We all know the Bengals defense has been amongst the league’s best for several seasons now. They finished as a top 10 defense the last few years, while placing third in 2013 (first in the AFC). They finished in the top five in numerous important categories such as yards/play, 1st downs allowed, third and fourth down percentage, penalties and penalty yards, takeaways, and the all important points/game. But this unit was better than many people realize and it’s for these reasons that it may be even more potent in the coming year.
The Bengals’ success was really hampered by the offense’s inability to protect the football. They committed the eighth most turnovers (30) in the league and the third most in the AFC (one turnover away from first). This would usually be crippling to a team, forcing its defense on the field more times than it would like. How did the defense respond to this? Opposing teams scored only 55 points off turnovers last season. 32 of these points came when the opposing team was given the ball within field goal range (inside the CIN 40). The defense only allowed two TDs within this range (four overall) and six FGs (nine overall). They forced 11 punts, created two interceptions of their own, and forced one missed FG; the other three turnovers were returned for TDs by the opposing defense. Turnovers usually result in a significant momentum shift. This kind of response cannot be measured, but it’s value to the team couldn’t have been more vital.
The defense was impacted by several significant injuries throughout the year. Coming into the 2013 season, the defense had two leaders, All-Pros Geno Atkins and Leon Hall. Atkins essentially played only eight games before tearing his ACL early in Week 9 and being lost for the season. Hall’s season never really got off the ground. He played in the first three games and then sat out two because of a hamstring injury. In week 7 he was lost for the season with an achilles tear. The defense also took a huge hit when three injuries occurred to the linebacking unit. Both Emmanuel Lamur and Sean Porter were lost for the year when both suffered shoulder injuries in the preseason. These players were going to be responsible for the linebacking coverage situations. This would have been a big deal if it weren’t for Taylor Mays stepping into the role and playing well against the oppositions’ tight ends and running backs. But Mays was lost for the season in week eight due to his own shoulder injury. Once Mays was injured, all of the Bengals’ coverage linebackers were lost. Although the defense finished third in the NFL, the loss of these three players/roles undeniably made the defense a lesser unit.
Absorbing these kind of blows and still finishing amongst the league’s best defenses is a tribute to how deep, talented, and resilient this unit is. It’s response to adversity both in the form of major injuries and momentum shifts was remarkable and yet went unnoticed by many. With improved ball security and a healthy, intact unit returning (other than Michael Johnson), the defense should prove to be even more stout in 2014.