked seven field goals in his first year at SMU while totaling 17 throughout his collegiate career.
A concern for pass rushers with Hunt’s physique is pad level and leverage. Hunt was able to mask his poor positioning in college because of his raw power; he benched 225 pounds 38 times at his combine. However, if Hunt is unable to correct his technique, he will have a much more difficult time as a pass rusher at the NFL level. The Cincinnati Bengals and Margus Hunt could be a perfect storm with the team’s success at coaching players with similar attributes like Michael Johnson (6-foot-7, 270 pounds). Johnson’s physique made him a tantalizing choice for DE, but, like Hunt, his size was concern for leverage. After adding nearly 15 pounds since his NFL debut and better technique, Johnson saw his playing time and stats increase from six sacks in 2011 to 11.5 in 2012.
If Bengals’ defensive line coach Jay Hayes can get Hunt technically sound, the Bengals defensive line looks to be another imposing force throughout the 2013 season. The line is the biggest reason for the Bengals success defensively last year and the biggest contributor was pro bowler Geno Atkins. Atkins created a nightmare for offensive lines throughout the season, collecting not only a team-leading, but NFL-leading 12.5 sacks for defensive tackles in 2012. Alongside Atkins is defensive line leader Domata Peko. While Peko isn’t nearly as electrifying as Atkins, he still represents a solid interior lineman who maintains his gap and is a regular contributor on defensive plays, accounting for as many combined tackles as Atkins at 53. Opposite Michael Johnson are both Carlos Dunlop and Robert Geathers, who just signed a 3-year $9.5-million contract in the offseason. With Geathers filling in for Dunlop and Johnson, and the addition of Hunt, the Bengals will be vying for the best defensive line in the league for the second year.
The area of biggest concern for the defense, the linebacking core was less than stellar, and the Bengals go into the 2013 season with some improvements as well as head scratchers. While there was some clamoring for the Bengals not to resign Rey Maualuga, the team awarded him with a two-year, $6 million contract. Even though Maualuga was second on the team with a career-high 122 tackles, he was close to the bottom of the heap against the run with 53 tackles in 389 snaps, not to mention his pass coverage that was bleak at best. The surprise story of 2012 and a bright spot heading into 2013 is Vontaze Burfict who led the team last year with 127 tackles. Burfict, who went from first-round draft prospect to undrafted free agent within months leading up to the 2012 draft, proved that his off-field troubles were behind him and that he is a formidable NFL defender. The area that Burfict will need to improve on is his pass coverage that gave up 54 catches on 68 targets last year.
The biggest addition to the Bengals defense via free agency is ex-Steeler James Harrison. Harrison, at 35 years-old, is entering his 10 NFL season and is looking for some vengeance against a Steelers team that let him go to make salary cap space. Harrison’s hard hits, ability to find big plays, and veteran leadership will be a huge boost for the Bengals as their outside linebacker. While the former Defensive Player of the Year commands an offense’s attention, Harrison’s numbers have dropped considerably over the past two seasons. With Sean Porter selected fourth round out of Texas A&M suited well at any linebacker position, the Bengals have a chance to improve its sixth overall defense if the linebacking core can improve in coverage.
The Bengals secondary is no glitz or glamour, it’s the blue collar crew that clocks in, does the work and gets paid. With a revolving door of players at both corner back and safety, there was no stand out player in the secondary last season. Chris Crocker, who was signed in the middle of the year lead the team –along with Reggie Nelson – in interceptions at three apiece. With Leon Hall locking down one of the corner back spots, and Adam Jones in nickel packages, the Bengals are hoping 2012 second-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick can stay healthy and take over at the other cornerback spot. If Kirkpatrick fulfills his expectations, and third-round pick Shawn Williams can excel at SS, the Bengals may be in contention for a top-five defense in the NFL.