There is no surprise when people think of the Cincinnati Bengals, that the stellar defense is one of the first things to come to mind. Coming off its best season to date, the defense has retained all of its key personnel from 2012, and all eyes are on the front line to continue the reputation around the league from last season.
Although the team made some minor acquisitions to the secondary in the offseason, that is of little consequence to what the defensive line will contribute. Here’s a look at the main factors needed for another successful run at the top-five spot for NFL defenses.
I know most were thinking that the secondary or even linebacker positions are the key topic to having another dominating defense for the 2013 Bengals but that isn’t the case. With a defensive line stacked with names like Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap, Domata Peko, Margus Hunt and Robert Geathers, it is of minor significance who is playing secondary. The front line will make or break this Bengals’ defense.
Cincinnati fans should be fortunate about what happened during the 2012 season, and that is no major injuries happened to the defensive line. With such depth and skill, the defensive line is an ant colony with another player ready to take someone’s spot if they were to go down. It’s a good thing to have, but there is a soft spot and that is Geno Atkins.
A lot of what happened for the 2012 defensive line was thanks to Atkins. With so much power and skill, Atkins was able to take away the pressure from the outside attack which benefited players like DE Michael Johnson who had a career year with 11.5 sacks. The defensive end position is covered; Michael Johnson gets hurt – insert Carlos Dunlap. If Carlos Dunlap gets hurt, insert rookie Margus Hunt and the production remains the same. If Geno Atkins gets hurt, in comes Devon Still?
Tell me, if there were a choice between injuries to Michael Johnson or Geno Atkins, who do you pick? This team’s defense lives off the interior line and if a few minor injuries happen on the outside, the team will survive, but if the interior line gets hit with injuries, the defense becomes vulnerable.
2. Rey Maualuga
The linebacking corps took a huge hit last season when starting weak-side linebacker Thomas Howard went on IR after Week 1 with an ACL injury. Luckily, undrafted free agent Vontaze Burfict turned out to be a steal for the Bengals and ended up leading the team with 127 tackles after taking over for Howard. Unfortunately for Cincinnati, Maualuga showed some weakness at middle linebacker, his regular spot throughout college.
While the linebacking corps as a whole wasn’t very stellar in pass coverage, Maualuga was constantly mismatched in pass coverage with tight ends. Though he did have 122 combined tackles (second on the team) and was good at run stopping in the gaps, Maualuga was regularly victimized by open field tackling against shifty running backs.
With Burfict and James Harrison shoring up the outside, focus will be on Maualuga to live up to his potential at the middle. The team might possibly run Emmanuel Lumar or Sean Porter in nickel packages to reduce the liability in the middle on passing downs.
Who will play alongside Reggie Nelson in the secondary? Safety is the most heated competition for a starting spot on the team, and whoever starts the season probably won’t know until the final week of preseason. Between rookie Shawn Williams, and veterans Taylor Mays and George Iloka, the second safety spot is a jump ball.
It is no secret that all three of the players are physical and good at tackling. However, what he team is looking for is the player who shows the best instincts and can get to the ball to prevent plays and create turnovers. His first few years in the league, Mays didn’t display great instincts in coverage and hasn’t been a regular starter. He has made improvements in his passing game but is still a liability. If anything, Mays will make contributions on special teams.
Iloka has great size and is good in the passing game, but injuries in the preseason and lack of physicality kept him out of a starting spot last season. With Williams looking strong in training camp, and Mays solid in special teams, Iloka will have to make big strides during the preseason to get any considerable playing time this year.
4. Corner Back
There isn’t much difference at corner back spot from last year except for a healthy Dre Kirkpatrick. Leon Hall is playing through his best years, and Adam Jones is the Bengal’s nickel corner back.The left-side corner back position is still up for grabs, though veteran Terence Newman is slated at the starting position. There is also four-year veteran Brandon Ghee to consider, but he has had issues staying healthy and is better suited as a backup.
While Newman is the incumbent starter at the left side, Kirkpatrick is a first-round draft pick from 2012, and first-round corner backs don’t sit on the bench. The preseason – particularly the last few games – should indicate who will win the starting role, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bengals pick Newman, but look for Kirkpatrick to take over sometime during the season, especially if any injuries occur.
Mike Zimmer has much to do about the defense’s success the past few years and his team responds to almost every situation that arises. Last season, the Bengal’s defense got to a top-five ranking, and the team – almost fully intact from last season – looks to make another run.The only criticism that Zimmer could receive is the periodic lack of pressure late in the game. With the front line the Bengals have, the pressure they create on opposing offenses is one of the reasons that the team was so successful last season, and when they switched to a prevent defense in late-game situations with the lead, the cracks were exposed, especially in coverage.
If Zimmer keeps the pressure on opposing offenses, and the defensive unit remains healthy, the 2013 Bengal’s defense has a shot at being best in the league and possibly the NFL.