Can Bengals Defensive Line Regain 2012 Form?


Sep 16, 2013; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) is sacked by defensive end Wallace Gilberry (95), defensive end Carlos Dunlap (96) and defensive end Michael Johnson (93) during the third quarter at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sport

The play of Cincinnati Bengals‘ defensive line was largely ineffective this past season.  When facing a passing situation, the pass rush was simply atrocious in 2014.  They failed time and time again to apply the requisite pressure to opposing quarterbacks finishing the year with just 20 sacks (last in the NFL).  This led to the secondary having to do too much despite having a semi-productive year as a whole.

The line similarly struggled against the run.  The team allowed 116.3 yards per game (per ESPN), which left them ranked as the league’s 20th best rush defense.  Ameliorating this impressive stat is the fact that the team only allowed 4.2 yards/carry, but it still seemed evident that opponents felt confident when running the ball, which is a key advantage in any matchup.

When the Bengals take the field in 2015, the play of the defensive line will be the linchpin of the defense’s success.  A perennially productive secondary largely returns other than the absence of Terence Newman (and Taylor Mays though he often played linebacker).  The deep part of the field will continue to be covered well if Dre Kirkpatrick proves to be a capable replacement for Newman.

The linebacking core isn’t the best in the NFL, but it is loaded with a mix of youth and veterans who offer promise and predictability respectively.  As long as health doesn’t become an issue, the team has the correct mix of linebackers to, in theory, deal with any situation especially if Vontaze Burfict is able to get healthy.

It’s the defensive line that made the Bengals so successful in the past, and with just a few additions this offseason, the line looks poised to reclaim its dominant form.  Michael Johnson was obviously the “big score” of the offseason.  After just a single season away from Cincinnati, Johnson returns and looks to be fitting right back in according to editor Geoff Hobson.

"“Michael Johnson looks like he never left and seems to have put last year’s disappointment in Tampa Bay in the rear view mirror.”"

If Johnson is able to recapture his Bengals’ form, he’ll give the team a proper right end who’s highly capable of setting the edge and also plays effectively in a complimentary role when rushing the passer.

The Bengals also added to the line by adding defensive tackle run-stopping force Pat Sims, another former Bengal, and rookie Marcus Hardison in the fourth round of this year’s draft.  Sims’ penchant for clogging running lanes and demanding multiple blockers in such situations should keep linebackers free of blockers. This will allow them to hit holes hard and make plays in the backfield.

Marcus Hardison will remind fans of fellow lineman Wallace Gilberry.  It’s not a coincidence that with Gilberry in the final year of his contract, and with so many players set to hit free agency, that the team finds a potential replacement for Gilberry’s versatile ability in 2014.  Despite being 6’3″ and weighing 307 pounds, the Sun Devils often chose to employ Hardison as a defensive end.  In this role, he didn’t disappoint.  But Hardison is built to be a 4-3 defensive tackle who is disruptive against the pass.  He’s quick, agile and strong.  If he works hard and continue to develop both in the weight room and on the field, he could prove to be a real threat for opposing lines.

Yet all these additions can’t impact the defensive line the way Geno Atkins can.  Atkins isn’t an addition to the line this year, but can be thought of as one.  After tearing his ACL in the middle of the 2013 season, he missed 2014’s training camp and so, used the regular season to play his way into shape.

Geno Atkins won’t have to do that again in 2015, and is currently using the offseason to return to his All-Pro form.  Defensive line coach Jay Hayes called Atkins “scary” when discussing how he’s looked so far this offseason.  Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther seems excited about the prospect of adding a healthy Atkins to this year’s defense.

"“He looks as good as any guy we’ve got on our team. On the defensive side at least. He’s real explosive. He looks strong. He looks as good as he’s ever had. I’m proud of the way he’s come back. He gives us a huge boost. Huge. You’re talking about one of the elite players in the league.”"

If Atkins is able to return to his 2012-first half of 2013 form, every player along the defensive line stands to benefit from his presence.

Also potentially “returning” of sorts is Wallace Gilberry, as he returns to his reserve role.  Over the course of his time with the Bengals, Gilberry has proven to be an elite reserve player accounting for 14 sacks in the two years prior to becoming a starter last year.  Returning to a reserve role theoretically allows Gilberry to capitalize on the change and potentially recapture the productivity we came to expect from him.

Finally, there’s Domata Peko.  Peko isn’t an addition to the line nor is he looking to recapture any past form, but changes along the defensive line means he could likely see (significantly) fewer snaps in 2015.  Fewer snaps could help Peko be more effective when on the field.  At the very least, if he continues to struggle the way he has the past couple of seasons, having options will allow the team to avoid leaning on him the way they have in the past.

Due to wise additions this offseason, the Bengals’ defensive line is poised to regain its 2012 form.  The same line that spearheaded a 50 sacks year and did well to limit opponents’ rushing attacks.  Although several players will have to prove capable of recapturing past magic, and a couple of others will have to prove to be solid rotational players, the team has all the tools it needs to dominate the trenches on defense.  Watch out for the defensive line play in 2015, it’ll be the key to whether this team can finally get over the playoff hump.

Next: Offensive Line is Key to Bengals Future