I think one of the most understated changes this season that's been largely ignored by everyone (including us), was the acquisition of defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer. Even though the Bengals finished the season with the league's 19th scoring defense, but 12th on total defense, they were, in many cases the primary reason for the Bengals .563 winning percentage in the second half of the season. Was the defense perfect? Hell no. In fact, their performances between playoff teams Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Indianapolis was terrible; however, we still have trouble largely blaming them when the Bengals offense goes three-and-out eight times against the Ravens (that's just one example). Were there strides that should be taken into the offseason, improved upon and granted for growth? Hell yes.
|Opp.||Points||Yards||TO||1st Downs||3rd Conv||3-and-out|
You'll note in games they won, that the defense largely limited the opposing offense's third-down conversions.
At times, it became evident that the defense was undermanned, with guys like David Jones and Jamar Fletcher, performing as well as they could, against the opposition's second and third wide receivers. It also showed that of the games we lost, the defense's depth was largely exposed because opposing offenses held onto the ball for long periods of time; we just couldn't rotate guys in with similar talent of the guys that started.
Schemes were more aggressive, ranging from (more) contact by the cornerbacks off the line of scrimmage, to bringing two to three blitzing linebackers and/or safeties. Even though the blitz didn't result in quarterback sacks, they were largely responsible for third down incomplete passes that forced opposing teams to punt.
That's the impressive part. Being the league's second-worst pass rushing defense, the Bengals still managed to be the league's 15th best pass defense. That means the secondary covered deep, and the linebackers (especially Dhani Jones) sat underneath. It means that while quarterbacks were given five seconds in the pocket, the passing defense did everything they could to limit passing gains.
I know as fans, you want to have the best in everything. So do I. In truth, the Bengals started rookies, moved a defensive tackle to end, and signed guys off the streets and the team's practice squad. It could have been so much worse. In a sense, the Bengals didn't have a lot of varsity players out there, and beat poor offenses down the stretch; if you can't beat up on the bad teams, then you have nothing to improve upon.
When guys like Keith Rivers, Marvin White, Johnathan Joseph, Robert Geathers, Frostee Rucker, and Corey Lynch return (you can add Dexter Jackson if you're so bold), along with role player acquisitions and further development through the draft, this team won't just be better, it could be just as scary good; just as it could be bitterly disappointing (that's the Bengals fan in me throwing a non-Kool Aid disclaimer).